Actress Joan McCready tells story of her friend Helen Lewis's Auschwitz survival

Joan McCready takes on the challenging role of Belfast Holocaust survivor Helen Lewis in her one-woman play, adapted from Helen's memoir by Joan's husband Sam McCready. She tells Joanne Sweeney how important it is to tell her friend's story

Helen Lewis's remarkable story of survival in Auschwitz is told by friend Joan McCready in the play A Time To Speak
Helen Lewis's remarkable story of survival in Auschwitz is told by friend Joan McCready in the play A Time To Speak

IT'S never easy for actress Joan McCready when she performs in the one woman play based on Helen Lewis's moving Holocaust memoir A Time to Speak.

While the play, also called A Time To Speak, has been carefully adapted by her actor and playwright husband Sam McCready, the fact that the couple were close friends of the inspirational teacher who made Belfast her home, makes it even more important for them to keep her spirit alive.

"It's very important to keep telling the story of Helen's survival, to tell the story of a person who endured the most extreme work of human nature that's ever been," says Joan, whose performances of the play here, in England and in America, where she and Sam live, have been met with critical acclaim.

The play is making a welcome return to Belfast's Lyric theatre – a favourite old stomping ground for the couple – from May 3 – 7 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Helen Lewis's birth in Czechoslovakia.

Helen was honoured last month when a blue plaque was unveiled at Belfast's Crescent Arts Centre, seven years after her death at the age of 93.

Born Helena Katz in Trutnov, Czechoslovakia, in 1916, she studied dance in Prague from the age of six. She had been only married a short time before the removal of Jews from Germany and bordering countries began from 1941, first to Terezin, a purpose-made ghetto for Jews outside Prague, and then onwards to Auschwitz.

The ballerina, dance teacher and choreographer came to Belfast with her second husband after somehow surviving the camps, which claimed the lives of her parents and husband, and the long walk back to Prague after liberation.

She and her husband raised two sons in Belfast. She founded the Belfast School of Modern Dance and became an integral member of the city's theatrical circle, befriending the actors Joan and Sam along the way. But as Joan explains, they were both in the dark about what Helen had endured at the camps for most of their friendship with her.

"For quite a long time while we knew her at the Lyric we didn't know any of the details," she says. "One summer evening at a little gathering at the old Lyric theatre at Mary O'Malley's house Helen was visibly upset. When she had been having her car filled with petrol, the young lad who was doing it caught sight of her Auschwitz camp number which was tattooed on her arm. And he naively said to her, 'That's the cleverest thing to have your telephone number on your arms.'

"Well, it really touched a nerve with her. It opened the floodgates that evening with her and she just began to talk to us for the first time about what happened to her and did so from time to time over the next few years.

"Helen gave us even more details after we took her to the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC one year she came over to stay with us. That's when the real floodgates opened that evening over dinner, and we got so much more than what’s in the book. The real depth of Helen's emotion was finally revealed.

"But there's so much more to Helen as she was always such a forgiving person. There was no bitterness or resentment in her. It was quite amazing to have known her and to know the beautiful spirit that she was and to see the joy in her life that she got through dance."

Helen Lewis reportedly refused several offers by writers to adapt her 1992 memoir but she had trusted the McCreadys to tell her story of the Auschwitz death camp, on the proviso that Joan played her. Joan first performed the piece in Belfast in 2011, but there are moments that still catch her out with the sheer emotion of what her friend went through every time she performs.

However, the former artistic director of the Lyric theatre knows that her job is that of an actor, not a dear friend.

"I don't try to be Helen on stage as I don't look anything like her. I approach it as an actress and I really like the monologue form enormously, as does Sam,” adds Joan. "I'm on stage on my own; I don't have a prompter or any of the normal trappings. The only cue that you get is from yourself so it's an amazing feat of concentration.

"From the moment you go on you are absolutely in the midst of that character and the story just flows so beautifully that you don't think about anything other than telling the story."

Joan and Sam met through their mutual love of acting and the stage in Belfast and married in 1962. She and Sam moved to the US in 1985, when she was appointed Head of Performing Arts at the Park School, Baltimore, until her retirement. Now the couple enjoy acting in plays or directing each other.

The responsibility of telling Helen's story of the Holocaust is not lost on Sam McCready.

"We staged it one time in America and found out before that there were some survivors of Terezin and Auschwitz in the audience that night," he recalls. "Well, that was truly one of the most wonderful nights. Afterwards one person spoke out from the audience and said, Please, please keep doing this; please tell our story' followed by a chorus of 'Yes, tell the story'.”

:: A Time to Speak will be performed at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast from May 3 – May 7. For tickets visit lyrictheatre.co.uk or call 028 9038 1081.