Helen Lewis, née Katz, was born to a Jewish family in the town of Trutnov, Czechoslovakia. She wanted to become a dancer from a young age. Despite the misgivings of her parents, who preferred that she go to university, she enrolled in Milca Mayerova's school of dance in Prague.
After Czechoslovakia was invaded by Germany in World War II, she was married to her first husband, Paul Hermann, for only a few months under Nazi occupation before she was deported to the Theresienstadt (Terezin) concentration camp, then to Auschwitz and the Stutthof slave labor camp. She survived a death march from Stutthof in 1945 and was liberated by the Red Army. Her husband, mother, and many of her relatives were dead. She remarried after the war to Harry Lewis, with whom she had two children, and lived in Belfast, Northern Ireland. There she became a pioneer of modern dance choreography and taught dance, eventually founding and directing the Belfast Modern Dance Group. In the 1980s, during the Troubles, she was coaxed by friends into speaking publicly of her experiences in the Holocaust. In 1992, she published a memoir, A Time to Speak, which became a bestseller.
A month before her death in 2010, a one-woman show based on her life story was performed at the Belfast festival.