Alicja Moskaluk discovered a scrap of bread beneath the pillow of her gravely ill grandmother, Teresa, who was dying of starvation.
Moskaluk was 16 years old. Like other Polish deportees in her midst, she was haunted by hunger.
Her stomach churned. Her mouth watered. She furtively consumed the bread. No one noticed.
Moskaluk’s grandmother died the next day. Teresa Kosinska was buried in the cold, lonely steppes of Soviet Kazakhstan, far from the family home in Chodorow, Poland, a home the Soviets had forced the Moskaluks and Kosinska to abandon.
Recently, nearly 79 years later, Alicja Moskaluk Edwards, a resident of Eureka, wept as she described the guilt she carried for many years for that desperate act.
“I stole a piece of bread from under her pillow and I thought my grandmother died because of that,” Edwards said, dabbing at her eyes with a tissue.
At 94, Alicja Edwards is as sharp as the sickle that nearly severed one of her fingers when forced by Soviet overseers to harvest millet in Kazakhstan.
She is pious yet salty. She is tiny in stature yet towering in tenacity. She is a writer, a painter, a pianist and a seller of antiques.
In January, U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte honored Edwards with his Spirit of Montana commendation “for her indomitable resolve, strength and courage and inspiring memories of the Polish diaspora.”
Edwards’ remarkable capacity to remember precise details about her family’s deportation in April 1940 and the three grim years that followed seems to be both blessing and curse.
The memories have yielded two memoirs and stoked the fire that drives Edwards to share her story as a cautionary tale about the potential evils of tyranny.
Her son, Chris, 70, also lives in Eureka. He said his mother knows the passage of time can shroud events in human history that should not be forgotten.
“If you don’t understand history, it’s a cycle,” he said. “It repeats.”
But the memories also stir up trauma.
After a two-hour interview in Edwards’ small but cozy home in Eureka, the couch where she had sat was littered with tissues.
Yet she is also funny and feisty. When her cat slipped past her and darted out the back door into the cold, Edwards cursed with gusto. And then apologized.
In September 1939, the Soviet Union invaded Poland from the east, 16 days after Nazi Germany had invaded the country from the west.
In their territory, the Soviet Union and the NKVD, the Soviets’ secret police, launched what has been described as a reign of terror. It included mass executions and deportations. Victims included prisoners of war, political leaders, intellectuals and others.
Emil Moskaluk, Edwards’ father, was arrested in October 1939. He was an engineer who had served as a soldier in 1920 when Polish troops fought the Bolsheviks. The Soviets considered him a threat.
On April 13, 1940, at around 2:30 a.m., members of the dreaded NKVD, the Soviet Army, Russian police and local militia forced their way into the Moskaluk home. Residents included Maria, Edwards’ mother, Jerzy, Edwards’ brother, Edwards herself and her grandmother Teresa, who was nearing her 86th birthday.
Edwards retreated to her bedroom and dove beneath a comforter. Moments later, the point of a bayonet lifted the comforter. Edwards was commanded to leave the bed.
The Moskaluks and Kosinska were ordered to pack essentials. An officer read from papers that informed the family they were being expelled from Poland and sent to the Soviet Union.
“One of the reasons was a horrifying disclosure, a shock in learning for the first time that our father had been executed as an enemy of the USSR,” Edwards wrote in her first memoir, “And God Was Our Witness.”
The Moskaluks learned much later that Emil was alive.
The family and the few possessions they managed to pack were loaded into a horse-drawn cart. Their journey into tribulation had begun.
“We had to learn to draw strength out of anguish and heartaches to handle each crisis and be prepared,” Edwards wrote.
Hours later, the cart ride ended. Edwards and her family were then crammed into one of many boxcars similarly packed with deportees who, like the Moskaluks, were fearful and angry and struggling to accept a fate that seemed surreal.
