The journey of a tiny Torah scroll from a concentration camp to outer space

May 15, 2012

A secret bar mitzvah at Bergen-Belsen. Israel’s first astronaut, Ilon Ramon. The fate of the Columbia Space Shuttle.

“I thought I was making a documentary about the Holocaust,” director Dan Cohen tells the camera in a meta-movie about his movie, “An Article of Hope.”

But the story he had planned took a remarkable turn when he made a startling discovery about a miniature Torah scroll, no larger than the palm of your hand.

First smuggled into the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1944 by the chief rabbi of Holland, Simon Dasberg, the tiny scroll was used in a clandestine Bar Mitzvah ceremony for the young Joachim Joseph, who promised his rabbi he’d safeguard it. The rabbi perished in the camp, but Joseph survived; and with the scrap of the scroll that enjoined him as an adult to his people, he emigrated to Israel and became a successful scientist. Many decades later, when Israel’s first astronaut Ilan Ramon was conscripted to travel on the Space Shuttle Columbia, Ramon asked Joseph if he could bring the scroll with him into space “as a symbol”.

“He thought he would show it to the world how a person can go from the depths of hell to the heights of space,” Joseph recalls in the documentary.

And indeed, Ramon did just that. Before the mission’s fateful end on February 1, 2003, images from the spacecraft show him holding up the delicate scroll, like a kitten in his hand, for the world to see. The little scroll had survived the Holocaust, but it would not survive the Columbia’s re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere, when the spaceship and all seven passengers disintegrated into thin air over Texas.

“An Article of Hope,” which traces the journey of the tiny Torah “from a Nazi concentration camp to the heights of space” has screened at film festivals and even at NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC. But it may not be seen by a wider audience unless it can raise almost $14,000 by May 26.

Cohen has secured interest in the documentary at PBS, but the non-profit TV station requires additional underwriting before the doc can air. Cohen has subsequently launched a $50,000 fundraising campaign on kickstarter.com, a Website that aims to help build communities of support for creative projects. Cohen wrote on his project’s Website that the additional funds are needed to help the filmmakers “conform the documentary to PBS technical requirements, [help subsidize] broadcast rights and fees, [for] promotion, [and] web site.”

So far, Cohen has raised $36,843 from 172 supporters—but there’s a kick: He must secure the additional funding before his deadline or he won’t get a cent. According to Kickstarter.com, “If the project succeeds in reaching its funding goal, all backers’ credit cards are charged when time expires. If the project falls short, no one is charged.”

Cohen has 11 days to realize his passion project of seven years. Will the sky be the limit for this story?

It is, after all, a quite literal tale of the magnificent scope of history, from the grounds of a death camp to the known heights of the universe.

As Israeli president Shimon Peres put it during in an interview in the movie, “There are two dimensions: there is a sky and there is a heaven.” Then, in his trademark deep, gravelly voice added, “The sky is a matter of height; heaven is a matter of depth.”

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