From Despair to Delight: A story of Self-Sacrifice through love, service and faith
Helene’s Near Misses — A legacy of caring and daring greatly
Helene Kereluk of DeLand is the queen of near misses. Or, she simply may be the most fortunate German-born, Belgium-raised, DeLand-living 92-year-old you are about to get to know.
She found food when there was none. She walked lightly when Nazis were listening. She left the farmhouse hours before the Germans destroyed it. She avoided joining the group that would have walked her straight into a concentration camp.
Helene Kereluk has racked up her fair share of near misses and she’d tell you luck had little to do with it.
Helene was born in Germany in 1926. The first of 11 children, her father relocated her and her mother to Belgium where her future brothers and sisters were born and raised. It was the early 30s then, and her father already was hearing talks of war. Moving them to historically neutral Belgium was a solid plan.
As his family grew, Helene’s father watched threat to Belgium grow as well. Without warning, the Germans invaded the country in May 1940. Many Belgian workers, including Helene’s father, were deported to Germany to work in factories during the war. Helene was 16 when he left. She, too, was transported to work in Germany during the war, until her mother pleaded through the Red Cross for her return home. The family needed her.
As the oldest, Helene was a co-head of household with her mother, acting as a third parent in her father’s absence. Helene helped support the family in all conceivable ways.
“I know what hungry is”
Helene’s priority during wartime was finding food for her family. Germans had greatly restricted Belgium’s borders and thus its food imports. The emergency rationing system had severely restricted food as well. Belgians were losing weight…and hope.
“I know what hungry is,” said Helene. “I was always thinking of the children, always about the children.”
She had to find food for her brothers and sisters; the pantry was empty.
Helene remembers vividly collecting her mother’s jewelry, fabric, and other valuables and traversing the countryside via train to Luxemburg where she traded everything they owned for food. On a good day, she’d return home with 100 pounds of food on her back, crossing creeks and forests for miles before catching the return train home. She and her brother were careful to walk quietly, avoiding branches or brush below, as to not be discovered by the patrolling Germans.
They were watching. They were always watching.
Once, Helene recalls, the Germans stopped the train before it returned, and stripped every rider of their food. They literally took the food off the children’s backs.
Helene could not go home empty-handed. She was determined not to.
“My little brother was crying, saying, ‘What are we going to tell mother? We have no food.’ But, I was always observing, and I noticed something on the way to Luxembourg that day,” she remembered. “I said to my brother, ‘We’re going to get off at the next station.’”
Helene had seen a field of potatoes on the way to Luxembourg and they stopped there on the way back home. They dug up the potatoes with their small hands and packed a sack. It was a matter of life or death.
Her cousin Maria joined them on a food trip once, but she didn’t stick with Helene that day. Maria was picked up by Germans. The family learned of her fate months later.
From potatoes to butter
Belgium was nearing liberation in the years that followed, but the fighting continued. General George Patton and his soldiers were poised in Belgium and ready to push the Germans back. Battle of the Bulge was in full swing.
A few miles away, Helene’s mother asked Helen to fetch some butter. She baked waffles and asked Helene to bring the waffles to the soldiers stationed near a farmhouse and return home with butter. It was then she first met U.S. soldier Roman Kereluk.
They met several times for the same exchange. Tagging along with Roman was his French-speaking buddy who interpreted their conversation so he could talk to the pretty girl named Helene.
On one of the trips, as she hopped on her bike to head back home, she noticed a Jeep speeding her way. Her heart began to pound. This could not be good.
An official jumped from the Jeep. “Hey! What are you doing here?” Helene stopped cold.
“I came from the farmhouse. I brought the waffles the soldiers are eating,” she replied.
The officer spoke no French, but he grabbed Helene’s hands. He told her through another soldier, “Tell her ‘thank you.’”
The officer was General Patton.
Another trip to get butter was equally anxiety ridden. Helene hopped on her bike to head home, but about halfway there was stopped by a truck. It looked like an American truck and the soldiers looked American, “but I knew it was the Germans in disguise,” she remembered.
“Where have you come from? Have you seen anything? Have you heard anything? Where are you going?” They peppered her with questions.
Helene explained her trip to the farmhouse and how she’s heading back home. She’d not seen or heard anything.
“Get in the truck. We’ll take you home,” they insisted.
