(1921 - 1944)
Hannah Senesh (originally Szenes) was a paratrooper trained to rescue Jews during the Holocaust. Captured and killed by the Nazis, she is still a national heroine in Israel.
Senesh dresses up in costume as a Hungarian soldier
Through her brief but noteworthy life, Senesh became a symbol of idealism and self-sacrifice. Her poems, made famous in part because of her unfortunate death, reveal a woman imbued with hope, even in the face of adverse circumstances.
Senesh was born on July 17, 1921, in Budapest, Hungary as the daughter of an author and journalist. She demonstrated her own literary talent from an early age, and she kept a diary from age 13 until shortly before her death. Although her family was assimilated, anti-Semitic sentiment in Budapest led her to involvement in Zionist activities, and she left Hungary for Eretz Yisrael in 1939. She studied first at an agricultural school and then settled at Kibbutz Sdot Yam. While there she wrote poetry, as well as a play about kibbutz life.
In 1943, Senesh joined the British Army and volunteered to be parachuted into Europe. The purpose of this operation was to help the Allied efforts in Europe and establish contact with partisan resistance fighters in an attempt to aid beleaguered Jewish communities. Senesh trained in Egypt and was one of the thirty-three people chosen to parachute behind enemy lines. With the goal of reaching her native Budapest, Senesh parachuted into Yugoslavia in March 1944 and spent three months with Tito’s partisans. Her idealism and commitment to her cause are memorialized in her poem “Blessed is the Match,” which she wrote at this time.
On June 7, 1944, at the height of the deportation of Hungarian Jews, Senesh crossed the border into Hungary.
She was caught almost immediately by the Hungarian police and tortured cruelly and repeatedly over the next several months. Despite these conditions, Senesh refused to divulge any information about her mission. Even the knowledge that her mother was at risk and that she too might be harmed did not compel Senesh to cooperate with the police. At her trial in October 1944, Senesh staunchly defended her activities, and she refused to request clemency. Throughout her ordeal, she remained steadfast in her courage, and when she was executed by a firing squad on November 7, she refused the blindfold, staring squarely at her executors and her fate. Senesh was only 23 years old.
The following poem was found in Hannah's death cell after her execution:
Senesh’s grave stone in Israel
One - two - three... eight feet long
Two strides across, the rest is dark...
Life is a fleeting question mark
One - two - three... maybe another week.
Or the next month may still find me here,
But death, I feel is very near.
I could have been 23 next July
I gambled on what mattered most, the dice were cast. I lost.
In 1950, Senesh’s remains were brought to Israel and re-interred at the military cemetery on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem.
Her diary and literary works were later published, and many of her more popular poems have been set to music. The best known of these is “Towards Caesarea," more popularly known today as "My God, My God" with a melody created by David Zahavi and sung by artists including Ofra Haza, Regina Spektor, and Sophie Milman.
Senesh has also been the subject of several artistic works, including a play by Aharon Megged.
Sources: The Pedagogic Center, The Department for Jewish Zionist Education, The Jewish Agency for Israel, (c) 1997-2007, Director: Dr. Motti Friedman, Webmaster: Esther Carciente.
Photo: Gravestone courtesy of Valley2city.