Butterflies in Space

One of the personal items that perished with Israeli astronaut Colonel Ilan Ramon when he died in the Columbia space shuttle disaster on February 1, 2003 was a drawing called Mountains of the Moon made by Petr Ginz in Terezín.

Petr Ginz was a 14-year-old Jewish boy killed in Auschwitz. Terezín or Theresienstadt is a town in the Czech Republic where Jews from Bohemia and Moravia were held before the Nazis shipped them off to death camps. Altogether 15,000 children passed through Terezín. Only 150 survived.

Pavel Friedmann, a poet, also passed through Terezín.  While there he wrote a poem about a yellow butterfly which was the last butterfly he saw before he too was shipped off to die in the ovens at Auschwitz:

Such, such a yellow
Is carried lightly ‘way up high.
It went away I’m sure because it wished
to kiss the world goodbye.

Ilan Ramon did not want to kiss the world goodbye.  He wanted to send it a message.

“There is no better place to emphasize the unity of people in the world than flying in space,” he said before liftoff. “We are all the same people, we are all human beings, and I believe that most of us, almost all of us, are good people.”

Yes, Terezín and Auschwitz along with Hiroshima and Nagasaki (the two cities destroyed by atom bombs in World War II), the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, and escalating violence in India, Myanmar, Africa and elsewhere are indications of how low we can fall as a result of the darker aspects of our nature. But space flight is an indication of how high our ability to reason and work together can take us. In the 21st century, we may explore the heavens or, as Lord Louis Mountbatten put it,

“It could all be over in a matter of days. And when it is all over what will the world be like? Our fine great buildings, our homes will exist no more. The thousands of years it took to develop our civilization will have been in vain. Our works of art will be lost. Radio, television, newspapers will disappear. There will be no means of transport. There will be no hospitals. No help can be expected for the few mutilated survivors in any town to be sent from a neighboring town – there will be no neighboring towns left, no neighbors, there will be no help, there will be no hope.”

Indeed today we are, in Lord Mountbatten’s words, “on the brink of a final abyss” and ought to be applying the same reasoning process that has given us an ongoing revolution in the sciences to the question of how to design a just, peaceful and sustainable world order.  In short, the ability to reason has given us computers and iPhones, roads and bridges, longer lifetimes and footprints on the moon. Yet despite the foundation of the United Nations and its drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document that Eleanor Roosevelt referred to as a “common standard of achievement for all peoples of all nations,” it has not enabled us to establish a just and peaceful world order in which everyone’s human rights are realized.

Why not?  That is something the Kemper Human Rights Education Foundation hopes educators around the world will motivate the best and brightest of their students to think about.   Therefore, it is offering prizes of $4000, $2000, and $1000 to high school students who submit the best answers to the following question formulated before October 7 and its aftermath.

This year Amina J. Mohammed the Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations noted the world is facing the highest number of violent conflicts since the Second World War; the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Vladimir Putin; and Chileans marked the 50th anniversary of the overthrow of their democratically elected government and the inauguration of the brutal Pinochet dictatorship. Considering these and other matters, if you were asked to give a talk on December 10 commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, what would you say about its effectiveness and its value going forward? Does it need to be revised to achieve its goals, or can it be effective in its current form?

That, of course, is a question all of us, not just high school students, should be asking ourselves in these trying times.