Senesh, Hannah (1921–1944)

views updated

Senesh, Hannah (1921–1944)

Israel's national hero who undertook a parachute mission to help rescue Jews in her native Hungary and was captured, tortured, and executed by the Nazis. Name variations: Anna ("Anikó") Szenes (1921–39); Chana Szenes (1939–44); or Hannah Senesh or Senesch. Born Anna Szenes in Budapest, Hungary, on July 17, 1921; executed in Budapest on November 7, 1944; buried in Israel's Cemetery of Heroes; daughter of Katalin, Katherine, or Kató (Salzberger) Szenes and Béla (r.n. Schlesinger) Szenes (a writer); never married; no children.

Became a Zionist (1938); moved to Eretz Israel (1939); attended Agricultural School in Nahalal (1939–41); joined Sedot Yam ([Sdot-Yam], Fields of the Sea) kibbutz (1941–44); parachuted into Yugoslavia (March 13, 1944); captured by Germans and Hungarians (June 1944); stood trial for treason (October 1944).

Hannah Senesh was born Anna Szenes, and called Anikó, in Budapest, Hungary, on July 17, 1921. Her father Béla Szenes, a well-known humorist and patron of the cultural world of café society, had written novels, poems, and a column under the name "The Coalman" for the Sunday magazine section of Pesti Hirlap, but was best known for his plays: eight of them had been enormous hits at the Comedy Theater of Budapest. In May 1927, six years after Hannah's birth, he died of heart failure in his sleep. He was 33. Her mother Katalin Szenes never re-married, but kept a comfortable home for Hannah and her brother Gyuri (George) who was a year older. At age seven, Hannah began writing and won a number of school prizes for her poems and translations. From age 13 on, she kept a fairly regular diary.

From the end of World War I, anti-Semitism had been on the rise in Hungary, and anti-Jewish legislation, including the numerus clausus which restricted the number of Jews attending Hungarian universities, was frequently put forth for parliamentary consideration. Because of the climate of the times and a desire to assimilate into Hungarian society, Béla had changed his name from the Jewish Schlesinger to the more Hungarian Szenes. The family did not, however, convert to Christianity; Jewish high holidays were still observed.

In May 1937, while attending Bármadas, a private Protestant school for girls, 16-year-old Hannah had her first serious bout with the growing anti-Semitism. Because of her high academic ranking (she was an outstanding student who would graduate summa cum laude) and her famous father, she had felt welcomed there, until she was elected secretary of the school's literary society by her class, the 7th form. Those in the 8th form met secretly in protest and resurrected an old rule: officers of school societies must be Protestant. Unaware, Hannah arrived for her first meeting and was told there would be a new election. She was mortified. "It is so hard to find a way out of this without humiliation or false pride, that won't be seen as a retreat, or be considered pushy," she wrote in her diary. "One has to be so careful with every move, because each fault becomes stereotyped."

From then on, Senesh felt apart from others. Not only did she withdraw from the literary society, but at 17 she became a Zionist, joining the movement that was advocating a Jewish state in Palestine. Hungary was no longer a welcoming home; Eretz Israel (the land of Israel) beckoned. Determined to be a prime candidate for emigration, Senesh studied Hebrew and agriculture and applied to agricultural school in Nahalal, near Haifa. It was 1939, the eve of World War II, and European borders were closing rapidly. That September, as Hitler's minions marched into Poland, the 18-year-old Senesh left Budapest for Jewish Palestine, sad to leave behind her closest friend and ally, her mother Katalin. Hannah would later learn that Gyuri, who was attending textile school in Lyons, France, had also become a Zionist and planned to follow her as soon as he completed his studies.

