There is an incredible and tragic connection that exists between the young prodigy Petr Ginz and the astronaut Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli in space. He was born Ilan Wolferman in Ramat Gan, Israel. His father’s family fled Germany in 1935 and his mother and grandmother were Holocaust survivors who were imprisoned in Auschwitz. They left Poland after the war, and emigrated to Israel.
Ilan graduated from Tel Aviv University with a degree in computer engineering in 1987 and joined the Israeli Airforce, where he became a highly accomplished fighter pilot and earned the rank of Colonel. During his fighter pilot training he adopted the surname Ramon. In 1997, he was accepted by NASA and began training to be a Payload Specialist, a process which took five years. He participated in the 113th mission of the Space Shuttle Program, aboard the shuttle Columbia.
Though described as secular, as the first Israeli astronaut, Ilan saw himself as a representative of the Jewish people. He opted to eat kosher food on the mission, and consulted with a rabbi on how to keep Shabbat in space. Ilan also brought with him a variety of objects that held special significance. These objects included a small Torah scroll that was saved from the Holocaust, a dollar bill with the image of the Lubavitcher Rebbe – and a copy of a drawing by Petr Ginz.
Petr’s drawing depicted a lunar landscape, mountainous and desolate, with an image of the Earth shining in the distance, though Petr did not live long enough to see the first pictures of Earth taken from space. Ilan took the image to commemorate Petr, who died in Auschwitz, and all the others who were affected by the Holocaust.
**To view Petr’s drawing and NASA portrait of Ilan, please visit: http://www.science.co.il/Ilan-Ramon/
Ilan and his crew members completed their mission, but tragically, their Shuttle Columbia broke apart on re-entry, killing all on board. The disaster happened on February 1, 2003, which would have been Petr’s 75th birthday. The copy of the drawing was destroyed, but part of the diary that Ilan kept on the mission survived the disaster. Though badly damaged, after 5 years forensic scientists were able to restore about 80% of its content. One of the pages was a handwritten copy of the Kiddush prayer, another way Ilan expressed his pride in being part of the Jewish people. The diary that Petr kept, along with many poems, stories and articles have been saved. These writings give us greater insight into who this man and boy were, and ensure that some part of them lives on. I greatly admire their many achievements, but they shared other qualities that impress me even more than what they accomplished. Most of all, I remain in awe of how they were able to look beyond their immediate surroundings, to imagine all that lies beyond the confines of Earth and how they had the courage to envision and to work for a better world.
Memorial site for Ilan Ramon: http://www.science.co.il/Ilan-Ramon/