“Who will go for us?” (Isaiah 6:8)
Streets and public squares are named after her throughout Israel.
She is the author of the famous but somber tune, “My God, my God”; in Hebrew, “Eli, Eli” known both by Israelis and Jewish music lovers across the globe. It is often played at Holocaust memorial events:
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.
What is less known in the non-Jewish world is the story behind the song.
A lone 23-year-old woman who refused to give away Allied intelligence to the Nazis, even under torture to herself and her mother, as well as eminent execution is certainly a winning candidate for remembrance on International Women’s Day, which is being held tomorrow, March 8, around the world.
International Women’s Day began in 1909, and this year’s theme for 2018 is “Time is Now: Rural and urban activists transforming women’s lives.”
Women living in rural communities make up over a quarter of the world’s population and 43% of its agricultural workforce.
Hannah Szenes was one of them.
Although privileged, well-educated, and a gifted writer, she chose to leave her friends and family in her birthplace of Hungary to become a hard-working, builder of the Jewish homeland.
At 18, she enrolled in an agricultural school in Israel and later a kibbutz, where she worked from 6 am to 6 pm.
Yet, her heart’s desire was to bring fellow Jews home at a time (in the 1940s) when the British were severely restricting Jewish emigration to pre-state Israel, which was ruled by the British at the time and called British Mandate Palestine.
Let’s discover the remarkable story of this woman who helped to reignite a sense of Jewish identity in a people who had been assimilated into the nations of the world.
The Making of a Zionist
Hannah Szenes (pronounced Senesh) was born on July 17, 1921 into a middle-class, assimilated Jewish family in Budapest, Hungary. Her father, Bela Szenes, was a well-known journalist and playwright.
He died unexpectedly when Hannah was just six years old, leaving her mother Katherine to raise her and her brother Giora.
Hannah dictated her thoughts about her father’s death while her grandmother wrote them down—that was her first poem.
Following in her father’s writing footsteps, she began writing poems about other children and how happy they were.
Her mother paid three times the price of Protestant children, due to their Jewishness, to send Hannah to a good school. Catholic students paid double. Hannah managed to win a scholarship, though, which meant her mother only had to pay double, not triple the fees.
At age thirteen, Hannah began keeping a diary. Later, she was elected president of her school’s literacy society, but lost the position when anti-Semitism became so strong that Jews were not allowed in any kind of leadership.
“You have to be someone exceptional to fight anti-Semitism …,” Hannah confided to her diary.
“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.” (Hannah Senesh: Her Life and Diary, 26)
Hannah’s brother Giora left for university in France. He later made it to Israel (British Mandate Palestine) and was briefly reunited with his sister.
Through all of this mounting hatred in her teen years, Hannah realized that the Jewish homeland urgently needed support.
At the end of October 1938 at age 17, she wrote 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 [Israel], to work for it.” (Diary, 67)
Graduating at the top of her class in March 1939, she could easily have secured a place at a university; her teachers even tried to dissuade her from moving to Palestine. Determinedly though, at the age of 18, she made Aliyah (immigration) to attend the Girls’ Agricultural School at Nahalal.
She wrote to her mother, “There are already far too many intellectuals in Palestine. What they need are workers to help build the country.” (Diary, xxiv)
The Making of a Heroine
Hannah needed an outlet for her zeal, so in 1942 she joined the Haganah (Jewish defence force) of pre-state Israel taking classes in wireless communications.
While there, she heard about an opportunity that she felt she could not refuse.
Desperately wanting to help the Jews in Europe, and having unsuccessfully tried to obtain emigration papers for her mother to leave Hungary, Hannah joined the British Army Women’s Auxiliary Air Force as an Aircraftwoman 2nd Class and volunteered for a secret mission behind enemy lines.
On December 26, 1943, Hannah wrote, “Darling Mother, I’m starting something new. Perhaps it’s madness; perhaps it is dangerous. There are times when one is commanded to do something, even at the price of one’s life.” (Diary, 164)
Though parachuting into Europe during WWII would be extremely dangerous, a brave group of just over thirty Jews went ahead with their paratroop training in Egypt. Hannah was one of only three women Special Operations Executive paratroopers in the British Army at the time.
In the Spring of 1944 at age 22, Hannah parachuted along with her small group into Yugoslavia. They stayed there for three months before crossing the border into Hungary.
Although Hannah did not have a religious Jewish upbringing, she diligently studied Hebrew, writing in her diary, “I want to read the Bible in Hebrew. I know it will be very difficult but it is the true language and the most beautiful; in it is the spirit of our people.”
By age 18, she was able to write Hebrew without a dictionary and wrote that “this makes me happy.” (Diary, 78)
She had likely read the words of the Lord to the Prophet Isaiah during her small group Bible study at the kibbutz, where she read a chapter of Isaiah at each meeting. (Diary, 151)
“Whom shall I send?” Isaiah heard the Lord ask (Isaiah 6:8). Hannah answered the call.
The goal of the mission was to make contact with Jews in Hungary and to find means of rescuing them, but the timing was quite unfortunate.
The parachutists landed in Yugoslavia on March 14, 1944, and German troops entered Hungary just five days later.
Even more tragically, an informer gave Hannah away and she was arrested almost as soon as she entered Hungary.
She withstood severe beatings and threats at the hands of the Gestapo, never giving away the mission’s transmitter codes.
In a further bid to extract information, Hannah’s mother was also imprisoned, which must have been horrifying, but perhaps also a source of comfort. They had not seen each other since 1939 when Hannah first left for Israel.
Despite the threats of the interrogators to torture and kill her mother in front of her, to which Hannah still never gave in, Katherine was released, while Hannah was put on trial for treason.
When Katherine visited her daughter in prison, the only thing Hannah asked for was a Hebrew Bible.
Katherine looked all over Budapest for one, but with no success, as Jewish businesses had closed months earlier and those who had a Bible didn’t want to part with it, she recalled. (Diary, 285)
The Germans were losing the war when the Soviets entered Hungary in September, 1944. The next month, still in jail, Hannah was tried for treason by a closed military tribunal.
Interestingly, the judges did not sentence her at this point, and they themselves fled the country. It seemed that she might at last go free.
There was one man who wanted Hannah dead, however. And he made sure that she was executed. On November 7, 1944, she was tied to a stake, refused a blindfold, and looked up to the sky as three rifles fired. (Diary, 250)
A week later, her mother Katherine was put on a death march to Austria. Miraculously, she survived, and eventually made it to Israel.
This sad little poem was later found in her daughter’s cell:
“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.”
Hannah was one of seven parachutists who died, out of thirty-three brave souls who attempted the operation. Little is known about the lives of the other six. We do know of Hannah, as she kept writing till the day she died.
In 1950, Hannah’s remains, along with those of her six comrades who died, were brought to Israel and re-interred at the military cemetery on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem.
On November 5, 1993, Hannah’s family in Israel received the Hungarian military court’s verdict, exonerating her of the treason charges for which she was executed.
A film has been made about Hannah’s life, Blessed is the Match, which is the name of one of her poems. In the movie, fellow Gestapo prisoner Susan Beer says that Hannah was “such a combination of courage and gentleness.”
“Blessed is the match consumed in kindling flame,” wrote Hannah, just prior to her crossing into Hungary.
She asked a comrade, in the event of her capture, to be sure to deliver the poem to the chaverim (friends) at Kibbutz Sdot-Yam. Even the little piece of paper has a drama attached to it, the film reveals.
The now famous poem continues:
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.
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.” (Diary, 241)
Hannah Szenes’s life is an amazing story of heroism in a Jewish woman who revered the Word of God and helped to reignite the true identity of the Jewish People.