Hannah Szenes (or Chana or Hannah Senesh) (July 17, 1921—November 7, 1944) was born in Budapest, Hungary, to an assimilated Jewish family, the daughter of an accomplished playwright and journalist. Executed in her native land at the age of 23, she became a symbol of idealism and self-sacrifice. Her poetry, made famous in part because of her unfortunate death, reveals a woman imbued with hope, even in the face of adverse circumstances. She was a symbol of courage in one of the darkest times of modern history.
Szenes was one of 17 Jews living in what was then the British Mandate of Palestine, now Israel, who were trained by the British army to parachute into Yugoslavia during the Second World War. Their mission was to help rescue the Jews of Nazi-occupied Hungary, who were about to be deported to the German death camp at Auschwitz. Arrested at the Hungarian border, she was imprisoned and tortured, but refused to reveal the details of her mission, and was eventually tried and executed by firing squad. She is the only one whose fate after capture is known with certainty. Hannah Szenes was officially exonerated in November 1993.
Szenes' writings have become a part of the popular heritage of Israel, her diaries providing a firsthand account of life in Hungary during the rise of Nazism. They also provide a window into the life of Palestine's early Zionists. Her works include two well-known plays, The Violin and Bella gerunt alii, tu felix Austria nube, as well as the notable poem entitled, “Blessed is the Match.”
Hannah Szenesis is perhaps best described in her own words:
There are stars whose radiance is visible on earth though they have long been extinct. There are people whose brilliance continues to light the world even though they are not longer among the living. These lights are particularly bright when the night is dark. They light the way for human kind.
Hannah Szenes was born July 17, 1921, in Budapest, Hungary, and grew up there. Her father was the well-known playwright and journalist Bela Senesh. Bela and his wife, Katherine, who were not observant Jews, raised Hannah within a comfortable standard of living in Jewish-Hungarian upper-class society. When Hannah was 6 years old, her father died.
At the age of ten, Hannah began attending a private Protestant girls' high school. Catholics and Jews had only recently begun to be accepted at the school, which required a double-tuition for Catholics and triple-tuition for Jews. In spite of the cost, her mother did not consider sending her to the less expensive Jewish high school. Hannah had inherited her father's literary talent and her mother pursued what she believed was the best school available to nurture those talents. Hannah quickly excelled in school, writing plays for school productions and tutoring her peers. Under pressure from Hannah's mother, the school's principal lowered the tuition to the rate required of Catholics.
The chief rabbi of Budapest, Imre Benoschofsky, a great scholar and a zealous Zionist, was one of Hannah's instructors. Rabbi Benoschofsky was of great influence to Hannah and her growing interest in Judaism and Zionism.
Anti-Jewish legislation was passed in Hungary as official anti-Semitism took hold. Though she had been elected to a post of the school's literary society, Hannah was denied the right to take office, being told that a Jew could not hold the presidency. Hannah was faced with the choice of fighting or acquiescing. She recorded in her diary: "You have to be someone exceptional to fight anti-Semitism. Only now am I beginning to see what it really means to be a Jew in a Christian society, but I don't mind at all…we have to struggle. Because it is more difficult for us to reach our goal we must develop outstanding qualities. Had I been born a Christian, every profession would be open to me."
She had been tempted to convert to Christianity in order to take the office she had been rightfully elected to. Instead, she decided to sever her connection with the literary society. She was a person of conviction.
Hannah soon joined Maccabea, the most established Zionist student organization in Hungary. In late October 1938, she recorded in her diary: "I've become a Zionist. This word stands for a tremendous number of things. To me it means, in short, that I now consciously and strongly feel I am a Jew, and am proud of it. My primary aim is to go to Palestine, to work for it."
In March 1939, Hannah graduated at the top of her class and could have easily entered the university. Instead, she made the life-changing decision to apply for a place at the Girls' Agricultural School at Nahalal in Palestine. Though she was raised in a secular home, she desired to join Jewish pioneers in Palestine.
At the age of 17, she determined to learn Hebrew, writing: “It is the true language, and the most beautiful; in it is the spirit of our people.”
Her study of Judaism and Zionism, coupled with the increasing antisemitism she witnessed and read about, increased her dedication and determination. Imbued with the Zionist ideal, she resolved to leave for Palestine upon her high school graduation.
Today is my birthday, and I am eighteen. One idea occupies me continually—Eretz Israel. There is but one place on earth in which we are not refugees, not emigrants, but where we are returning home—Eretz Israel (written by Hannah July 17, 1939).
Within a year of writing those lines, Hannah was in Eretz Israel, at the Nahalal Agricultural School. Just a young woman, she was fervent in her faith and determination to build a homeland. Though she was deeply attached to her mother, she left her behind in Budapest. Her brother, Giora, had left the previous year to study in France.
Hannah left Hungary for Palestine shortly after the outbreak of war in Europe, just prior to formal legislation that restricted economic and cultural opportunities for Hungary's Jewish population. In her first letter to her mother after reaching Nahalal, she spoke passionately of her ambitions and what she viewed as her mission—the building of a new Israel.
Hannah joined Kibbutz Sedot Yam in 1941, where she learned farming. While there, she had the opportunity to write, both poetry and a semi-autobiographical play about the sacrifices made by a young artist after joining a collective. Her diary entries from this time period chronicle wartime Palestine, detailing the influx of refugees under the British Mandate and reporting the hardships of kibbutz members. Also expressed in her writings was the awareness of the mounting persecution in Europe and concern for Jews unable to enter Palestine, immigration being curtailed during the war.
