Friday, February 01, 2008

Across the Universe

Petr Ginz was born in Prague in 1928. His father was a clerk, and both of his parents were involved in the Esperanto movement - in fact, they had met at an Esperantist meeting. As a young boy, Petr was interested in science and space, read the novels of Jules Verne, and dreamed of one day going to the moon. He also wrote his own stories, even a novel when he was just twelve, and he drew and painted illustrations for his stories. He also learned Esperanto from his parents and became fluent.

Petr's mother was Czech, but Petr's father was Jewish, and when Petr was 14 he was taken from his parents and put on a train, which took him to a camp called Terezin. Although he was sad and afraid, he continued to study science and mathematics, and he continued to draw, and he even started a magazine in the camp, called Vedem, which means "In the Lead". He wrote an Esperanto to Czech dictionary, so he could help the others in the camp learn the universal language that would bring peace to the world.

While he was in the camp, Petr drew a picture. It showed what the Earth would look like when he was standing on the moon. The picture looked like this:

After two years, another train came to Terezin, and the guards told Petr to get on board. The train went north, into Poland and west of Krakow, to another camp called Auschweitz. No one told Petr, but his was one of the last trains that would be going to that camp. The guards made Petr wait with a large group of other children, women, and old men. Then they told Petr they were going to go to the showers.

Petr's picture survived the war, and eventually it was given to a man named Ilan. Ilan's mother and grandmother had also been in Auschweitz, but they had survived. Ilan was also a student of science, and like Petr, Ilan dreamed of going to space. He became a pilot for the Israeli airforce, and flew planes that probably would have seemed like spaceships to Petr Ginz.

In 1997, Ilan was told that he would really go to space, as a payload specialist on board the space shuttle. Ilan moved to Texas, and began training for his mission. When his spaceship, the Columbia, took off into space in January, 2003 - almost exactly 58 years after the Russians had liberated Auschwitz - Ilan had Petr's picture with him. It orbited the Earth 255 times, 15 days in space, and Ilan and his fellow crew members did a lot of experiments and took videos of dust glowing in the atmosphere of Earth.

And when that spaceship fell apart on re-entry, five years ago this morning, I was watching it on the television with my children, in shock and horror at the loss of life, never knowing that Petr's picture had also turned to smoke and ashes.

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