Thursday, April 16th, was a beautifully sunny day on campus. It contrasted starkly with the heavy subject our guest speaker came to discuss with the school: her experiences during the Holocaust in World War II.
I would guess that Alicja Edwards now stands somewhere around four feet tall and uses a cane to get around, but it’s no wonder: she’s over 90 years old. If you learned about her first through reading either of the two books she’s published, “They Called Us D.P.s” and “God Was Our Witness”, you’d never guess that English is her second language, but she speaks with a heavy Polish accent. On Thursday morning, she came to Chrysalis and spoke about her life 73 years ago, when her family was woken in the early hours of the morning by Russian soldiers. She was forced to hurriedly pack a few belongings before she was carted off to Kazakhstan and forced to labor in inhumane conditions. Her brother, her mother, and her grandmother came with her; her father, she learned, had already been executed for his history as a soldier years before.
While Alicja might not be considered a traditional Holocaust survivor because she was not captured by the Nazi regime, her experience draws heartbreaking parallels. “I belong to a Holocaust of the same era,” she said, “but of a different nature… I do not have a Star of David tattooed on my arm, but in my mind there are deeply etched memories of pain and agony of those years spent in slave labor in Soviet Kazakhstan.” Food had been scarce before the Russian occupation, it grew rarer when the Red Army invaded, and became virtually nonexistent during her life as a prisoner. Alicja’s eyes teared as she explained to us that she had watched her grandmother starve to death in front of her. “Young children and old people suffered the most,” she explained, “…there was no medicine, no doctor. You were on your own, fighting to survive.”
And how did she survive? Alicja said: “In those dark hours, you prayed and kept faith — and helped each other to hope to see a better tomorrow.” After three years, she was liberated, but freedom meant a long walk, for 24 hours, with no food or water, through the Persian desert, to get to boats that would take them away from their hell. After that, having no possessions or money, she survived on the generosity of others.
When she finished telling her stories, the floor was opened to questions. One student asked if she had any advice to people going through tough times, and Alicja says to be honest. Lying will only cause more problems. Flipping through the binder of mementos she brought, it is clear that Alicja has plenty of life experience to draw on. Among the more modern keepsakes such as her letter from the Holocaust Memorial Museum are yellowed passports and crumbling documents, written in Polish, granting Alicja passage out of Kazakhstan.
Alicja met her husband, an American soldier, while waiting tables by serendipitously spilling a drink on his lap. They traveled the world together, and spent some time living in Japan and Paris before settling in Chicago. Alicja was a concert pianist and sometimes plays piano at the local church on Sunday. She has children and grandchildren now, and spends her time painting and running a small antique shop here in Eureka. Her books and paintings are available for purchase in her shop, and her books are available on Amazon.
Our Sophomore English and the World History classes have been learning about World War II and the Holocaust in school for the past few weeks, so Alicja’s presence really helped ground the stories they’ve read. Somehow, seeing her walk around campus, share her stories, and show her paintings to us made the history so much more real. Sadly, as time goes on, fewer and fewer survivors are around to share their stories with us, making it even more important that our students learn from them now. The next time you visit Eureka, please pay her a visit and thank her for sharing her time with our students! She was grateful to spend time with our girls and said it made her feel young again to be surrounded by so many young people interested in her life — almost as grateful as we were to listen to her story.