Not only does Sabina Heller not remember her biological parents, she never even knew their first names. In July 1943, when she was barely 2 years old, Heller was taken in by a Polish Catholic couple, the Roztropowiczs, who provided her with a loving home for the next five years, at great risk to their own lives and to those of their three children.
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“Thanks to them, not only am I alive today, but I also came out pretty normal,” Heller told reporters on Wednesday at the official opening of a new exhibit at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem. The exhibit, titled “I am My Brother’s Keeper,” is dedicated to non-Jewish rescuers during the Holocaust.
Heller's personal story is spotlighted in one of five short films, each one eight minutes long, which serve as the focus of the exhibit. Each film, according to Irena Steinfeldt, director of the department of Righteous Among the Nations, is meant to encapsulate a different facet of rescue during the Holocaust. Heller’s story is told in “Parting Once Again,” a film that focuses on hidden Jewish children and their lost identities.
“In the Cellars, Pits and Attics” explores the phenomenon of individuals and families who took in relatively large groups of Jews on the run for indefinite periods of time, using reenactments to illustrate one such story. “The Courage to Defy” pays homage to those officials in Nazi-occupied countries who risked their careers and more by refusing to comply with orders to hand over Jews. It spotlights the story of Dimitar Peshev, the Bulgarian minister of justice, who blocked the deportation of 48,000 Jews.
“Under the Benefaction of the Cross” looks at rescue efforts undertaken by local Christian clergy, and “Paying the Ultimate Price” focuses on those rescuers who were killed for their actions.
Housed in Yad Vashem’s Exhibitions Pavilion, “I am My Brother’s Keeper” will be open to the public for the next year. The exhibit is meant to mark 50 years since Yad Vashem began recognizing rescuers as “Righteous Among the Nations.”
“This is one of the most optimistic exhibits that can be shown at Yad Vashem,” said curator Yehudit Shendar. “Altruism is not something that can be taken for granted. As we’ve learned in the Holocaust, it doesn’t help you survive.”
Since 1963, Yad Vashem has recognized more than 24,800 rescuers from 47 different countries. “So very many,” mused Shendar, “but also so few.”
The names of every single one of the rescuers are projected onto a rolling screen at the entrance to the exhibit, with large photos of many of them flashing on the wall behind. The five films are screened in separate little islands set up around the exhibition space, which Shendar explained are meant to provide visitors with a more intimate experience.
Heller, on hand for the opening, said that for 50 years she had no contact with her rescuers. After they transferred her to an orphanage, at the request of Jewish functionaries who were roaming around Europe after the war searching for hidden children, the Rostropowiczs were promised that they would be provided with regular updates on her whereabouts. None ever came.
“I’m very angry at the way the family was treated,” Heller told reporters on Wednesday.
By coincidence, in 1999, Heller received contact information for one of the daughters. “The first thing she said to me when she picked up the phone is ‘We’ve been waiting for this call for 50 years,’” said Heller, wiping away a tear.