This is Helena Poterska.

Born on
April 25, 1925,
in Poznań, Poland.

Helena had a very sheltered childhood. In a loving family. Three brothers, one sister.

She did well at school and went on to the grammar school, she wanted to be a teacher.

She was 16 when she was arrested by the Gestapo.

Invasion in Poland United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of National Archives and Records, Administration, College Park, 09866
In 1939, the Germans invade Poland. Under their reign of terror, Polish resistance is brutally suppressed, and the Jewish population is almost wiped out. Poznań is renamed Posen and is made capital of the newly created Reichsgau of Wartheland. A large portion of the Polish population are expelled, deported to concentration camps or to do forced labor.

On her way to school. She was forced into a car and kidnapped, together with her friend Wanda.

Just like that.
For no reason.

They took away the earrings she was wearing – she was separated from Wanda.

Arolsen Archives

Helena was put in a concentration camp.

First of all, they took her to Fort VII in Poznań.

Fort VII Colomb City Monument Conservator Poznań, cyryl.poznan.pl
Fort VII Colomb was a site of terror. Thousands of Polish nationals are thought to have been murdered there between 1939 and 1945. The camp was run by the local SS and the Gestapo.

Then she
went from
camp to camp.

Concentration camp Ravensbrück Fotograf/in unbekannt, Mahn- und Gedenkstätte Ravensbrück, Foto-Nr. 1642 u. 1643
Starting in Poznań, she was sent on an odyssey through various concentration camps and sub-camps. A document from the Arolsen Archives tells us that she was admitted to the Ravensbrück concentration camp for women on March 15, 1944.

There were often times when she did not even know where she was.

4 years in inhuman conditions.

4 years
of forced
labor.

Forced labor Neuengamme ANg 1986-7387
The last camp where Helena was made to do forced labor was a sub-camp of the Neuengamme concentration camp in Salzgitter. Up to 800 women had to make grenades for the Brunswick steelworks there. That meant extremely hard work in insanitary conditions and without enough to eat.

4 years spent
fearing for her life.

She was liberated in the spring of 1945. She was 20 years old.

Befreiung KZ Ravensbrück ICRC archives (ARR)
For many of the prisoners, the liberators arrived quite literally at the last minute. Thousands of prisoners died – some shortly before liberation, others in the days and weeks that followed. Unlike these women from the Ravensbrück concentration camp, many of the survivors were too weak to sit or walk.

Many of the survivors were extremely emaciated and were cared for in Displaced Persons camps.

Displaced Persons ICRC archives (ARR)
The Allies coined the term “Displaced Persons.” When they liberated Germany and the countries occupied by Germany, they found up to twelve million people who were outside of their native countries as a result of Nazi persecution. The paths of persecution and the life stories of these people are very varied.

In Salzgitter, in her “little bungalow.” At last, Helena was able to feel like a human being again.

German prisoners of war were led past the camp every day.

Prisoner of war United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Daniel Branson, 07104
After the war, millions of German soldiers were taken prisoner of war in Germany and the formerly occupied territories. The photo shows prisoners of war captured by the US Army.

Helen felt sorry for them. She threw the men food and cigarettes.

And she stopped and had a conversation with one of them. Soon, they were talking every day. As they walked along the fence.

Portrait of Helmut Gutleber
Portrait of Helmut Gutleber

An unthinkable relationship so soon after the end of the war.

Helmut escaped and set off with Helena. On foot. From Salzgitter to Würzburg.

Map of Helena Poterskas Escape

An escape to a new life.

They got married in Würzburg, their eldest daughter was born. But even years later, they still met with rejection. A German man and a Polish woman?

Stadtarchiv Würzburg, 1336/K12

In many people’s heads, the war was still not over.

But Helena was determined to make a normal life for herself. She did not want to be defined by her wartime experiences. She learned to speak German fluently, had a career, and brought her children up as lovingly as she had been brought up by her own parents. She remained a warm-hearted, social-minded person, even though the trauma of the war years was a burden on her throughout her life.

Picture of Helena Poterskas family

She would never forget the screams she had heard in the camps.

Map of Helena Poterskas homeland

The Cold War made it more difficult for her to stay in touch with her family in Poznań. Helena still arranged for smugglers to help her enter Poland. She managed to get back home. But she was arrested a day later. She spent 9 months in prison. On suspicion of spying. She managed to get back to Germany in the end and return to her husband and child. She never saw her mother or her siblings again.

Belongings of Helena Poterska

But the earrings that the Nazis had taken away from Helena when they arrested her found their way back to her daughters 77 years later. A reminder of the lost youth of a courageous woman named Helena Poterska.

See Helenas belongings

School and education projects

The “effects” and the fates of their owners are tangible and offer exciting opportunities for research-based learning about Nazi persecution in lessons and projects. Those who want to go deeper can help to find families.

About us

Our website can tell you more about the work we do. And about how you can help us to keep memories and keep history alive.

Arolsen Archives

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