by L. H. Cowen
In every generation, Judaism never lacked true martyrs. Most of our martyrs are those unknown people who silently gave their lives to enable the continuance of the Jewish nation. Both men and women, old and young have entwined their lives with the eternal fate of G-d's chosen people.
Hannah Senesh was one of the few of whom we are privileged to have information of her life. Born into an affluent Hungarian family in 1921 she was martyred by the Nazis in 1944 at the young and tender age of 23 leaving behind a legacy of heroism for us the living.
The daughter of a famous and esteemed Hungarian playwright who died when Hannah was only 6 years of age, she grew up in his shadow and became one of Israel's most esteemed poets. Her works have been read throughout Israel and have inspired many to continue in the Zionist tradition of giving their lives for the nationalist Jewish cause.
Their mother raised her and her brother, George, who was one year older than Hannah, in relative affluence and comfort in Hungary. Little was heard about religion and Judaism in their house. Although their family never denied their Jewishness, still they felt no importance to the outer aspects of the religion. Her father believed in Humanism and encouraged it in action and speech.
At an early age, Hannah stood out as an exemplary student. She was enrolled in a prestigious Protestant girls' school and was quickly seen by her teachers and fellow students as being an exceptional student. In addition she had a charming personality and speaking abilities that made her friends among the staff and student body.
She was elected to the school's Literary society as her grade representative. Unfortunately, the school rules barred a Jew from holding an office in the society. This was a very severe blow to Hannah
At the age of seventeen, she made a change in her life's direction and became a Zionist. It was at this time that she felt that there was no room in the Hungarian world for Jews. She began to prepare for her life's mission of immigrating to Israel.
At the same time, Nazism was on the upturn and Euorpe was witnessing the Nazi aggression. In 1937, the question of anschluss, the political unification of Germany and Austria was debated in Europe. Germany demanded the resignation of the Austrian Chancellor, Dr. Kurt von Schuschnigg. Suddenly Germany invaded Austria compelling them to submit and Schuschnigg left Austria.
These events caused an indescribable tension in Hungary. It was the main topic of discussion. Shortly afterwards in 1938, the Hungarian parliament began a debate on the "Jewish Law". This became the Jewish Bill which reduced the ratio of Jewish representation in the various fields to a specific percentage. It also stated that the "expansion of the Jews is detrimental to the nation and dangerous.
With this came the 'Arrow-Crossers', the young Hungarian Nazis who began to proliferate in the schools and streets. Although at this point they were not threatened, yet it was a sign of the Nazi influence in the daily life in Hungary.
Again in 1938, the Nazi threat began to disturb life in Europe as Hilter made his demand on Czechoslovakian Sudetenland. Chamberlain entered in negotiations with him. But with the succession of the Sudeten to Germany, Hungary began its mobilization.
As all of these tragic events were taking place, Hannah increased her identification with the Zionist movement as the only possible solution to Jewry's problems. She took deep pride in being a Jew and prepared for her life in Palestine, as Israel was called before independence. She defined Zionist in the words of Nachum Sokolov, the Zionist leader of that period, as: "..the movement of the Jewish people for its revival."
She began to realize as was popular in that period, that the only hope of lessening or ending anti-Semitism is to realize the ideals of Zionism. Only when the Jew lives in his own Jewish State, as all other nations, with the ingathering of the exiles, could he exist without the cancerous anti-Semitism that he knew too well in Europe.
As the second Jewish Law was announced in 1939, the numbers of Jews in all walks of Hungarian life were to be reduced even further. No Jew was allowed to be a member of the parliament, a judge, a lawyer, teacher etc. On February 1939, a bomb was thrown into the largest synagogue in Budapest during the Friday evening service resulting in deaths and many injuries.
In September of 1939, Hannah began her journey to Palestine. She had been accepted to study in the Nahalal Agricultural School and began to apply herself to the actual chore of living, learning, and building up the land of Israel. The work was simple boring manual labor such as laundry, washing and cleaning. Although she doubted that this would be the type of living that she could continue with after her completion of her studies, she threw herself into her studies and soon became an exemplar student.
Hebrew soon became an important part of her life and she began to compose her poems in Hebrew. She relates that she only wished that she could find her chosen spouse, but although the boys were in amour of her, she only would maintain a platonic relationship with them, preferring to wait until the "right" person would come her way.
