When Israel’s first astronaut, Ilan Ramon, went on his ill-fated mission into space in 2003, he carried with him a drawing by 14-year-old Petr Ginz. The drawing was titled Moon Landscape and nothing could have been more appropriate for the son of a Holocaust survivor to take with him on what started out as a journey filled with hope and triumph.
Petr Ginz visualized the Moon landscape while a prisoner in Theresienstadt. It was a young boy’s quest for freedom. But he never tasted freedom again. His all-too-short life was snuffed out in Auschwitz. Ramon’s mother was also in Auschwitz, but she survived and came to Israel.
What sweet revenge to give birth to the son who would become Israel’s pioneer astronaut.
Prior to his current space mission, US astronaut Drew Feustel was presented with a replica of Moon Landing. The presentation was made to him on February 1, which coincidentally happened to be the 90th anniversary Petr Ginz’s birth. Feustel had mentioned to Ramon’s widow, Rona Ramon, that he would like to take a replica of Moon Landing with him into space. She passed this information on to the powers that be at Yad Vashem, who in turn gave her a facsimile to give to Feustel who flew into space with it on March 21.
On Holocaust Heroes and Martyr’s Memorial Day, Feustel sent a message from space in which he referred to Petr Ginz’s sister, Holocaust survivor Chava Pressburger, who lives in Israel today and who donated her brother’s original drawing to Yad Vashem. “I want her to know that the memory of her beloved brother will live on in the hearts and minds of people around the world forever,” said Feustel. “May the memories of Petr Ginz, astronaut Ilan Ramon and the six million victims of the Holocaust always remain in our thoughts. Yad Vashem’s commitment to Holocaust education and documentation will guarantee that we never forget those who were lost.”
■ WHEN THE American Jewish Committee organized a Holocaust Remembrance event in which Anbassadors Edminus Bagdonas of Lithuania, Magnes Hellgren of Sweden and Olivier Belle of Belgium were asked to speak about what had been done by and in their countries to save Jews, the only one who had absolutely no problem producing truly admirable examples that were common knowledge among Jews and man non-Jews around the world was Hellgren.
It was somewhat tougher for Bagdanos and Belle, although Belle could have made use of the heroic story of Prince Eugene de Ligne and his wife, Phillippine, who hid hundreds of Jewish children in their family castle and who have been recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations. Belle did mention the focus on saving children, but didn’t go into much detail.
But both he and Bagdonas were happy to report that significant numbers of their respective countrymen had been recognized with that designation. Because there were several people present whose command of English was negligible, moderator Steve Linde, editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Report, spent more time translating from English to Hebrew than he did asking questions. But it worked out well and it was refreshing to listen to diplomats who were candid and did not try to skirt controversial issues.
They were equally honest, when asked what their countries were doing about the situation in Syria. Hellgren, who has previously served in Syria, declared: “Inside Syria, my country and the international community are doing too little.” Apparently, the lesson of history has not been learned. In terms of preserving remembrance of the Holocaust, the AJC is currently supporting a campaign to raise funds for a suitable monument at Babi Yar, where on September 29-30, 1941, Nazi forces aided by local Ukrainian collaborators, massacred more than 33,000 Jews, along with Roma and others.
Sign boards around the room testified to what the Soviets had done to conceal the monstrous crime that had been committed in Babi Yar through suppressing memory and preventing the construction of monuments. But that changed a couple of years back, said Yana Barinova, chief operating officer of the Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial Center, who explained that various small, unofficial monuments had been put up over the years by people of different faiths with no support from the government. But the government is no longer placing any obstacles in the way. Members of the BYHMC committee have been making frequent visits to Israel to garner support for the project and in February of this year, met with President Reuven Rivlin, who put his entire weight behind the project.
■ ANOTHER MEMORIAL project the Solpresteine project that was conceived by German artist Gunter Demnig in 1992, continues to be controversial, and is currently being criticized by far-right German political parties, whose members do not want to be reminded of Germany’s shameful past. The literal translation of stolpresteine is “stumbling block,” and Demnig’s idea is that small brass plates the size of cobblestones would be affixed on top of concrete cobblestones in front of buildings where Jews lived or worked until they had to flee or were dragged out by the Nazis and their collaborators. More than 67,000 stolpersteines have been laid in 22 countries. The project is not limited to Jews but includes other victims of Nazism, such as Sinti, Roma, homosexuals, people with physical and/or mental disabilities, Jehovah’s Witnesses, people of color and more.