“I just started praying,” said Helene. “Please God. Please, God.” I knew my route, and they were taking a different route. I was convinced they were Germans. Finally, the truck got on the right road. When I got off that truck, I nearly kissed the ground,” she said.
Helene told her mother what had occurred and went to bed later that evening. Her mother – usually preoccupied with all the children and having a stern countenance besides – seemed unmoved by the dramatic story.
But at about 3 a.m. Helene’s mother woke her. “I’m so glad you’re home safely,” said her mother. It turns out that the farmhouse Helene visited often had been destroyed by the Germans that afternoon, and landmines now laced the familiar landscape.
The one-dollar judgement
A year after the war ended, Roman Kereluk married Helene after sending for her from Chicago and they made a home there. She sat before a judge five years later seeking her U.S. citizenship. Impressively, she prepared by reading the United States Constitution…twice.
The moment had arrived. The judge hearing her case rummaged through his pockets and pulled out some cash.
“Mrs. Kereluk, who’s on the one-dollar bill?”
“I do not know,” she said and felt her face burn with worry and embarrassment.
“It’s okay,” he said, “Even some Americans don’t know who’s on the dollar bill.”
He never asked her a question about the Constitution.
A woman with many gifts
Predictably, Helene missed a lot of school taking care of her siblings and her oft-ailing mother during the years her father worked for the Germans. But she was able to keep up with her academics – so much so that her principal advised Helene’s mother she was ready for college.
Her mother refused; Helene was too young, she insisted. Instead, she sent her to a sewing school in Belgium, building upon Helene’s love of sketching clothing and figures which had preoccupied her creative mind for many of her adolescent years. Even today, Helene owns the hand-stitched blouse that earned her the diploma.
Creativity would continue to define her journey through her teenage years and at least 70 more.
She picked up art in Chicago again and then once more when she and her husband moved to DeLand in the 70s. Her work was exhibited in hospitals and banks throughout West Volusia County.
She took classes at a longtime DeLand studio, Feasel’s, and taught there for several years, too. Today, as a Cloisters resident, she’s trained dozens of students, relaying her love of watercolor, acrylic, oils, pastel, charcoal, and collages. Today, the walls of The Cloisters are adorned with more than 100 of her pieces.
“I went through a lot as a child,” said Helene, “But that’s why I think I’m rewarded now with the painting and art. God has given me that.”
A legacy of caring and daring greatly
Helene and her husband owned a printing and hobby shop in Chicago. After a car accident significantly injured Roman in the 70s, he was told he had six months to live. They relocated to Florida upon Roman’s request.
It turned out that the doctor was wrong. Roman lived many more years here, and Helene was his caretaker, returning to work in DeLand to provide income and insurance for her ailing husband and to refresh their depleting bank account.
She’s always been providing for her family. If there was no food, she’d walk miles to find some. If the water stopped running, she’d grab buckets and collect it. If her husband was disabled, she’d resurrect her career and care for him.
Roman died six months after their 50th wedding anniversary – a full 25 years after the doctor had predicted.
She and Roman had two children – Danielle and Richard – and their family has grown to include two grandchildren and three great-grandchildren, the newest named for Helene. Little Nora Helene has a head full of dark brown hair.
At 92, and while living with rheumatoid arthritis, Helene’s vibrant blue eyes are happy and welcoming. She’s not been hardened by war, nor jaded by hate. She largely attributes her overcoming challenges in life to her faith. She’ll tell you that God has been good to her.
“I’ve gone through a lot of obstacles,” said Helene, “but I cannot complain. I am truly blessed. I thank God every day.”
Helene knows what hungry is. She encourages readers to help the hungry in our community. Every Sunday, she takes food from her pantry and brings it to church.
“If everyone donated one item, we’d have a lot of food in there,” she observed. “I don’t miss a Sunday.”
Helene Kereluk has lived a life full of near misses, yes, but also a life of full-blown catches, too. There’s no embellishment in her stories, and no self-aggrandizing in her tone. Hers is an example of self-sacrifice through love, service, and faith, and it appears that the trough never empties. Her well of giving runs deep, and across the miles, hunger, disappointments, and obstacles, it only seems to have gotten deeper.
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Vickie Pleus, APR, CPRC
Vickie Pleus, APR, CPRC, is the president of VP Communications, a public-relations consultancy based in DeLand, Fla. VP Communications provides integrated marketing communications, public relations, social media, corporate writing and more to small businesses and nonprofit organizations.