Marc Chagall's Gift: A Mosaic of Generosity (2024)

Ground Control: “And Columbia, Houston, we see your tire pressure messages and we did not copy your last…”

Commander Rick Husband: “Roger buh…”

That utterance by mission commander Rick Husband was the last communication sent to Ground Control in Houston, Texas from the Space Shuttle Columbia, which was on its way back to Earth on February 1, 2003.

On board the Columbia, which would disintegrate as soon as it reentered the atmosphere, was one Israeli. Almost against his will, Ilan Ramon – the first Israeli astronaut – became a national symbol in his lifetime.

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As the son of Holocaust survivors Tonya and Eliezer Wolferman, Ilan Ramon dreamt big when he was growing up. But “being an astronaut” was not one of those dreams. “In Israel, when you tell someone, ‘You’re an astronaut,’ it means that they aren’t… connected [to reality], so it’s almost a joke,” he explained in one of his last interviews with American media before the Columbia took off. Still, when he accepted his assignment, he was “over the moon” with excitement.

It wasn’t the first time that Ramon was chosen to lead and carry out a mission that had never been done before. He was an outstanding, determined pilot who enlisted in the Israeli Air Force and twice returned to service after an injury. In 1980, he was sent to the U.S. as part of a small elite team tasked with learning to fly the new F-16 aircraft that Israel was about to receive. A year later, he was the youngest pilot in the squadron that flew those aircraft to Iraq to bomb a nuclear reactor being built there by Saddam Hussein’s regime.

Along with the space shuttle, an Israeli national symbol was also lost on that fateful day in February 2003. Ilan Ramon served as an example of what we can become. For his family – his wife Rona, his children, his father, and his brother – it was a completely different loss. They lost their loving partner, their father, their son and brother – a serious man with a captivating smile, a sense of humor, an almost childlike enthusiasm, and hopeless optimism. They lost the individual he was, aside from all the incredible things he achieved. “At home, you don’t think of him as if he’s Israel’s first astronaut. He’s that too, but he’s my father. Do I worry about him a bit? No, not really,” Assaf Ramon said during an interview with Israel’s Channel 10 filmed before Ilan launched into space, though it was only broadcast many years later.

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Ramon enlisted in the mission with all his heart and soul. He was well aware of the significance of what he was doing, and he took it seriously. But he was also able see the lighter side of things, and would often laugh and joke with his family.

Everything we know about Ramon’s journey to space consists of these two extremes: the national, and the personal. Among the things he brought with him onto the shuttle were items that carried with them all the weight of Jewish history: a tiny Torah scroll that had come all the way from the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, a copy of a Petr Ginz painting from the Terezin Ghetto (Moon Landscape), the last letter written by captured Israeli Air Force navigator Ron Arad, wine for Kiddush, and more. He also took with him a letter from his son Assaf (who warned his father only to open it once he had taken off) and a notebook he planned on using to record his personal experience.

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The notebook probably had at least one page written before lift-off, but the rest of the pages were filled in the days that followed. He wrote in a short, purposeful manner, interspersing his words with fragments of thoughts, feelings, conversations, and descriptions of routine actions that became extraordinary, not only because of the place where they were carried out.

An excerpt from the diary reads:

“Launch. No, I couldn’t believe it. Until the moment the engine(s) were ignited, I still doubted it. In the last few days of our isolation in the Cape, since the fateful discussion [on] Sunday afternoon – in those days we all already felt that [this was] real, and yet – we didn’t believe it.”

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In what follows, along with other documentation from the Colombia mission, this duality can be seen again and again. It ranges from the personal to the public, from the routine to the historic. He described how he brushed his teeth and how he performed scientific experiments; he wrote to his family about how much he missed them but also mentioned, almost as an aside, conversations with the Prime Minister and the President of the United States, performing Jewish rituals such as Kiddush before the entire world, and strong friendships with the other crew members.

“Travel diary, day six. Today was perhaps the first day that I truly felt like I was really ‘living’ in space! I’ve turned into a man who lives and works in space. Like in the movies. We get up in the morning with some light levitation and we roll into the ‘family room’. Brush my teeth, wash my face, and then go to work. A little coffee. Some snacks on the way, off to the lab…a press conference with the Prime Minister, and then immediately back to work, observing the ozone layer.”

Diary excerpt
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On the one hand, he was a representative of the Jewish state. All eyes were on him, and he had something to say to the entire world:

“From our perspective here in space, we look at you and see a world without borders, full of peace and splendor. Our hearts carry a prayer that all humanity as one can imagine the world as it appears to us, without borders, and can strive to live together in peace.”

From a conversation with then Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon

On the other hand, Ramon was a loving family man who missed his loved ones:

“Even though everything here is amazing, I can’t wait any longer until I see you all. A big hug to you and kisses to the kids.”

