A knock on the front door of her home in Poland in the early days of World War II forever altered the life of Helena Podkopacz. She was separated from her two young children and carted off to the Soviet Union in a boxcar. She spent two years in a penal labor camp in Siberia, where she was worked nearly to death. Under the same conditions, nearly 2 million prisoners died.
That was only one of many hardships that the proud and strong-willed Podkopacz overcame during her lifetime, in which she served as a model of how to handle difficulty with grace, said her son Jerry of Plymouth.
"She inspired people to put things in proper perspective," he said. "And to give a helping hand to those in need."
Podkopacz died Thursday at Catholic Elder Care in northeast Minneapolis. She was 95.
After she was released from the labor camp, Podkopacz joined the Polish Home Army as a nurse and found her son, Anatol, then 7, in a relocation camp in Iran. When the war ended, they settled in Minneapolis, where one of her sisters was living. Podkopacz had passed her 1 1/2-year-old daughter, Maria, to her sister through a window in the boxcar; it took 17 more years before she was reunited with Maria in Minneapolis, Jerry said.
Podkopacz's first husband, Jozef Maciejny, died when the train he was on was bombed. Her second husband, Stanislaw Podkopacz, died in Minneapolis.
Helena treasured family and friends, and always had food on the table. Her golabki and pierogi was so good that Al Nye of Nye's Polonaise Room occasionally served her cooking at his restaurant.
Podkopacz's poetry was frequently published in Polish weekly newspapers in the Twin Cities. She also penned an autobiography. She was in the choir at the Church of the Holy Cross in northeast Minneapolis.
In addition to sons Jerry Podkopacz and Anatol Maciejny of Minneapolis, she is survived by sons Ed Podkopacz and Kevin White, both of Coon Rapids, a daughter, Maria Stefans of Minnetonka; 14 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.
Services will be held at 10 a.m. today at the Church of the Holy Cross, 1621 University Av. NE., Minneapolis. Visitation will be held one hour before services.