Tributes for a Melton woman who led a remarkable life

A woman who survived terrible conditions in a Siberian labour camp during the Second World War before seeking sanctuary with her family in Melton has died at the age of 88.

Helena and Stefan Wojtak
Helena and Stefan Wojtak

Helena Wojtak was one of around 1,000 Polish people who lived in Nissen huts in the town after the war – she was aged just 14 and arrived with her mother, Julia, and 12-year-old sister, Adela, who still lives in Melton.

Helena met the love of her life, Stefan, who also came to the town after his family were forced from their home, just 35km from where she grew up.

After the Melton Times covered their 60th wedding anniversary in 2014, a London advertising company picked up the story and created a short animated film which was watched over one million times.

Helena Wojtak with grandson Alex

The couple both worked at Petfoods – then called Chappies – in the early 1960s and they lived in a house they built in Oxford Drive for most of their married life.

They played a leading role in the community, helping to pay for and build Sandy Lane Polish Church and Club, working in the bar there and organising numerous social events.

Helena loved dancing with her husband, waltzing, tango, polka or quickstep at the Polish Club or The British Legion and both were involved in the local Polish choir.

Once Melton was twinned with the Polish town of Sochaczew they helped organise a number of joint twinning events.

Helena Wojtak with her mother and sister during the war

The couple had two children, Kris and Liz, and two grandchildren, Alex and Tom.

Stefan passed away in 2016 and Helena lived her final years in a Polish nursing home.

Her funeral is at 11am on Friday August 19 at the Polish Church, in Sandy Lane, followed by burial at the Thorpe End cemetery.

Helena was born into a family of two brothers and a sister on a farm in the east of Poland which is now part of western Ukraine.

Stefan and Helena Wojtak

In early 1940 the Russian army broke into the farm and gave the family 30 minutes to collect what they could from a home built up for 20 years.

All their possessions and property were stolen or destroyed.

At the age of six, Helena had to endure a nightmare trip in a packed cattle wagon to a forced labour camp deep in Siberia, near Archangel.

The family got out after the Germans invaded Russia and they managed to get a passage across the Caspian Sea to the Persian port of Pahlavi, only for Helena’s mother to fall seriously ill.

The two girls were placed in a Polish orphanage and after a cousin took them under their wing they moved overseas again to Africa where other Poles had settled.

They were finally reunited with their mother before the voyage to England, where they met up with Helena’s brothers who had been fighting with the Polish army. The family arrived in Melton 1948 and their new lives began.

Click HERE to watch the short animated film about Stefan and Helena’s remarkable lives.