Hannah Szenes - biography
Hannah Szenes (Hebrew: חנה סנש) (Hungarian: Szenes Anikó), often anglicized as Hannah Senesh (July 17, 1921 – November 7, 1944) was a Hungarian Jew, one of 37 Jews who lived in the British Mandate for Palestine (now Israel), who were trained by the British army to parachute into Yugoslavia during the Second World War in order to help save the Jews of Hungary, who were about to be deported to the German death camp at Auschwitz.
Szenes was arrested at the Hungarian border, imprisoned and tortured, but she refused to reveal details of her mission and was eventually tried, and executed by firing squad.She is regarded as a national heroine in Israel, where several streets, a headquarters of the zionist youth movement Israel Hatzeira and a kibbutz are named after her, and her poetry is widely known.
Szenes was born on July 17, 1921, to an assimilated Jewish family in Hungary. Her father, Béla Szenes, a journalist and playwright, died when she was six years old. She continued to live with her mother, Catherine, and her brother, György (George). She enrolled in a Protestant private school for girls which also accepted Catholic and Jewish pupils; however, she had to pay twice the regular tuition because she was Jewish. This, along with the realization that the situation of the Jews in Hungary was becoming precarious, prompted Szenes to embrace Judaism. She announced to her friends that she had become a Zionist and joined Maccabea, a Hungarian Zionist students organization.
Emigrating to Nahalal
Szenes graduated in 1939 and decided to emigrate to what was then the British Mandate of Palestine in order to study in the Girls' Agricultural School at Nahalal. In 1941, she joined Kibbutz Sdot Yam and then joined the Haganah, the paramilitary group that laid the foundation of the Israel Defense Forces. In 1943, she enlisted in the British army in the Woman's Auxiliary Air Force as an Aircraftwoman 2nd Class and began her training in Egypt as a paratrooper for the British Special Operations Executive (SOE).
Arrest and torture
In March 1944, she and two male colleagues, Yoel Palgi and Peretz Goldstein, were parachuted into Yugoslavia and joined a partisan group. After landing, they learned the Germans had already occupied Hungary, so the men decided to call off the mission as too dangerous. Szenes continued and headed for the Hungarian border. At the border, she was arrested by Hungarian gendarmes, who found the British military transmitter she was carrying, used to communicate with the SOE and other partisans. She was taken to a prison in Budapest, tied to a chair, stripped, then whipped and clubbed for three days. The guards wanted to know the code for her transmitter so they could find out who the other parachutists were. She did not tell them, however, even when they brought her mother into the cell and threatened to torture her too.
Whilst in jail, 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 in the dust. She tried to keep their spirits up by singing, and through all the things Szenes went through she still kept her spirit high and stayed true to her mission.
Trial and execution
She 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 because of 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 when she was killed by a German firing squad. 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," and another: "I loved the warm sunlight."
Her diary was published in Hebrew in 1946. Her remains were brought to Israel in 1950 and buried in the cemetery on Mount Herzl, Jerusalem. Her tombstone was brought to Israel in November 2007 and placed in Sdot Yam.
During the trial of Rudolf Kastner, Hannah's mother, Catherina Senesh, testified that during the time her daughter was imprisoned, Kastner's people had advised her not to obtain a lawyer for her daughter. Further, she recalled a conversation with Kastner after the war, telling him, "I don't say that you could have saved my daughter Hanna, but that you didn't try - it makes it harder for me that nothing was done."
After the Cold War, a Hungarian military court officially exonerated her. Her kin in Israel were informed on November 5, 1993.
Poetry, songs and plays
Szenes was a poet and playwright, writing both in Hungarian and Hebrew. The following are four 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, including Regina Spektor and Sophie Milman. It was used to close some versions of the film Schindler's List:
My God, My God, I pray that these things never end, The sand and the sea, The rustle of the waters, Lightning of the Heavens, The prayer of Man. אלי, אלי, שלא יגמר לעולם החול והים רישרוש של המים ברק השמים תפילת האדם The voice called, and I went. I went, because the voice called.
The following lines are the last song she wrote after she was parachuted into a partisan camp in Yugoslavia:
,אַשְׁרֵי הַגַּפְרוּר שֶׁנִּשְׂרַף וְהִצִּית לֶהָבוֹת
.אַשְׁרֵי הַלְּהָבָה שֶׁבָּעֲרָה בְּסִתְרֵי לְבָבוֹת
...אַשְׁרֵי הַלְבָבוֹת שֶׁיָדְעוּ לַחְדוֹל בְּכָבוֹד
.אַשְׁרֵי הַגַּפְרוּר שֶׁנִּשְׂרַף וְהִצִּית לֶהָבוֹת
Blessed is the match consumed in kindling flame.
Blessed is the flame that burns in the secret fastness of the heart.
Blessed is the heart with strength to stop its beating for honor's sake.
Blessed is the match consumed in kindling flame.
The following lines were found in Hanna's death cell after her execution:
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.