The ProsenPeople

Jewish Astronauts and Nazi Scientists

Wednesday, October 03, 2018| Permalink

By Tom Seigel

It was 2003, and Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli astronaut, had died in the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster. I was struck, as I’m sure many were, by the fact that both Ramon and Judith Resnik, the first Jewish American in space, suffered the same terrible fate in two separate shuttle accidents. It felt like more than just a sad coincidence or very bad luck. It felt like an atavistic curse: “Let there be no escape.” In one of those ineffable moments of unconscious thought we might call inspiration, I remembered the MS St. Louis, the German ocean liner that, in 1939, carried Jewish refugees from port to port in desperate search of safe harbor from the growing menace in Europe. Instead of finding the welcoming light of the Statue of Liberty, they found the golden door slammed shut by the dark and bigoted immigration policies of the era. For many of those refugees, the denial of entry was a death warrant. No escape, no shelter. Into this swirl of reflection flashed the scene from The Ten Commandments where Joshua (John Derek) learns that Moses (Charlton Heston) will not lead his people across the Jordan River. God’s punishment: You may gaze upon the promised land but may never enter.

Escaping, wandering, the eternal (and perhaps impossible) return home, and the elusiveness of sanctuary—all of these concepts coalesced in my mind. Then the notion that “flight” contained elements of both adventure and escape took hold. If the exodus story can serve as a metaphor for liberation of the oppressed, could the unique, peripatetic story of the Jews serve as a metaphor for the future of humanity in space? Are we exploring the cosmos as mere intellectual pastime or because we know that another exodus will be needed?

It was more than enough to get me started. To that oft-quoted, endlessly interpreted mantra “write what you know,” I would add this variation: Write what won’t go. I was hooked. I began devouring books on the history and future of space exploration, which led me to the whitewashed past of Operation Paperclip, the United States military’s recruitment of German rocket engineers and scientists after World War II. In the last decade, several excellent nonfiction books have been published exposing the details of this secret program. Though frequently described as innocent bystanders during the war, some of our prominent Third Reich recruits—who ended up as leaders at NASA—were Nazi party members, SS officers, and in some cases, likely war criminals.

In my novel, The Astronaut's Son, Jonathan Stein, an Israeli American and the grandson of a Holocaust survivor, attempts reconciliation of the past and the future in a very personal way as he prepares to travel to the moon at the dawn of the twenty-first century. His father, an Israeli fighter pilot specially chosen for the fictitious Apollo 18 crew, died mysteriously two days before launch. It was the early 1970s, when the Operation Paperclip Nazi rocket engineers, like Wernher von Braun, were still alive and working at NASA. Was there foul play? Did his father die as the last, belated victim of the Shoah? Or was he cursed? Did the curse of no escape dictate his father’s death? When Jonathan receives the diagnosis of a heart condition at the book’s open, he fears that the ancestral curse has been passed down and that the moon will likewise remain beyond his reach. Jonathan wrestles with ghosts, hoping to end the multi-generational hex, and, in that struggle, asks himself what sacrifices can and should be made for the sake of not just technological but moral progress.

How much gravity must be left behind to reach escape velocity? What ballast is needed to keep our trajectory true? Space may be a blank slate, an unpromised frontier of unknown potential, but we always bring baggage, every ship both ark and archive. We’ve sent probes into deep space with universal messages of math, music and language meant to communicate, but when we humans go forth to our next home, we will carry with us those things we want to preserve. The struggle of how to balance the weight of the past with the weightlessness and limitlessness of space consumes Jonathan as we follow him on an emotional trek to the stars.

Tom Seigel has served as both Deputy Chief and Chief of the Justice Department's Organized Crime Strike Force in Brooklyn, prosecuting members and associates of La Cosa Nostra. After twenty years as a litigator, Tom earned an MFA in fiction writing. The Astronaut's Son is his debut novel.

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