Physics Professor"s Torah Reached for the Stars

Sent Torah into space to commemorate first Israeli astronaut"s fatal flight | January 26, 2010


Henry Fenichel, emeritus professor of physics at the University of Cincinnati, will speak at Xavier University on the topic “Reach for the Stars: An evening of science, faith, history and the human person” in Clocktower Lounge of Gallagher Student Center on Xavier’s campus at 7 pm on February 1, 2010, the seventh anniversary of the disintegration of the Columbia space shuttle during re-entry into Earth's atmosphere, 16 minutes prior to its scheduled landing on February 1, 2003. This is a free discussion open to the public.  
Prof. Fenichel will speak about the story of his little Torah that was carried into space aboard the Atlantis Shuttle mission. He will share his unique background as a child Holocaust survivor and his connection to one of the crew members of Columbia – astronaut Ilan Ramon.
Ramon, the first Israeli astronaut, and the son and grandson of Holocaust survivors, carried a number of Holocaust artifacts aboard the Columbia, including a small Torah. His mentor and friend, astrophysicist Joachim Joseph (known as Yoya), was a Holocaust survivor to whom the small Torah was entrusted by a rabbi with whom he was an inmate of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Hoping the boy would survive, the rabbi asked Yoya to tell their story to the world. The rabbi died in the camp. Yoya sent this small Torah with Ramon on the Columbia. Ramon also brought a pencil sketch, "Moon Landscape", by 14-year-old Petr Ginz, who died in Auschwitz. Ginz, incarcerated in the Terezin ghetto, depicted his dream to view the threatening earth from a safe distance. Ramon felt his journey fulfilled Petr’s dream after 58 years. February 1, 2003, the date the Columbia disintegrated, with the crew, the Torah and the drawing inside, was the date Petr Ginz would have turned 75, had he survived Auschwitz.

"Being the first Israeli astronaut, I feel I am representing all Jews and all Israelis," Ramon said. "I'm the son of a Holocaust survivor. I carry on the suffering of the Holocaust generation, and I'm kind of proof that despite all the horror they went through, we're going forward."
Ramon’s wife, Ilan, was part of a videoconference with Yoya between children from Netanya, Israel and from Cincinnati. From Cincinnati, Prof. Fenichel shared his yellow “Jude” star and a small Torah scroll, given him by an elderly cousin who escaped Nazi Germany. Fenichel’s Torah was almost identical to Ramon’s.
Fenichel allowed his Torah scroll to be taken on the Atlantis space shuttle mission at the request of Rona Ramon, in memory of her husband’s goals. He said "the Torah represents the survival of the Jewish People, the ability to rise from the depth of despair in the Holocaust and reach for the stars. It symbolizes a hopeful promise for a new beginnings and shining example of respect between cultures and religions." The Atlantis returned safely to Earth on Sept 21, 2006, fittingly, the eve of the Jewish New Year.
Ramon kept a diary in space, part of which miraculously survived the disaster. The surviving pieces included a letter to Israeli President Moshe Katzav on day 11 of the mission, January 26th, "… From space, I could easily spot Jerusalem, the capital, and while looking at Jerusalem, I prayed Shema Yisrael. From space our world looks as one entity with no borders. Let's work for peace and a better life for everyone on Earth."