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January 22, 2003

Israeli astronaut takes symbolic Torah in space
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla.—Israel's first astronaut held up a tiny Torah scroll aboard space shuttle Columbia yesterday, fulfilling a promise made by a Holocaust survivor 59 years ago.

Astronaut Ilan Ramon showed the Torah to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon during a televised conference.

Watching from a NASA control centre in Maryland was the Torah's owner, Joachim Joseph, 71, an atmospheric physicist at Tel Aviv University overseeing an Israeli experiment aboard the shuttle.

Joseph got the Torah — the first five books of the Bible — from an Amsterdam rabbi while both were imprisoned at a Nazi concentration camp in 1944. Joseph had just turned 13, and the rabbi secretly arranged a bar mitzvah ceremony at 4 a.m. in the prisoners' barracks.

"After the ceremony, he said, `You take this, this scroll that you just read from, because I will not leave here alive. But you must promise me that if you get out, you'll tell the story,'" Joseph recalled.

The rabbi was killed two months later.

Joseph was freed from the Bergen-Belsen camp in a prisoner exchange in 1945, one month before it was liberated by the Americans and British.

Ramon, whose mother and grandmother survived the Auschwitz death camp, visited the scientist's home two years ago and saw the Torah.

``He was deeply affected. He almost cried," Joseph said.

The astronaut asked if he could take the Torah with him into space.

"This represents more than anything the ability of the Jewish people to survive despite everything from horrible periods," Ramon told Sharon and other Israeli government officials in Jerusalem.

Joseph said: "I feel now that I finally was able to fulfill my promise to Rabbi Dasberg 50 years ago."

Columbia's 16-day mission is scheduled to end with a landing at Florida's Kennedy Space Center Feb. 1.

Ramon is being hailed as a hero in Israel for his historic flight. Among his onboard possessions is a pencil sketch of Earth drawn by another boy at Auschwitz who did not survive.