The Torah scroll was very small, maybe the size of a grown man’s hand. It had been read in a place unimaginable in a sacred text, inside the very precincts of hell, as part of a bar mitzvah ceremony in the unlikeliest and worst place on earth, Bergen-Belsen. Now it was being carried on a journey almost as incomprehensible.
The fate of that ritual object is at the center of a new PBS documentary, “Space Shuttle Columbia: Mission of Hope,” directed by Daniel Cohen, which is airing on Thursday, Jan. 31, the day before the 10th anniversary of the disastrous end of that vehicle, its mission and the seven astronauts it carried.
Among those seven astronauts was Col. Ilan Ramon, a distinguished fighter pilot in the Israeli Air force and the Jewish state’s first astronaut. As the film makes abundantly clear, Ramon was a remarkable man on many levels — a son of a survivor of Auschwitz, a gifted amateur musician and athlete, a steel-nerved pilot and tactician who designed the Israeli assault on the Iraqi nuclear facility in Osirak and flew it, and a handsome, boyish-looking husband. Ramon seems to have been one of those enchanted beings who has both a naturally sunny disposition and extraordinary leadership skills
Another of those beings was Joachim “Yoya” Joseph, an Israeli scientist who had survived the death camps. The Torah scroll was his, an artifact of his improbable bar mitzvah, conducted by Simon Dasberg, the chief rabbi of Amsterdam and a prisoner in the camp who dedicated himself to keeping alive the flickering flame of Judaism among his fellow inmates. When Ramon, his protégée, asked to carry that Torah into space after he was selected to the crew of the space shuttle, the two men saw an opportunity to tell the entire world that story and, symbolically, to carry the memory of Rabbi Dasberg “from the depths of despair to the heights of hope,” as Steve McLean, a Canadian astronaut and friend of Ramon’s phrased it.
Cohen starts the story near its end, with local first responders from East Texas recalling the terrifying afternoon of Feb. 1, 2003, when debris began raining from the sky over Sabine County. It’s a simple enough narrative device, but hugely effective, especially when one of the objects that lands proves to be tattered pages from Ramon’s diary. From there, the film takes us back to the Israeli pilot’s childhood, his sterling record of achievement, selection to the space shuttle team and the complicated but powerful bonding process that elevated those seven astronauts from crew to team to virtual family.
Cohen is fortunate that one of the astronauts, David Brown, was an aspiring filmmaker (as well as a doctor and fighter pilot — a reminder that Ramon was far from the only master over-achiever on the shuttle). As a result, Cohen has access not only to NASA’s footage from the flight but to Brown’s record of the bonding process, as well. The material helps to humanize a group of unusual people who might otherwise be mistakenly seen as plaster saints. Instead, “Space Shuttle Columbia” gives us a glimpse of some amazing people and a singular story of the implacability of human nature.
“Space Shuttle Columbia: Mission of Hope,” directed by Daniel Cohen, airs on Thursday, Jan. 31, 9 p.m. on PBS stations. Check your local television listings for details.