May 10, 2011
“You must promise me that you will tell this story, what happened here,” the rabbi said to the bar mitzvah boy, Joachim “Yoya” Joseph. They had just finished the ceremony in a small barrack in Bergen-Belsen, where they covered the windows so the Nazi guards would not see them. The rabbi, Simon Dasberg, a community rabbi from Holland, pressed a little Torah scroll in the young boy’s hands as he spoke to him.
I probably won’t make it out of here alive, the rabbi said to the boy. So take this Torah scroll; it will remind you to tell this story.
Nearly 60 years later, that little Torah scroll was sitting by Joseph’s fireplace when someone asked what it was. The person asking was Col. Ilan Ramon, who would soon become the first Israeli astronaut and a Jewish hero. By some twist of fate, Joseph had become a space scientist and a colleague of Ramon’s. When Ramon heard the story of the Torah scroll, he was “overwhelmed.” He felt an urge to follow the rabbi’s instructions — “you must promise me that you will tell this story.”
The next day, Ramon mustered the strength to ask Joseph if he could take the Torah scroll with him into space. A few days later, in early January 2003, Ramon would take off as part of the U.S. Space Shuttle Columbia mission.
And he took with him Rabbi Dasberg’s little Torah scroll from Bergen-Belsen.
On the morning of Feb. 1, as the shuttle was re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere, it suffered a horrible malfunction and disintegrated somewhere above Texas. The tragedy stunned the world.
Meanwhile, soon after the tragedy, Dan Cohen, a documentary filmmaker living in Washington, D.C., saw a news clipping about the little Torah scroll and contacted its owner, Yoya Joseph.
When Joseph told him the story of the scroll — how he had smuggled it out of a concentration camp and eventually given it to Ramon — again it was as if Cohen was hearing Rabbi Dasberg’s message directly: “You must promise me that you will tell this story.”
Thus began Cohen’s seven-year adventure to bring the story to the screen. Cohen was fascinated by this “little Torah that could,” by the many twists of fate in the story, and, not least, by the incredible symbolism of an artifact of the Holocaust making it into space — as he describes it, “from the depths of hell to the heights of space.”
Cohen’s own journey culminated in Los Angeles last week, with the screening of his documentary film, “An Article of Hope,” at the gala premiere of the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival.
The selection of the film was made by Hilary Helstein, the festival’s founder and driving force. It turns out that Helstein herself had been moved by Rabbi Dasberg’s appeal to the bar mitzvah boy in Bergen-Belsen to “tell this story.”
In fact, what I find most remarkable about this whole saga is that beyond the high drama of triumph and tragedy that the story represents, it is a little Dutch rabbi in a Nazi concentration camp who seems to drive the story: It was his idea to have a bar mitzvah ceremony, despite the dangers involved; to give a young Jewish boy secret lessons every morning at 4 a.m.; to smuggle the little Torah scroll into the camp for this very purpose; to figure out a way to smuggle in the boy’s mother from another camp to attend the ceremony; and, finally, to put the Torah scroll into the boy’s hands as a lifelong reminder to “tell the story.”
It is as if the rabbi knew that one day the story of this little Torah scroll might make its way to prominent people, like a Jewish astronaut or professional storytellers in America.
The rabbi didn’t settle for words and memories. He could have asked Joseph simply to “remember to tell this story,” but instead, he added a ritual: Keep this Torah scroll with you at all times.
There’s something very Jewish about backing up an idea with something concrete. We live for ideas and values that we can convey orally, but, ultimately, we’re nothing without the written Book. The Book is our insurance policy, our timeless transmitter. Like President Shimon Peres says in the film, “Ilan Ramon didn’t just carry the scroll into space, the scroll carried him.”
Perhaps the rabbi understood that the scroll itself was the story — a symbol of how the Jewish people have survived despite impossible odds.
The film, which begins slowly, takes off the minute the scroll enters the picture. From then on, the story grabs you and doesn’t let go. At the packed premiere at the Writers Guild Theater, there were very few dry eyes in the house.
I moderated a panel discussion after the screening, and as I listened to Cohen discuss his deep attachment to the making of the film, I felt a similar idea seeping into my own mind.
I imagined myself as the little bar mitzvah boy in Bergen-Belsen, and I could almost hear Rabbi Dasberg say: “You must promise me that you will tell this story.”
As I left the theater, I could not imagine writing about anything else.
An Article of Hope” will screen on Wednesday, May 11 at 7:30 p.m. at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, 8844 Burton Way, Beverly Hills, CA 90211. $9-$11. For tickets and more information, visit www.lajfilmfest.org.