She was inbued with Zionist ideology, studying works of many of the various Zionist and Jewish thinkers. In 1940 she wrote her first poem in Hebrew:
In the fires of war, in the flame, in the flare,
In the eye-blinding, searing glare
My little lantern I carry high
To search, to search for true Man.
In the glare, the light of my lantern burns dim,
In the fire-glow my eye cannot see;
How to look, to see, to discover, to know
When he stands there facing me?
Set a sign, O Lord, set a sign on his brow
That in heat, fire and burning I may
Know the pure, the eternal spark
Of what I seek: true Man.
In one of her entries in her diary she compared the ingathering of the exiles to an orchard. After the fruit trees have yielded their crops and the winter has set in, the gardener comes and sees their dried branches. He thinks of the spring and trims and prunes the trees, thereby strengthening them.
In the middle of the orchard stands an ancient tree. Its trunk is thick and its roots and branches are spread all over the orchard. Its branches have grown dry, the moisture in the ground can not reach the edges. The gardener notes that the roots are still vigorous and its trunk healthy. It is a noble tree, still able to yield fruit. This tree must be carefully pruned and trimmed more than the other trees.
The gardener unhesitatingly cuts off the thick branches and the pruning tool leaves fresh golden wounds.
Will the tree survive? Look! In the place of the amputated branches new ones are budding. A small twig appears near the roots, with fresh, full buds containing the hope of renewed life. Will the gardener trim this off? Will the Tree of Israel ever blossom again?
In 1941 she finished her studies at Nahalal. In the ensuing time, she visited various settlements to see where she would settle. Finally she decided upon Sdot-Yam. She was given a tent and survived a difficult and freezing winter there. She lists as one of her accomplishments as washing 150 pairs of socks with out going mad.
Eventually she was accepted as a member and was elected as the Supply Officer of the kibbutz. She was 21 years old and switched to another settlement, Caesarea.
At this time the war was raging in Europe and her heart was with her mother in Hungary and her brother who was in occupied France. A representative of the Palmach, the armed forces of the Jewish Agency contacted her concerning a mission in Hungary. The purpose of this was to organize and prepare the Jews for escape from the inferno of Europe. Her answer was that she was ready.
After a delay of several months she was accepted but her assignment required special training and enlistment in the British army. For this she was transferred to Egypt. Upon completion of her training she returned to Haifa where she met her brother, George, who finally was able to come to Israel. Their reunion lasted for only one day.
The next day Hannah and her comrades were taken and parachuted into Yugoslavia. Hannah was the only woman in a group of infiltrators. According to the reports that were given by her comrades, she was a compelling and reassuring force in the darkness during their hiding.
Hiding in the forests with the partisans, she earned their respect and admiration. She was always enthusiastic and warm, radiation energy in the face of death. During this time she wrote one of her famous poems, Blessed is the Match:
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 honour's sake.
Blessed is the match consumed in kindling fame.
Hannah was caught with three other infiltrators due to one of the men who panicked and gave an alert to the Germans who promptly captured them. The Germans discovered a radio set and wanted to know the code that was used to send messages. Only Hannah knew and she refused to divulge this information. For this, she was tortured and beaten in the typical manner of the Nazis.
When she refused to cooperate her mother was arrested and imprisoned. Hannah and her mother were in the same prison in Hungary and managed to see each other. Hannah managed to aid the other women in the captivity of the Nazis. She was an inspiration to them and eased their difficulty with dealing with the every day horrors of Nazi capture. One of her requests was to be given a Hebrew Bible to read in prison.
As the war drew to a close and the Nazis prepared to leave Hungary, Hannah was taken out and shot. Her body was buried in Hungary, but brought to Israel after the war where she was given the hero's burial that was deserving for one who gave her life to benefit the Jewish nation.
In Israel, her story was mandatory reading as were her poems. Her last poem was written in prison:
One, two, three
Eight feet long,
Two strides across, the rest is dark
Life hangs over me like a question mark.
One, two, three
Maybe another week,
Or next month may still find me here,
But death, I feel, is very near.
I could have been twenty-three next July;
I gambled on what mattered most,
The dice were cast. I lost.
from the May 2002 Edition of the Jewish Magazine