This week the project’s coordinators Dr. Ann Thomas and Dr. Anna Ward were in Israel as guests of the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, to explain how the project has become the largest decentralized Holocaust monument in the world, and is still growing.
Each brass plate is engraved with the name of the person it memorializes, dates of birth and death (when the latter is known) and the date of deportation. Demnig wanted to illustrate that every location in which the brass plates have been placed on the pavement or the road is a symbol of lost freedom in that it was the last place freely chosen by the deceased for residence or work. In a sense, the brass plates are mini tombstones, because so many of the victims whose names appear on them, either have no graves or are buried anonymously in mass graves.
■ POLAND’S NEW legislation absolving its citizens from collusion with the Nazis created misunderstandings and hostilities between Poles and Jews, so much so that many Israelis and Diaspora Jews urged the cancellation of the March of the Living, because the presence of so many thousands of visitors to Poland contributes substantially to Poland’s economy. Some of the visitors come for only 36-48 hours, but others spend a week in Poland, which means income for hotels, restaurants, transportation services and shops. However, calls for a boycott on travel to Poland were not heeded, except by a few individuals and small groups here and there. For the most part Jews had come once again to prove that they have survived centuries of discrimination, persecution, pogroms – and even a Holocaust – and returned to the Promised Land of their ancestors. It is ironic that for hundreds of years, Jew-haters have told Jews to go back to Jerusalem – and now that they have done that, Jew-haters want to take Jerusalem away from them. Up until the fairly recent past, Poland was one of Israel’s best friends, not only in Europe but in the world.
This positive relationship also contributed to Poland’s economy in the summer months. Jews from around the globe flock to Poland for the annual Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow, which this year will be held from June 22-July 1. Festival founder and director Janusz Makuch, who looks as if he just stepped off the stage as Tevya the Dairyman, is a frequent visitor to Israel, knows several Hebrew prayers by heart, but isn’t Jewish. Krakow has several synagogues and other Jewish sites that were not destroyed by the Nazis. But when walking through the Jewish Quarter as a boy, Makuch did not encounter anyone who was recognizably Jewish. It bothered him and he started asking questions and developing a passion for Jewish history and culture.
This led to the creation of the Jewish Culture Festival while Poland was still under a Communist Party regime.
The 28th Jewish Culture Festival, which like its predecessors will attract performers and audiences from around the world, will probably be as controversial as participation in the March of the Living.
In a message on the Festival website, Makuch wrote:
“2018 marks the 70th anniversary of the State of Israel, the 100th anniversary of Polish independence, the 50th anniversary of March 1968 events in Poland and exactly the 30th year since the first edition of the Jewish Culture Festival in 1988.
“We dedicate the upcoming edition of the Festival to Zion – the real one as well as to the Zion of dreams, because Zion is both solid and eternal.
“The Mount of Zion is solid and eternal. In both metaphorical and literal meanings, Zionism is a love of Zion.
“In metaphorical and literal meaning, Zion is the Land of Israel, with its eternal capital in Jerusalem.
“I understand and love Krakow, love Poland, and many other places and countries. At the same time, I love Eretz Yisrael and Yerushalayim.
“Yisroel and Yerushalayim are my state of mind, light of my mind, independence for my spirit, a seal in the Book of Life.
“I have lived long enough to know that nothing is being given to us to last forever. Sooner or later we lose things: They are either taken away from us in our lifetime or we lose life, and then, nothing really matters at all.
“It is important for me that in 2018 we celebrate the 100th anniversary of Polish independence and the 70th anniversary of the State of Israel.
“Both my countries returned to their Zion: one after 123 years, the other one after 2000 years. I wish neither country will lose its Zion, never again.”
In condemnation of certain attitudes and policies of the Polish government, it would be wise to remember not to generalize and to realize that Janusz Makuch’s is not a lone voice in the wilderness. There are many other Poles who feel as he does.
The festival usually starts with an upbeat concert under the title of Shalom on Szeroka Street. The festival will be held in the Jewish Quarter beginning at 6 p.m. on June 30.
Tickets will start being sold online on May 7. Full details of the festival will be published on its website at