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Righteous Women of the Holocaust

October 1, 2013
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“In a world of total moral collapse there was a small minority who mustered extraordinary courage to uphold human values. These were the Righteous among the Nations. They stand in stark contrast to the mainstream of indifference and hostility that prevailed during the Holocaust. Contrary to the general trend, these rescuers regarded the Jews as fellow human beings who came within the bounds of their universe of obligation.” (www.yadvashem.org )

Here are the stories of two such women.

Safe Haven in the Convent

Anna Borkowska, Poland

Anna Borkowska (second from left) with Abba Kovner (second from right) at the presentation of the medal in Warsaw Anna Borkowska was the mother superior of a small convent of nine Dominican nuns located near Kolonia Wilenska, on the road leading from Vilna to Vileika. When the killing of the Jews in Vilna began, Borkowska opened the convent's gates to a group of 17 members of the illegal Jewish Zionist pioneer underground movements. Despite the enormous difference between the two groups, very close relations were formed between the religious Christian nuns and the left-wing secular Jews. The pioneers found a safe haven behind the convent's walls; they worked with the nuns in the fields and continued their political activity. They called the mother superior of the convent Ima (mother in Hebrew).

Abba Kovner It was in the convent cells that Abba Kovner, a leader of the Hashomer Hazair Zionist movement in Vilna, wrote the famous clarion call of rebellion. With what can only be explained as an astounding intuition, Kovner grasped the full meaning of the murder in Ponary [mass murder of 100,000 near Vilna] and realized that the killings were a part of a systematic and comprehensive plan to murder all the Jews of Europe. Years later Abba Kovner stated that the ideas for the ghetto rebellion were formed at the convent. “Hitler is scheming to annihilate all of European Jewry…. Let us not go like sheep to the slaughter! It is true that we are weak and defenseless, but resistance is the only response to the enemy!… Resist! To the last breath!” he wrote. The manifesto that Kovner read out to his friends on 31 December 1941 was printed in the convent and distributed in the ghetto.

Zionist pioneer group By the end of December 1941, the pioneers decided to leave the safety of the convent and to return to the ghetto in order to establish the resistance movement. Borkowska tried to dissuade them from leaving, but in vain. A few weeks after his return to the ghetto, Abba Kovner was called to the ghetto's gate. Borkowska had come and said that she wanted to join the Jews in the ghetto: “God is in the ghetto,” she said. Kovner dissuaded her from taking that step. When she asked what they needed, Kovner told her that they needed weapons. It was Borkowska—the nun who was committed to spirituality and non-violence—who smuggled the first grenades into the ghetto.

In September 1943, as Nazi suspicions of her mounted, the Germans had Anna Borkowska arrested. The convent was closed and the sisters dispersed. Eventually, Borkowska asked to be discharged from her monastic vows, but remained a deeply religious woman.

Borkowska's helping hand was never forgotten by the Zionist pioneers who had immigrated to Israel after the war, but only in 1984 was contact with her reestablished. By that time she was 84 years old and living in a small apartment in Warsaw.

The same year, Yad Vashem awarded the title of Righteous among the Nations to Anna Borkowska and six nuns of her convent, and Abba Kovner planted a tree in her honor in the Avenue of the Righteous on the Mount of Remembrance.

Abba Kovner traveled to Warsaw to present Anna Borkowska with the medal. “Why do I deserve this honor?” asked Borkowska, to which Kovner answered: “You are Anna of the Angels.” He went on to explain: “During the days when angels hid their faces from us, this woman was for us Anna of the Angels. Not of angels that we invent in our hearts, but of angels that create our lives forever.”

Rescue by a Fashion Queen

Marie Louise Carven, France

Marie Carven Marie Louise Carven whose fashion house eventually became one of Paris' leading haute couture firms, opened her first boutique in 1941. Her shop was in the area of the Opera building, and the 21-year-old designer employed the Jewish tailor Henry Moise Bricianer to sew the clothes. Because of the anti-Jewish legislation, Bricianer had been forced to close his own shop. He lived with his wife and five children in the neighborhood of Carven's boutique.

On 17 November 1943, two policemen came to warn the family that a round-up was planned to take place two days later. When Madame Carven heard the news, she immediately offered to shelter Henry in her workshop, arranged for his wife, Regina and two of his children, Nicole and Philippe, to stay with her uncle, while another daughter, Jacqueline was placed with her mother. The family also had two grown sons who survived elsewhere.

After the war, Madame Carven’s firm became a leading fashion house in Paris, known especially for women of small size, like herself. Her designs were worn by members of the aristocracy, film stars and celebrities. Among her clients was singer Edith Piaf.

Marie Louise Carven was recognized as Righteous among the Nations in August 2000.

Source: Accounts reprinted with permission from Yad Vashem

Photo Credit: Yad Vashem

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