When Anna Borkowska – an ex-nun and elderly Polish woman – was named Righteous Among the Nations in 1984, Abba Kovner spoke “Not of angels that we invent in our hearts, but of angels that create our lives forever.”
Poetic words from one of Israel’s most beloved poets. But before he was a poet, Kovner was a leader of the Haganah during Israel’s War of Independence. And before coming to the Holy Land, Kovner led a resistance movement during World War II, attacking and sabotaging the Nazis from Poland’s forests. But before Abba Kovner became a poet or an avenger for his people, he was taken in by Anna Borkowska, the angel who saved his life.
Anna Borkowska was born in 1900 in Poland. After graduating from the University of Krakow, she took the vows of a Dominican nun. While acting as mother superior of a convent near Vilna, Poland, Anna witnessed the Nazi invasion of her country.
In 1941, as the Nazis undertook Operation Barbarossa, their killing of Jews reached Anna’s area. Horrified, Anna pushed for the Catholic leadership to protect their Jewish neighbors. Afraid of Nazi repercussions, the leaders refused.
Defying the leadership, Anna decided to act on her own, to act on her conscience. Using her convent as a shelter, she took in 17 members of a local Zionist group. Some of the convent’s nuns protested, and Anna threatened them with expulsion. The grateful Jews worked alongside the nuns in the convent’s fields, and called Anna “ima” (“mother” in Hebrew).
One of the sheltered Jews was Abba Kovner. Kovner helped plan the uprising of the Vilnius Ghetto. When he returned to the ghetto, Anna wanted to join him, saying “God is in the ghetto.” Kovner talked the nun out of doing so, but she was the one who smuggled weapons to the ghetto’s resistance fighters.
After the war, Anna left the nunnery, though her strong faith remained.
Years later, when Anna was 84 years old, the Zionist pioneers – now living in Israel – found her once again. Abba Kovner traveled to Warsaw, where Anna lived in a small apartment, to present her with the honor awarded by Yad Vashem. When the humble old woman asked why she deserved such an honor, the Jewish man she had so bravely saved replied, “You are Anna of the angels.”