Edwards wrote, “Our arrest and deportation seemed like pulling away roots of live nerves against our will, realizing we had to succumb to the persecution and decisions of the ones controlling our destiny.”
After two harrowing weeks, the train crossed the Ural Mountains and then traveled into Kazakhstan. According to one history, the Soviets deported about 320,000 Poles to Kazakhstan in April 1940.
The family’s journey ended in a small village, the town where Edwards’ grandmother ultimately died.
For the next three years, the family was pressed into slave labor by the Soviets and “faced mistreatment and degradation, sickness, hunger and death,” Edwards wrote.
Her many labors included being a school janitor tasked with duties that included struggling to keep the building heated with coal; being forced to scrub a barn floor covered by layers and layers of sheep manure; and hours upon hours harvesting grains and other crops with scythes, sickles and pitchforks.
Hunger was a constant companion.
Toward the end of one summer a new overseer from Bessarabia took charge of the harvest. He supervised from horseback, raging and cursing.
“Everybody feared him, women the most,” Edwards wrote. “His presence was always known by the sound of a cracking whip made out of braided black and white hide, resembling a snake.”
One day, during a wheat harvest, he caught Edwards standing momentarily idle with her pitchfork as she wiped sweat from her eyes.
“Without any question or warning, he raised his whip and, like lightning, cracked it across the right side of my face,” Edwards wrote. “The sudden pain was a shock; it stung, and it burned.”
The whip had cut her face.
“Today, there is hardly the trace of a mark, but the memory, even now, is vivid and throbbing, sometimes as if it happened only yesterday,” Edwards wrote.
The Moskaluks had learned a Russian word, “pryvyknesh,” that meant “you will get used to it.” Edwards wrote that the word trailed the family like a shadow during their time in Russia, noting that its message seemed to encourage meek submission to fate.
“You fought to lose it and sometimes we gave in,” she wrote.
In June 1941, Germany attacked the Soviet Union. Its brutal leader, Joseph Stalin, began seeking aid from allies to help repel the Germans. On July 30, the Sikorski-Mayski Agreement re-established diplomatic relationships between Russia and Poland.
Stalin agreed to release tens of thousands of Polish prisoners-of-war held in Soviet camps. And the Russian treatment of some Polish deportees began to improve.
One day, when Edwards and her brother approached the hut where they lived, they noticed unusual activity outside.
“Inside, we noticed the figure of a strange man, sitting on a large sack of millet,” Edwards wrote.
It was her father, gaunt and nearly toothless from the hardships of meager rations and forced labor in coal mines in the Ural Mountains.
Later, Emil Moskaluk, his health somewhat restored, joined the newly re-forming Polish Army and helped fight the Germans in Italy.
In 1942, his wife and children made their way to Iran, where Alicja eventually met U.S. Army Lt. Ernest Edwards, who became her husband in 1945. The couple first interacted when Alicja, serving food in the officers’ mess hall, inadvertently poured syrup-coated pears down Ernest Edwards’ crisp uniform shirt.
Her mother, Maria, after surviving three years of forced labor and bouts of malaria, died in a Jeep accident when its driver, found to be drunk, crashed.
Later, Ernest and Alicja Edwards had two children and eventually settled in Midlothian, Illinois.
After Ernest’s death, Alicja moved in 2004 to Eureka to be near her son. Her daughter, Kristina Zagone, helped edit her mother’s memoirs.
Edwards said arthritis in her hands has affected her piano playing. Her piano’s music rack displays the sheet music for “The Warsaw Concerto,” a short work about the Polish struggle against the 1939 attack by Nazi Germany.
A bookshelf features a biography of Stalin, the architect of her family’s misery.
In “And God Was Our Witness,” Edwards wrote: “Damn the memories! And bless them in some way, to bring a joy and torment. You can’t bury them. If only you could keep the images at a safe distance, dimmed enough not to hurt so much — yet to remember whom you were and who you are.”
Reporter Duncan Adams may be reached at email@example.com or 758-4407.