Space flight for toy bear links Holocaust, Darfur genocide
by Noelene Clark, Scripps Howard Foundation Wire
Holocaust survivor Sophie Turner-Zaretsky holds a replica of her teddy bear, Refugee, which astronaut Mark Polansky took to space, with a photo of Darfur refugees, held by U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum chief of staff William Parsons.
Refugee, a replica of a teddy bear belonging to a Holocaust survivor, returned to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum on Tuesday after 13 days in space with Discovery Shuttle Commander Mark Polansky.
The bear sat next to the original Refugee, three inches tall with brown fur matted and worn after years of love from Holocaust survivor Sophie Turner-Zaretsky.
Zaretsky, whose family survived the Holocaust in Poland by obtaining fake papers in 1941 and posing as Catholics, has donated other mementos from her childhood, including rosary beads, a St. Anthony statuette and a catechism.
"I forgot I was Jewish," she said. "I was 10 years old before I knew."
After surviving the Holocaust, Zaretsky's family fled Poland in 1948, fearing the growing threats of Communism and anti-Semitism. When they arrived in England, Zaretsky said, her mother gave her the bear, named Refugee for their own status.
Polansky also took a photograph of unidentified Darfur refugees into space. Zaretsky, 69, an oncologist in New York, said she feels "connected" to the photograph.
"I've spent the last 20 or more years trying to put faces and names to my family," she said. "People say ‘perish,' like they evaporated. I want people to know that they were people, and they existed, and they were murdered. You see these pictures from the villages. People have to know they were human beings."
The photo and the bear replica were chosen partly because they provided a symbolic link between past and present, said William Parsons, museum chief of staff.
As he led Polansky and Zaretsky on a tour of the museum, Parsons drew parallels between the Holocaust and the genocide in Darfur.
He talked about an abundance of press coverage but lack of action in Darfur. He pointed to a 1938 Philadelphia Inquirer front page story about Nazi "Aryan window smashers" in Berlin, a reference to the now-infamous Kristallnacht. He said that many people knew about what was happening to Jews in Europe, but few stepped in to help.
"It's a people beginning to recognize the world doesn't give a damn about them," he said. "They're faceless, they're nameless, they're there, and they're dying."
It's a realization that hasn't been easy for Zaretsky.
"You always lived in hope that the next day will be better," she said. "But when you look at it, it's not. So it's very gratifying to see someone like this."
Polansky and Zaretzky lit candles beneath a sign that said "Belzec" - a concentration camp in Poland where Zaretsky's grandparents died.
Polansky's father and his family were Jewish immigrants from Russia at the turn of the century.
"As I grew up and decided I wanted to be an astronaut, one of the things that I always carried with me was a little bit of my father's family and heritage," he said.
Polansky is not the first astronaut to carry that heritage into space. Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon, who died in the 2003 Columbia shuttle explosion, took a copy of a Torah from the Holocaust and a pencil sketch called "Moon Landscape" drawn by a boy who died at Auschwitz.
Polansky, who joined the museum as a charter member when it first opened, said taking an artifact from the museum to space was a small way he could honor his father, who died in 2001. He learned about Zaretsky's story, and the museum offered him a replica of Refugee, which is too fragile and valuable to leave the museum, for his voyage.
While Polansky and his crew worked on the International Space Station on their December flight, Zaretsky fretted, watching the team's progress on NASA's Web site.
"He actually got a Jewish mother," Zaretsky joked.
The mission took the crew around the earth 203 times at 17,500 miles per hour, "which is not bad for a bear," Polansky said.
"One of most profound things I get to do is look out the window and view Earth," Polansky said. "There are no borders, just water and land. You can't tell where one country ends and another begins."
While Refugee and the Discovery crew were 220 miles above the Earth, Holocaust deniers gathered for a conference in Iran and bloodshed continued in Darfur.
Seeing the Earth "as a fragile planet with a very thin cobalt blue atmosphere" was sad, he said, because "you know what goes on down there."
Polansky said that working on the International Space Station with a diverse group of people from across the planet was his own slice of utopia.
"It's the kind of world I think we'd all like to live in," he said.