The Last Flight of Petr Ginz?

“The seed of a creative idea does not die in mud
and scum. Even there it will germinate and spread
its blossom like a star shining in darkness.”

~ Petr Ginz, The Diary of Petr Ginz

My son, Joshua, has made a good start on his first novel at age twelve. However, if he were Jewish and living in Europe eighty years ago, he would likely never have the opportunity to finish it. My son, Aaron, age eight, would also become “a life Petr-Ginz-03-261x300interrupted,” as would the lives of my wife, Jodi, and I, were we European Jews living in a Germany-occupied nation in 1933.

Petr Ginz was a Czechoslovak boy of partial Jewish background who lived in Prague when the Nazis came to power. Exceptionally talented and wise beyond his years, at 14 Petr had written five novels and penned a diary about the Nazi occupation of Prague. By 16 he had produced more than 170 drawings and paintings, edited an underground magazine in the Theresienstadt Ghetto, written numerous short stories before being murdered in the gas chambers at Auschwitz.

Pages from the “Vedem” Magazine, 1944, Yad Vashem

Pages from the “Vedem” Magazine, 1944  [Yad Vashem]

Speaking of the change in the boy’s writing tone after the Nazi occupation of Prague, journalist Justin Li writes: 

“This change is so abrupt, yet so genuine, the reader is stunned by the sudden change in atmosphere; surely a feeling that Petr himself must have felt.”

The plight of children caught up in the Holocaust is, for me, a harrowing pressure point, somehow, if such a thing were possible, the lowest, most heart-wrenching rung on the excruciatingly painful ladder of descent from the “normal heights” of simple human family life — such as the Jewish community generally enjoyed prior to the rise of Hitler [1] — into the blood-and-gas-drenched abyss that was the Final Solution. From the Yad Vashem website:

“Children were particularly vulnerable during the Holocaust. Deemed as “unwanted,” a threat to future Aryan domination, and too small to be of use to the Nazi war machine, children were killed first in aktionen. The Germans and their collaborators killed more than one million Jewish children during the Holocaust, in gas chambers, upon birth, with malnutrition, and with improper clothing and shelter for extended periods of time. Despite the young ages of these victims, many of them sought to live and remain hopeful in spite of an impending doom. Both the surviving children, as well as the victims have left a legacy that can still teach and inspire into the twenty-first century.”[2]

“Petr’s powerful imagination continued working until he took his final steps at Auschwitz, as evidenced in his artwork and his writing. In the film The Last Flight of Petr Ginz, the Senior Art Curator for Yad Vashem, Yehudit Shendar, explained how strong his creative side was, despite the difficulties he encountered every day living in the ghetto away from his family.

‘Making art is embedded in someone to such an extent, that even life such as it was in Terezin, for many artists and Petr for sure, did not cut the urge to make art.’

Moon Landscape, Petr Ginz,1942-1944; Pencil on paper; Collection of the Yad Vashem Art Museum, Jerusalem; Gift of Otto Ginz, Haifa

Moon Landscape, Petr Ginz,1942-1944; Pencil on paper; Collection of the Yad Vashem Art Museum, Jerusalem; Gift of Otto Ginz, Haifa

“Petr’s imagination enabled him to go places and see things in his mind’s eye that others had not. For example, Petr drew Moon Landscape in Terezin before anyone had travelled to the moon. Petr was drawing something that at the time was radical. There were no photographs taken by astronauts picturing the surface of the moon yet. Petr thinking about outer space while he was terrorized, incarcerated and in a place where so much was taken from him, shows that no one can ever take away a person’s imagination.”[3]

There is at least one thing that the Christian community can, and should, but really must learn from this visionary young man: that in order for it to revive and thrive in the postmodern, post-Auschwitz, post-Judea-Christian world we now live in, it must take serious, studied stock of much of its own dogmatically entrenched cultural paradigm and, with the help of God and through the work of His Spirit, re-work itself, so to speak, jettisoning unfounded cultural and theological assumptions of the Church Fathers enroute to building a new operational paradigm around the cultural and theological assumptions of Jesus of Nazareth. It must tame its appetite for man-made cultural preferences, open its mind and heart to God, taking inspiration from the likes of young Petr Ginz and his powerful capacity for extended vision:
“Petr’s imagination enabled him to go places and see things in his mind’s eye that others had not.”

It seems to me that God must work, to some extent, through the open-mindedness of the remnantal Christian imagination in order for the church to see through itself, through the man-made cultural hubris, back in history to the time of its inception, seeing less of its own self-created image as conceived, packaged, and distributed by the Church Fathers, and more of itself through the authentic, biblically-generated image lived-out by its “founder,” Jesus of Nazareth.  Only through this new breath of fresh, ancient air, it seems to me, will the church be able to respirate itself by accepting the neshemah, breath, of the original Spirit of the Master Teacher from Nazareth. It will take much prayer, study, and creative expectation to move from the old Hellenistic paradigm into the new Hebraic paradigm. 

Ilan Ramon, an Israeli astronaut, brought one of Petr Ginz’s drawings depicting the planet Earth as seen from the moon on the fateful voyage of the American Space Shuttle Columbia that was destroyed upon reentry into Earth’s atmosphere on February 1, 2003. Obviously, the copy of Ginz’s drawing was also lost.

Petr Ginz's “Rooftops and Towers of Prague” [Yad Vashem]

Petr Ginz’s “Rooftops and Towers of Prague” [Yad Vashem]

The seven crew members who died aboard this final mission were: Rick Husband, Commander; William C. McCool, Pilot; Michael P. Anderson, Payload Commander; David M. Brown, Mission Specialist 1; Kalpana Chawla,  Mission Specialist 2; Laurel Clark, Mission Specialist 4; and Ilan Ramon, Payload Specialist. May their memory’s be blessed.
The destruction of the Columbia stands as a day of mourning for the astronauts as well as for Petr Ginz, as the day of the tragedy, February 1, 2003, would have been his 75th birthday.

Petr Ginz’ last flight as a 14-year-old boy was to Auschwitz where the gas chambers awaited him. But it was not a flight imbued with the affect of death inhabiting it; it was a journey imbued with visionary color, imaginative effervescence, and the creative truth of a visionary explorer made in the image of ADONAI O’saynu, the LORD our Maker, who created us in order that we, too, might re-create the world in His image.

May the spirit of “the last flight of Petr Ginz” become like unto a parable of creative escape for the church in our time; and may that spirit of youthful wonder and awe “germinate and spread its blossom like a star shining in darkness.”


[1] Such as “normal heights of simple human family” can exist around and in-between the incidence of interpersonal acts of persecution, ongoing daily and seasonal acts of anti-Semitism, intermittent governmental pogroms, and other various and sundry acts of anti-Jewishness, that is.

[2] The International School for Holocaust Studies, Yad Vashem, “We Are Children Just the Same: Teaching the Holocaust by Highlighting the Youth, their Perseverance, and Creativity;” by Yael G. Weinstock <http://www.yadvashem.org/yv/en/education/newsletter/15/main_article.asp> 18 May 2013.

[3] The Holocaust and the United Nations Outreach Programme; The Last Flight Of Petr Ginz, Study Guide; <https://www.un.org/en/holocaustremembrance/2012/UN_Petr_Study-Guide.pdf> 19 May 2013.

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