Hannah Senesh (Hanah Senesh)

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HANNAH SENESH (Hanah Senesh)

Play by Aharon Megged, 1958

The play Hannah Senesh (produced in Tel-Aviv in 1952; published in Hebrew in 1958 as Hanah Senesh ) by Aharon Megged describes the events of a woman who became a hero in Israel. Hannah Senesh escaped from Hungary to Palestine and then returned as part of the Jewish brigade formed by the British to help organize the resistance to the Nazis and work on behalf of what remained of the Jewish community. In the play she is captured and offered a lesser sentence in return for her cooperation, but she nobly refuses to compromise, despite torture and imprisonment, and implicitly criticizes those of her Hungarian peers who went to their deaths without resistance or principle. This represents a common view held by Israelis in the 1950s about Jews in the Holocaust: that they did not do anything to avert their murder, while Israelis had vigorously resisted their enemies. Even though Senesh is under the control of the Nazis, she remains able to resist to a certain extent and loses no opportunity to do so. She takes on a mythic role in the play, being said to be stronger than her captors; on one occasion while torturing her, they collapse before she does. She never exhibits any doubt about what she has done and is a constant source of strength to all around her.

In a later work (Shulkhan ha-Ketivah, 1989; "The Writing Desk") Megged reflects the fact that Israelis came to better appreciate the impossible situation in which most European Jews found themselves during the Holocaust. He outlines two kinds of heroism, the kind exhibited by Senesh, in which one demands one's rights and does not bow one's head in submission (ve-lo lakhof et roshekha ), and another kind of heroism, hitherto unappreciated. The latter is where one has the courage and spiritual strength to survive a long, drawn-out persecution that continues for months and even years, where each moment is a struggle. Senesh is able to resist the Hungarian collaborators for a long time. Even when they bring in her mother and threaten to harm her if Hannah does not give them information, there is no indication of any wavering on her part, there is no real mental turmoil or hesitation in her mind about her conduct.

Although Senesh is originally from Hungary and has spent only a few years in Palestine before returning for her assignment, Megged represents her as very much the new Israeli, determined not to be seen as impotent in front of her enemies even when they overwhelm her. The Holocaust is the backdrop to her resistance, and by contrast with the other Jews in Europe who are just victims, she is determined to take charge of her life and so indicate the appropriate role for Jews if they are to survive. She transcends the Holocaust and is a powerful literary treatment of one way of overcoming.

—Oliver Leaman