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The Legacy of Hannah Senesh

July 15, 2016


by Isabel Pearlman

Published in Jewish Currents in 1974; republished in Autumn 2015

Senesh 2HANNAH SENESH, born July 17, 1921, was Hungarian, Jewish, gifted, and attractive, with an exceptionally appealing personality. She lived in a large house in Budapest “that’s in a wonderful position, and has a beautiful big garden.” So she wrote her in her diary, which has been published by Schocken, with an introduction by Abba Eban.

Senesh went to operas, plays, movies, and symphony concerts, “and sometimes when Mama plays Chopin I feel like crying. It is inexplicably beautiful and enjoyable. . . . I really do enjoy music.” She was a good tennis player and swimmer, and loved to sing and go to dances. In her early teens she tutored children in math; “an interesting profession that tempts me,” she wrote, “is one that has to do with children.” She held office in many clubs and societies — but in one she was instantly deposed bcause the school policy, she wrote, was that “a Jewish student could not hold office.”

Between the ages of 15 and 18, she received numerous proposals of marriage. She wrote plays and won poetry prizes. “Good Lord! I was interviewed!” she wrote about an article in the Tolnamegyei News about the “‘poetess who is now holidaying in our town.’ . . . In the beginning of the article he wrote about Daddy, then about me.” “Daddy” was Bela Senesh, a prominent, popular playwright who died when Hannah was only 6.

Her relationships with Catherine, her mother, and George, her brother, and with the ever-pervading memory of her father were exquisitely easy and harmonious, judging from the diary: filled with love, mutual respect, and trust. The ethical code of the household was Jewish humanism: “[A]lthough we considered ourselves good steadfast Jews,” wrote Catherine Senesh, “we did not feel it importantto observe the outer formalities of religion. My husband’s creed, his guiding principle was humanism, and he worshipped at its altar by deed, the written word, and in his speech.”

“He left us a great legacy,” wrote Hannah in her first diary entry on September 7, 1934 at the age of 13. These feelings of unconditional devotion and authentic respect for each other remained in their family life always.

THIS TRUE, idyllic fairytale should end “and she lived happily ever after.” Instead, she died gloriously and will live ever after in the hearts of her people, among the Jewish heroes who fought and sacrificed themselves to save the Jewish people from Hitler’s gas ovens.

As a young girl, she was a fervent pacifist who wrote: “To die . . . so young to die . . ./ No, no, not I/ I love the warm sunny skies,/Light, songs, shining eyes,/I want no war, no battle cry —/No, no . . . Not I” (translation from the Hebrew by Dorothy H. Rachmis).

At the same time, she gave her “wholehearted enthusiasm” to the Jewish people, writing: “Zionism and Socialism were instinctive with me . . . my consciousness merely reinforced by instinctive belief . . .” “Even if I had not happened to be born a Jew,” she thought, “I would still be on the side of the Jews because one must help, by all possible means, a people who were being treated so unjustly now and who had been abused so miserably throughout history.” Now referred to the fact that Hungary was the first European state to formally recognize Hitler’s Nazi government. In 1938, the Hungarian parliament passed the anti-Semitic “Jewish Law” and began to enforce it mercilessly.

Senesh believed that “one needs to feel that one’s life has meaning . . .” In order to live the meaning of her life, in 1939, at 18, she endured parting from her adored mother and migrated from the sophisticated milieu of Hungary to the primitive soil of Palestine. There she was no less and no more extraordinary than her pioneering comrades. The very ideology of the halutz movement was created by, and in turn created, extraordinary human beings.

What did make Senesh unique was her astonishing capacity for supercharged internal attentiveness to the credo of her life: “We go out to our brothers in exile,” she wrote, “To the suffering of winter, to frost in the night./Our hearts will bring tidings of springtime,/Our lips sing the song of light” (translated from the Hebrew by Dorothy Bar-Adon). This powerful focus on her ideals also stimulated her imagination:

January 8, 1943: “I was suddenly struck by the idea of going to Hungary. I feel I must be there during these days” — days when the systematic destruction of Hungarian Jewry was being planned by Hitler’s emissary, Adolf Eichmann, and the Hungarian Nazi Arrow Cross Party. Senesh determined “to get to work on it and carry it through.”

Unknown to her, the Palmach, a unit of the people’s army in Palestine, the Haganah, had already decided to send a volunteer rescue mission by parachute to try to organize resistance and save the lives of the remaining Romanian, Czechoslovakian, and Hungarian Jews. Having already conceived this in the seclusion of her interior being, she volunteered for the assignment and was accepted, the only young woman who passed the paratrooper training.

May 27, 1943: “There is absolutely no question that I must go. The hardships and hazards are quite clear to me. I see everything that has happened to me so far as preparation and training for the mission ahead.”

December 25, 1943, to her brother: “There are events . . . and . . . times when one is commanded to do something, even at the price of one’s life.”

British Intelligence approved the plan as a secondary mission; as officers of the British Army, these Palestinian Jews had the primary mission of freeing Allied aviators, the greater part of whom were Americans, who had been shot down in the Balkans.

British officers and workers were amazed to see a woman parachutist. “A Scottish sergeant,” wrote her fellow parachutist, Reuven Dafne, “said simply and with considerable emotion, ‘I can’t believe it. . . . I’ve fitted hundreds of parachutists, but never a woman among them.” Similarly, a “group of American paratroopers were shocked to see her, walked over to her and wordlessly shook her hand.”

The Schocken book includes exceptionally illuminating articles by her mother and two of her parachutist-comrades describing Hannah’s capture near the Hungarian border, and her reunion with her jailed mother in a Budapest prison, arranged by the Nazis to force Hannah’s cooperation with the Gestapo regarding the paratroopers’ mission. The tactic failed; Senesh gave no information. She was executed by firing squad on November 7, 1944.

She wrote in her diary up until the last moment: “I could have been 23 next July/ I gambled on what mattered most,/The dice were cast. I lost” (translated from the Hungarian by Peter Hay). And to her mother: “Dearest Mother: I don’t know what to say —only this: a million thanks, and forgive me, if you can. You know so well why words aren’t necessary. With love forever, Your daughter.”

And to her comrades: “Continue on the way, don’t be deterrred. Continue the struggle till the end, until the day of liberty comes, the day of victory for our people.”

Isabel Pearlman was a writer, playwright, and actress who wrote frequently for Jewish Currents in the 1960s and ’70s.