To the heights of space

A new documentary looks back at Ilan Ramon and a special Torah scroll.

Austronaut  (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Daniel Cohen’s moving television documentary, An Article of Hope, which will be broadcast on Channel One on Monday at 9:30 p.m., chronicles Ilan Ramon’s final journey and, at the same time, commemorates a special artifact from the Holocaust.
Col. Ilan Ramon was an Israeli fighter pilot who became the first Israeli astronaut. He was killed with the rest of the crew of the Space Shuttle Columbia at the end of its voyage, on February 1, 2003.
While the film details the tragedy of the Columbia and the death of Ramon, it also focuses on a special aspect of the space mission. It was Ramon’s decision to bring one particular item into space: a Torah scroll that was used at a clandestine bar-mitzva celebration at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp during World War II.
Dr. Joachim Joseph, known as Yoya, was a physicist and friend of Ramon’s. Joseph was an inmate at the concentration camp when he was nearing his 13th birthday, and a fellow inmate, Rabbi Simon Dasberg, the former chief rabbi of Holland, said that he must celebrate this milestone in his life in the traditional manner, in spite of the grim setting. The bar-mitzva was a moving occasion, and afterwords the rabbi gave the young boy the tiny Torah scroll. Joseph survived and kept the scroll when his family moved to Israel. Ramon saw the scroll at Joseph’s house and asked about it. After careful thought, he chose to take it with him on the space shuttle. Sadly, it was not among the items recovered after the shuttle crashed.
“I saw this as a new way to tell a Holocaust story,” says Cohen, who was in Israel recently to screen the film ahead of its television broadcast.
“I’ve always been a space enthusiast. Space exploration was my passion since I was a little boy,” he says.
“The Columbia crew was one of the most diverse groups ever sent into space, a shining example of diversity. And Ilan was an integral part of it. His decision to bring several artifacts from the Holocaust into space was a reflection of who he was. When Yoya told him the story of the scroll, Ilan said, ‘I’ve got to think about this.’ And then he said, ‘You know, my mother and grandmother are graduates of Auschwitz.’ I see this as the intersection of three people’s stories – Yoya’s, the rabbi’s and Ramon’s. It’s powerful, and I felt a responsibility to tell it,” says Cohen.
A pencil drawing by another inmate who attended Joseph’s barmitzva survived, and Cohen shows it in the film. One of the most effective sections of the film shows the story of Joseph’s bar-mitzva illustrated by a series of pencil drawings.
“We had another artist do some more drawings in the style of the original sketch. It’s a way to fill in the blanks of what the horror of life in the camp must have been,” he says.
Ramon also brought a drawing of the Earth as seen from the moon, which was done by Petr Ginz, a 16- year-old from Prague who died at Auschwitz.
After the Columbia disaster, Cohen learned of the story of the Torah scroll and decided to make the film.
But it took seven years to complete. Although the story is compelling and unique, it was not easy to get the funding.
“Some people said, ‘Oh, it’s just a Holocaust story; we’ve seen that.’ Others said, ‘It’s a story about the shuttle; we’ve seen that,’” says Cohen, who presented a copy of the film to the Yad Vashem Holocaust History Museum during his visit to Israel. “You have to have a passion for what you are doing to make documentaries,” says Cohen, who has a background in television news.
Ramon said he was taking the Torah scroll “from the depths of hell to the heights of space. And by doing that, he made it ‘an article of hope.’”