From an email Ramon sent his family the day before the scheduled landing

But he never saw them again. They waited for him at the base, excitedly watching the clock counting down the minutes till landing, and then with increasing anxiety, watching it reach zero and then switch to displaying the time elapsed since the Columbia was scheduled to land. It wasn’t long before the news channels started broadcasting the image of the space shuttle’s wreckage burning in the Texas sky. Debris from the shuttle and the astronauts’ bodies were scattered over a vast area in Texas and Louisiana. The diary, a personal and national treasure, should have disintegrated along with the shuttle and its crew, but a few weeks after the disaster, to the surprise of the search party, someone found the remains of the diary on a muddy patch of land in Texas.

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How is it possible that it survived? It withstood the explosion, and then a journey of several kilometers till it hit the earth. No one knows for sure, but leading researchers in the field believe that due to the light weight of the pages, the diary didn’t fall directly to the ground but probably glided slowly downwards, carried on wind currents that eventually allowed for a soft landing. Most of the damage to its pages probably only happened after it reached the ground, resulting from the humid conditions in the marshy area where it landed.

Once it was found, the diary was transferred to the Israel Museum for restoration and preservation. The wetness caused the pages to stick together and blurred the words that were written inside, turning them into shapeless ink blots. It was almost illegible, and restoring it was a complex undertaking that included the use of the most advanced technological means, with the assistance of the Israel Police’s forensics department.

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One of the pages that was recovered was apparently written while Ramon was still on the ground, before lift-off. The restoration team identified letter patterns between the ink spots that had spread across the page. To do so, they used some of Ramon’s other handwriting samples. When they tried to connect the letters and the spaces between them into a meaningful, understandable text, they discovered the words of the Jewish Kiddush prayer recited on Friday night. Ramon had made advance preparations to consecrate the wine during the time designated as “Shabbat” onboard the shuttle (which itself was an interesting question because the Jewish sabbath is from sundown on Friday till sundown on Saturday, but he had traveled somewhere without sunset), and he had made sure to write the exact wording of the prayer in advance so that he wouldn’t forget a single word.

For twenty years the diary was kept in the Israel Museum, but it was recently moved to its new home in the National Library of Israel, where it will be on extended loan.

“If only every item we received was at the level of preservation which this diary was at when it reached us from the Israel Museum,” said Marcela Szekely, head of the Library’s Conservation and Restoration Department.

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After the initial intake phase, during which both sides of all pages of the diary were photographed, the diary entered the Library’s rare items storeroom. The storeroom, which serves as a highly guarded vault, is bulletproof and is under strict environmental control. The humidity and temperature are continuously monitored and adjusted to preserve the materials stored inside it.

“Later, after the diary goes through additional conservation processes at the Library, we will consider presenting it to the general public as part of the Library’s permanent exhibition,” Skezely says. “In the meantime, it is being kept in good company here. It ‘lives’ in the same room as the writings of Newton and Maimonides.”

The Library also preserves other items linked to Ilan Ramon as well as the diary of another astronaut.

In 1977, Ramon, then a 23-year-old pilot, wrote a letter to Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz, asking him: “What is man’s purpose in this world?” Leibowitz, answered, and this correspondence in its entirety is preserved in the National Library.

In 1985, Jeffrey Hoffman, the first Jewish American astronaut, went into space on the Space Shuttle Discovery. Like Ilan Ramon, he also wrote a diary documenting his journey in space, and he had also taken with him Jewish symbols such as a small Torah scroll. In March 2023, Hoffmann visited the National Library and handed over that diary, along with several other items that are now preserved in a collection that bears his name.

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The transfer of Ilan Ramon’s diary – which carries both national and personal significance – was accompanied by his sons, Tal and Yiftach.

Their father’s tragic death was not the last tragedy the family would suffer. Assaf, Ilan’s firstborn, was killed in an operational accident six years after the Columbia disaster. Rona, Ilan’s widow who turned Ilan and Assaf’s legacy into a tremendous social and educational enterprise, died of cancer in 2018.

Today, Tal, Yiftach, and Noa are the ones left carrying the flag of this amazing family that, despite all the tragedies it has known, has always continued to look ahead with its head held high.

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No words we write will ever be stronger or more accurate than their own:

“My name is Yiftach Ramon, and I have come here to say that my family and I insist that our name not become a symbol of tragedy or mourning. I have come here to say that people can take their grief and their mourning and turn it into action to create a better future.”

From Yiftach’s speech at the annual conference of the Israeli American Council, IAC

We at the National Library of Israel are incredibly moved to have this treasure in our collections. We are grateful for the privilege of preserving this diary, along with the spirit that created it, for future generations.

Marc Chagall's Gift: A Mosaic of Generosity (2024)
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