By 1942, Hannah was eager to enlist in the the commando wing of the Haganah, known as the Palmach. She also spoke of returning to Hungary in order to assist in the organization of youth emigration and to liberate her mother from her loneliness and the hardships that had come with the war. She enlisted with the resistance, joining the Women’s auxiliary Air Force along with several other young Jewish women, while their male comrades joined the Pioneer Corps.
In 1943, the British army began allowing a limited number of Palestinian Jewish volunteers to cross behind enemy lines in occupied Europe. Hannah enlisted and began her training in Egypt as a paratrooper for the British Special Operations Executive.
Just before she left Israel for her mission she was able to visit her brother who had just arrived from the Diaspora.
In 1943, Hannah Szenes volunteered to parachute into Nazi-occupied Europe to aid Jews under Nazi oppression. A total of 250 men and women volunteered to parachute. While 110 of them underwent training, only thirty-two were actually dropped, and five infiltrated into target countries. Of those who parachuted, twelve were captured and seven were executed by Germany.
To her comrades she asserted: "We are the only ones who can possibly help, we don't have the right to think of our own safety; we don't have the right to hesitate … It's better to die and free our conscience than to return with the knowledge that we didn't even try."
On March 11, 1944, Hannah flew to Italy; two days later she parachuted into to the former Yugoslavia, together with fellow parachutists from Palestine. There, Hannah spent three months with Tito's partisans, hoping that with their help she would be able to cross into Hungary.
In the beginning of June 1944, Hannah was one of the five people who were able to enter the target country. Aided by a partisan group, they successfully crossed the Hungarian border. The following day they were denounced by an informer and taken to a Gestapo prison in Budapest.
After crossing the border, Szenes was arrested by Hungarian gendarmes, who found the British military transmitter she was carrying, which was to be used to communicate with the SOE and with other partisans. She was taken to a prison in Budapest, tied to a chair, stripped, then whipped and clubbed for several hours. The guards wanted to know the code for her transmitter in order to discover who the other parachutists were. She did not tell them, even when they brought her mother into the cell and threatened to torture her as well (Hecht, NY Messner, 1961).
While in prison, Szenes used a mirror to flash signals out of the window to the Jewish prisoners in other cells, and communicated with them using large cut-out letters in Hebrew that she placed in her window one at a time, and by drawing the Magen David (Star of David) in the dust. She sang in an effort to keep their spirits up.
A comrade wrote about her: "Her behavior before members of the Gestapo and SS was quite remarkable. She constantly stood up to them, warning them plainly of the bitter fate they would suffer after their defeat. Curiously, these wild animals, in whom every spark of humanity had been extinguished, felt awed in the presence of this refined, fearless young girl."
Nonetheless, Hannah was brutally tortured by both the Gestapo and the Hungarian officers. They continued to demand her radio code, which she refused to divulge. They threatened to torture and kill her mother, whom they'd also imprisoned, but Hannah refused to give in. In the end her mother was released rather than tortured.
Hannah Szenes was tried for treason on October 28, 1944. There was an eight-day postponement to give the judges more time to find a verdict, followed by another postponement, this one due to the appointment of a new Judge Advocate.
She was executed by a firing squad before the judges had returned a verdict. She kept diary entries until her last day, November 7, 1944. One of them read: "In the month of July, I shall be twenty-three / I played a number in a game / The dice have rolled. I have lost."
Eyewitnesses from among her prison mates testified to her bravery. Throughout her ordeal she remained steadfast in her courage, and when she was placed in front of the firing squad, she refused the blindfold, instead staring squarely at her executors, undaunted by her doomed fate.
Hannah's last note to her mother, written in her prison cell just prior to her execution said: "Dearest Mother, I don't know what to say—only this: A million thanks, and forgive me, if you can. You know well why words aren't necessary."
Her final words to her comrades were: "Continue the struggle till the end, until the day of liberty comes, the day of victory for our people."
The remains of Hannah Szenes, along with those of six other fellow paratroopers who also died, were brought to Israel in 1950. They are buried together in the Israeli National Military Cemetery on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem.
Hannah Senesh’s diary and poems were published in Hebrew in 1945. They have been translated and published in Hungarian as well as other languages. Nearly every Israeli can recite from memory Senesh's poem "Blessed is the Match:"
Hannah's diary, which chronicled her life since her early childhood, was published in Hebrew in 1946. She is considered a national heroine in Israel, while she serves as a model and an inspiration to young writers.
Throughout Israel several monuments have been erected, as well as her name given to streets, a forest, a settlement, and even a species of flower. Her former home in Kibbutz Sdot Yam is home to a museum established by the Hannah Senesh Legacy Foundation.
A Hungarian military court determined that Hannah Szenes was innocent of treason, the charge for which she was executed. In November of 1993, her family in Israel received a copy of the exoneration accorded her by Hungary.
Israel's then Prime Minister, the late Yitzhak Rabin, attended the Tel Aviv ceremony in which the family received the official document. Rabin noted: "There is little use for the new verdict. Nor does it offer much comfort to her family. But historic justice is also a value and the new verdict…represents a measure of reason triumphing over evil."
Szenes was a poet and playwright, writing both in Hungarian and Hebrew. The following are a selection of her better known poems or songs. The best known of these is Halikha LeKesariya ("A Walk to Caesarea"), commonly known as Eli, Eli ("My God, My God"). Many singers have sung it; it was used to close some versions of the film Schindler's List:
The following lines are the last song she wrote after she was parachuted into a partisan camp in Yugoslavia:
The following lines were found in Hanna's death cell after her execution:
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