Many are familiar with the Ramon family and the singular story of Ilan Ramon, Israel’s first astronaut who was killed with the Columbia space shuttle burned up in a reentry into earth’s atmosphere on February 1, 2003, and his son Asaf, a pilot in the IDF, who was killed in a training accident on September 13, 2009.
The diaries present pictures of both father and son, and the reader is treated to the unusual experience of getting to know both father and son through their own words that reflect on their thoughts, experiences and relationships with the family and with the people they worked with closely during their training and experiences.
Ilan’s diaries are composed of those he left behind with his personal papers as well as pages from the diary he kept in space during the mission. Pages were found spread over Texas weeks after the crash and were collected by a tracker who found thirty-seven pages of Ilan’s mission diary. Experts from the Israel Police’s Division of Identification and Forensic Science and from the Israel Museum were able to piece the located pages somewhat back together.
Ilan’s diary begins with a letter he wrote as a 23-year-old combat pilot to Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz asking a number of deep philosophical questions about the purpose and meaning of life and the world in which we live. Indeed, the professor responded to his letter and his response rather than answering the specific questions, identified a number of additional thoughts and ideas Ilan could then further contemplate. What is most impressive about the exchange is our understanding that Ilan is a very thoughtful, philosophical and searching young man who early in his life raises a number of important and difficult questions that remain with him throughout his life.
Halperin’s selections of Ilan’s diary entries point out how complex a person he was and how he thought about life through a number of different lenses. His grandparents were Holocaust survivors and this made an indelible impression on his identity as an Israeli and a Jew. He carried it with him his entire life and it continued to influence the way he looked at the world and understood the need for Israel as a Jewish country. His Israeli identity influenced how he viewed his responsibilities as an IDF officer and pilot and how he felt about protecting and defending the country.
Of course, his commitments were quite evident in the way he lived his life as a husband and father. His love for his wife Rona and his four children, Asaf, Tal, Yiftah and Noa was strong. The diaries contain the beautiful descriptions about his own process in life as well as his reflections of being in space and viewing earth from the distance.
ILAN CLEARLY viewed his identities as a Jew and an Israeli officer participating in the mission a primary as he selected items to take with him into space that represented his Jewishness and Israeli citizenship, for example: Israel’s Declaration of Independence; a Torah scroll that survived the Holocaust and emblems from the Israeli Air Force and the town of Ramat Gan where he was born.
As one reads Ilan’s words it is hard to understand how he describes himself as someone who has difficulty expressing his thoughts and feelings in his conversations with his wife. His writing also provides us with a window to view how he experiences his years in Houston training and preparing for the flight and his relationships with other members of the Columbia team, In addition, we see how his perceptions of the American Jewish community developed as a result of his exposure to the local Texan community as well as the national organizations. Speaking for organizations allowed him to formulate his understanding of the importance of Israel’s connection to Jews in communities outside of Israel.
A short time before his death, Ilan expressed his longing for Rona and his children and how he was looking forward to being together with them. Unfortunately, this reunion never took place.
Asaf’s diary entries are very different and here we are treated to the thoughts and process of a young man who is growing and developing somewhat in his father’s footsteps yet at the same time he is blazing his own trail. We are treated to the special relation Ilan and Asaf had and how Ilan was not only a dedicated and loving father but also a role model for Asaf. It is clear that his decision to join the air force and become a fighter pilot was heavily influenced by his father’s achievements. In fact, Asaf reflects in his writing his commitment to keep a diary was a result of his father’s decision to record his own thoughts and feelings.
Asaf reflects on his own growing up and the impact of the Holocaust and his journey to Auschwitz was a result of his grandparents’ experiences. The writing reflects his process of maturation and the establishment of his priorities for his life. Asaf was able to draw strength as a pilot from what he imagined his father would have done in dealing with challenges in the air.
The diary also demonstrates Asaf’s commitment to his mother and siblings and how he coped with the pain of the loss of their father although it was not a subject of extensive conversations among them. The writing clearly reflects Asaf’s sense of accomplishment in completing the pilots training and becoming an officer as well as achieving the award for being the outstanding cadet of the course.
In all the joy of his accomplishments and his achieving what he wanted most in his life, Asaf shares that he could not have these special moments without letting his mother know how he missed his father on this special day. Based on his diary we know that “Ilan was with Asaf” throughout the trials, tribulations and challenges of the course. The tragedy, of course, is that two and a half months after this incredibly happy moment in his life, Asaf was tragically killed when his F-16 jet plane crashed during a training flight.
The stories of Ilan and Asaf Ramon are exciting, beautiful and painful. The book is filled with wonderful photographs and it should not be mistaken for a “coffee table book.” The diaries provide readers with a special perspective on the lives of two very talented, thoughtful, sensitive and searching people. We can learn a great deal from their lives and the relationships they had with the people they loved.
Above Us Only Sky: The Diaries of Ilan and Asaf RamonCompiled by Merav HalperinGefen Publishing228 pages; $39.95