Helenka — A Pioneer Among Scientists and Freedom Fighters

The unlikely true story of a female scientist in early 20th century Europe

When Anna van Suchtelen sees a picture of her grandmother Helena (Helenka) Drecke seated in a laboratory, it piques her curiosity and launches her on a quest. Helenka is wearing a dress, looking defiantly into the camera, and there is a sign behind her that reads ‘Danger: 4000 volts’.

Anna van Suchtelen
Original title
Helenka. Pionier tussen wetenschappers en vrijheidsstrijders

How did this woman manage to become a scientist? What was her life like? Fifty years after her death, her granddaughter decides to delve into the past and give Helenka the intellectual credit she is long due. Van Suchtelen visits archives, as well as the places of her grandmother’s youth in Eastern Europe. Where necessary, she draws on her imagination, producing a vie romancée about a young woman in a male, scientific environment, during a complicated period in European history.

Helenka grew up in what is now Poland and Ukraine (then Russian territory). Inspired by her hero Marie Curie she went to university in Zürich, where she met Dutch student Teddy van Suchtelen. He worked in the soap industry and she was a specialist in the process of making soap powder. They could have been the perfect career couple, but fate intervened. Teddy had to return to the Netherlands to take care of his family, and Helenka fell ill. They moved to Amsterdam, where she died at 36, long before her work could gain any recognition.

This book describes the intriguing life story of a woman who fought for her existence and her position as a woman at a tipping point of war and revolution in Europe.

  • A combination of European history, family history and history of science

  • An inspirational story about washing powder

Year of publication

Page count


Stella Rieck

Sample translation available

Reads like a gripping novel about the love between two people against the backdrop of the early 20th century. Yet, all of this really happened. Anna van Suchtelen describes it beautifully.


An unusually subtle portrait of her Russian grandmother Helena Drecke, daughter of a sugar magnate in what is now Ukraine. A woman who dreamed of becoming the next Marie Curie. Every page is touching.

de Volkskrant

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Anna van Suchtelen
Anna van Suchtelen (b. New York, 1961) studied Dutch language and literature in Groningen and made her name as a visual artist in the USA. In 2017 her first book was published: 'Versailles aan de Schelde', about her family in Zeeland. 'Helenka' is her second book.
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