The incredible odyssey of Holocaust survivor Sabina Heller’s baptism dress

After her parents were murdered in the Holocaust, young Sabina was taken in by relatives of the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin; After their death, Rachel Rabin told her all about her biological parents and the Christian family who saved her life

Over the past 30 years, thousands of Holocaust survivors and families of Holocaust victims have come to Yad Vashem to deposit tens of thousands of items – historical treasures from the Holocaust period that have been preserved in their homes over the years. The Shapell Collections Center, inaugurated at Yad Vashem on Monday, centralizes all the objects, documents, artworks and photographs that Yad Vashem has collected from countless different sources.
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השמלה שבה הוטבלה סבינה הלר
השמלה שבה הוטבלה סבינה הלר
The dress Sabina was baptized in
(Photo: Yad Vashem)
During the transition project to the new center, historical treasures that were entrusted to Yad Vashem and never before revealed were uncovered – including a dress sewn from a curtain for the baptism ceremony of Sabina Heller, a Jewish child adopted by a Catholic family. Behind this tiny dress lies an unbelievable story that is now being revealed for the first time.
Sabina Kagan (Heller) was born in 1941 in a small town in Ukraine. Her parents managed to escape the ghetto when she was an infant and found a hiding place with a Polish family. After some time, the family members demanded that her parents leave the hiding place. They pleaded with them to hide just the baby, little Sabina. When Sabina was nine months old, her parents were murdered, and she was left with the Polish family, who did not intend to care for her but rather to let her starve to death.
When the Rostropovich family, devout Catholics, heard the rumor about a Jewish baby being hidden with their neighbors, they decided to risk themselves and take Sabina into their own home. They treated her as one of their own and decided not to hide her but to raise her as one of their daughters, claiming she was a relative orphaned in the war. Sabina lived with them throughout the war, and at its end, when no one came looking for her, the family decided to adopt her illegally and baptize her into Christianity. For the occasion, the mother sewed a white dress from the curtain fabric in their home – the same dress that, decades later, Sabina herself would deposit at Yad Vashem.
The rumor about a Jewish girl living as a Christian reached the Zionist Coordination for the Rescue of Children, and they decided to send an agent to the Rostropovich family to convince them to return Sabina to her people and bring her to a Jewish orphanage. With difficulty and sadness, the Rostropovich family agreed and parted from Sabina. At the Jewish orphanage, Dr. Goschevsky, a Jewish doctor on the orphanage staff, met Sabina and decided to adopt her and bring her to Israel. The doctor and her husband told Sabina that she was their biological daughter who had been hidden with Gentiles during the war.
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סבינה הלר ורחל רבין
סבינה הלר ורחל רבין
Sabina Heller and Rachel Rabin
Upon arriving in Israel, the Goschevsky family was settled in a transit camp and were surprised to meet a relative who had also arrived there. It was Nehemiah Rabin – the father of Yitzhak Rabin, who would later become the prime minister of Israel. Nehemiah took the family into his home and helped them start their new life in the country. Sabina became Ina Goschevsky, a proud sabra. Over the years, Sabina married a Holocaust survivor whose family had emigrated to the United States. Sabina also emigrated to the United States with her husband. The doctor and her husband never told Sabina about her past, and she grew up believing they were her biological parents.
Only after the adoptive mother's death did Sabina discover the truth about her past. Her cousin, Rachel Rabin, revealed her life story to her when she was nearly 60 years old. The discovery of her true past and the fact that the ones who saved her life were the Polish Rostropovich family led her on a roots journey during which she contacted them and worked to have them recognized as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem.
When Sabina first met them, decades after their separation at the Jewish orphanage, she received the dress that the mother had sewn for her baptism ceremony. Sabina decided to deposit the dress at Yad Vashem along with a letter written to her by her Polish adoptive mother – a letter that had never reached her hands.
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