Senesh, Hannah

views updated

SENESH, Hannah

Nationality: Israeli (originally Hungarian: immigrated to Israel, 1939). Born: Budapest, 17 July 1921. Education: Nahalal Agricultural School, Palestine (now Israel). Career: Farm worker, Sdot-Yam kibbutz, Caesarea, Palestine (now Horbat Qesari, Israel), beginning in 1939. Anti-Nazi activist and member of Jewish resistance forces; member, British parachute team, c. 1944. Died: Executed by Nazi firing squad, 7 November 1944.



Hanah Senesh: Yomanim, Shirim, Eduyot (diary and poems). 1966; as Hannah Senesh: Her Life and Diary, 1971.


Media Adaptations:

A Time to Blossom (musical composition), adaptation of poems by Hannah Senesh, 1995; String Quartet No. 5, with Soprano (musical composition), adaptation of translated poems by Hannah Senesh.

Critical Studies:

Palestine Parachutist: The Story of Hannah Senesh by Chava Scheltzer, 1946; Hannah Senesh, Halutza and Fighter for Freedom, 1950; The Summer That Bled: The Biography of Hannah Senesh by Anthony Masters, 1972; Three Battles, Three Heroines by Faith Rogow, 1978; Hannah Senesh: Tribute to a Woman of Valor by Lydia C. Triantopoulos, 1982; In Kindling Flame: The Story of Hannah Senesh, 1921-1944 by Linda Atkinson, 1985; Ordinary Heroes: Chana Szenes and the Dream of Zion by Peter Hay, 1986; The Testing of Hanna Senesh by Ruth Whitman and Livia Rothkirchen, 1986.

* * *

Hannah Senesh, who has become one of Israel's national heroines, was born in Budapest on 17 July 1921. Her father, Béla Senesh, was a well-known Hungarian playwright. He died in 1927 at the age of 33, leaving behind the six-year-old Hannah, her seven-year-old brother, George, and their mother, Catherine. Because her father's creed was humanism, Hannah did not have a religious upbringing. She attended a Protestant school known for its high academic standards and was an excellent student. She was active in the school's literary circles and early on became known for her poetry. In fact, she began keeping a diary when she was 13.

In 1937, at the age of 16, Hannah became painfully aware of the difficulties of being Jewish in a Protestant school. After having been an active member of the school's literary society, she was informed that she was not allowed to hold office in the society because she was a Jew. When in November 1938 Hungary announced its allegiance to Germany in the event of war, it became clear to Hannah that a Jewish homeland was the only haven Jews could hope for. By the time she was 17, then, she had immersed herself in Zionism; she started learning Hebrew and making plans to immigrate to Palestine. Convinced that the new Jewish homeland needed farmers more than it needed poets, she abandoned her dream of becoming a college-educated writer and applied for admission to the Agricultural School at Nahalal in Israel.

In the spring of 1939 Hannah went to visit her brother in France, where he was attending school. The two of them decided that Hannah would immigrate to Israel within the next few months and that George would follow after he had finished his studies in France. In September 1939, as the High Holy Days were approaching, Hannah set out to make her home in Eretz Israel. She worked the land while attending the Nahalal Agricultural School. Two years after her arrival in Israel she joined the Sedot Yam kibbutz in Caesarea, where she wrote some of her best known poetry. By the end of 1942, however, Hannah was growing more and more concerned over the plight of the Jews of Europe and her mother's situation in Budapest. In early 1943 she volunteered to join an elite corps of Jewish paratroopers that the British and the Haganah had formed for the purpose of rescuing Allied prisoners of war and organizing Jewish resistance. In January 1944 she and 31 other fighters were sent to train under the British in Cairo.

Senesh was part of a unit that parachuted behind enemy lines in Yugoslavia in March 1944. There, while working with Tito's partisans, she wrote her best known poem, "Ashrei ha-Gafrur" ("Blessed Is the Match"). The deportation of the country's Jewry was at its peak when she crossed into Hungary on 7 June 1944 and was arrested by Hungarian police. She underwent months of severe torture but revealed nothing to her captors. On 7 November 1944 she was executed by a firing squad in the courtyard of a Budapest prison. Because her brother managed to get to Palestine in January 1944, he survived the war, as did their mother.

In 1950 Senesh's remains were taken to Israel to be buried on Mount Herzl with Israel's other military and political leaders. She became a national symbol of devotion and self-sacrifice, and her diary was first published in Hebrew in 1966. Titled Hanah Senesh: Yomanim, Shirim, Eduyot , it came out in English in 1971 under the title Hannah Senesh: Her Life and Diary.

—David Patterson

See the essay on Hannah Senesh: Her Life and Diary.