Monday 16 September 2019

Sister Cecylia Roszak

Polish nun honoured by Israel for her efforts to save the lives of Jews in Lithuania during the Holocaust

SISTER Cecylia Roszak, who has died aged 110, was a Polish Dominican nun awarded Israel's Righteous Among the Nations honour in 1984 for helping to save the lives of Jews during the Holocaust.

Sister Cecylia, who was thought to be the world's oldest nun at the time of her death, was born Maria Roszak on March 25, 1908 in the village of Kielczewo in western Poland, south-west of Poznan, and studied at a trade and industrial school for girls in Poznan before joining the Dominican convent of Grodek in Krakow when she was 21. She took the name Cecylia on taking her religious vows.

In 1938 Cecylia Roszak travelled with a group of nine nuns, under their prioress, Mother Bertranda, to Vilnius in Lithuania, then part of the Second Polish Republic, to establish a new convent. War interrupted the plans, though they established their convent just outside the city.

Vilnius was taken over by the Germans on June 24, 1941 in Operation Barbarossa, and the killing of the Jews began almost immediately. In September the city's Jewish residents were herded into a city centre ghetto. Mother Bertranda sought the support of the Catholic authorities in Vilnius for an effort to help save them, but they turned her down, fearing that the occupation forces would destroy church property and kill anyone found to be helping Jews.

Acting on her own initiative, Mother Bertranda then took in 17 members of a local Zionist group and hid them within the grounds of her convent. They included Abba Kovner, the movement's leader, a poet and activist, who in December 1941 wrote a manifesto entitled Let us not go like lambs to the slaughter, that warned of Germany's plans to wipe out the Jews of Europe - the first time that a potential victim of the Holocaust identified the Germans' intentions.

Kovner urged ghetto residents to rebel against the Nazis and set about trying to organise armed resistance. When several of her nuns objected to these activities, Mother Bertranda reportedly threatened them with expulsion.

She and the other nuns, including Sister Cecylia, set about supplying the resistance with weapons, but in the end their efforts were futile. Between August and September 1943, the ghetto was liquidated and some 12,000 men, women and children were deported to camps in Estonia.

Mother Bertranda was arrested by the authorities and sent to a labour camp. The convent was closed and the other nuns forced to disperse.

After the war, Mother Bertranda secured a dispensation from her vows and began a new life as Anna Borkowska, though she retained a deep religious faith. Sister Cecylia returned to the convent in Krakow, where she spent the rest of her days.

Kovner escaped the ghetto, survived the war and later testified at the trial in Israel of the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann.

In 1984 Yad Vashem gave the nuns, including Anna Borkowska and Sister Cecylia, its Righteous Among the Nations award, Kovner participating in the tree-planting ceremony at Yad Vashem.

When asked about the secret of her longevity, Sister Cecylia replied that "one should pray and learn languages".

Sister Cecylia Roszak died on November 16.

© Telegraph

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