Arriving in Haifa, Senesh took the bus to Nahalal, a moshav (cooperative) settlement of less than a 1,000 people, where she entered the Agricultural School for Girls. Founded in 1926 and supported by the Women's International Zionist Organization (WIZO) and the Canadian Hadassah, the agricultural school was run by Chana Meisel , a pioneer in training women in agriculture. About 150 girls studied there in a two-year program. Senesh quickly convinced her roommates—one from Bulgaria, one from Poland—to speak only in Hebrew, the better to learn the language of their new country. Working for months in the orchards, dairy, and chicken coop, Senesh found she still needed an outlet for her restless mind and began to tutor other students in chemistry. She would later write a play, The Violin, set in a girls' agricultural school.

Senesh worked hard, studied hard, and seemed to make a deep impression on all who came in contact with her. The young girl with light brown hair and blue eyes was remarkably self-assured. Her major weakness was an ineptitude with dishcloth and broom. Though she believed in physical labor, Senesh found herself locked in inward debate. Maybe her mother was right; maybe she should have enrolled in the Hebrew University. Maybe it was wrong not to use her natural talents. But pioneers cultivated the land, didn't they? Throughout her diaries, she argued with herself time after time.

Two years later, having completed the agricultural course, Senesh joined with others to found kibbutz Sedot Yam (Fields of the Sea) near the Roman ruins of the port of Caesarea on the Mediterranean seashore, between Haifa and Tel Aviv. Senesh was put in charge of the food supplies, but again something felt wrong to her. "I can't rid myself of the thought that I'm wasting years that should be spent learning, developing further," she wrote in her diary. "If I could become a real expert at something, I would help the kibbutz and find greater satisfaction for myself at the same time…. But that's a lie—anoth er voice says. I am learning all the time—gaining experience of life." Senesh spent her entire four years in Israel in communal living, yet she always felt lonely, separate, and apart.

And the world outside kept intruding. When Hungary joined the German-Italian Axis in 1940, her father's books had been banned, depriving her mother of her income from royalties. Now letters from her mother rarely reached her. Germany's invasion of France, the fall of Paris, and the deportation of Jews in the free zone in 1942 had hastened Gyuri's departure from France. With false papers, he had made his way to Palestine by way of Spain, but, unknown to Hannah, had been intercepted by the Spanish.

"Sometimes I feel like one who has been sent … to perform a mission," wrote Senesh in her diary. "What this mission is, is not clear to me." She resolved to go to Hungary, bring her mother out, and organize youth emigration to Palestine. The years of confusion evaporated the instant she made her decision; the task seemed clear. She soon learned of a Haganah mission, backed by British intelligence, to drop commandos into Central Europe; they were looking for people who spoke Hungarian and were familiar with the other Central European countries—Slovakia, Yugoslavia, Rumania. The British intent was to rescue Allied airmen shot down over Central Europe; the Haganah hoped to also rescue Jews. Senesh volunteered for military service.

Szenes, Katalin (b. 1899)

Mother of Hannah Senesh. Name variations: Catherine, Kató, Catalin Szenes; Katalin Senesh. Born Katalin Salzberger, the third of four daughters, in 1899; married Béla (r.n. Schlesinger) Szenes (a writer); children: Hannah Senesh (1921–1944); Gyuri (George, b. 1920).

In 1945, after a hair-raising flight from a Nazi death march and a successful search for the grave of her daughter, Katalin Szenes narrowly made it through the now-closing borders of the new occupier of Hungary, the Russians. Landing in Palestine by way of Rumania, she began searching for her son and was advised to seek out the Jewish Agency in Jerusalem. David Ben-Gurion, at that time the head of the agency, was in a meeting when she arrived. A note was sent in and Ben-Gurion rose: "The mother of Hannah Senesh is outside," he said. "I must greet this lady." Eventually reunited with her son, Katalin Szenes lived at Kibbutz Maagan on the Sea of Galilee for a time, then worked in a nursery until her retirement.

Her friends urged her not to go. They were convinced that a 22-year-old girl, formerly from a comfortable home in Hungary, could not withstand interrogation by the Gestapo. They warned her that she'd be a liability on the mission, the only woman among 30 Jewish commandos, parachuting into dangerous territory for the RAF. While living on the kibbutz, she began attending monthlong seminars in Haifa. As the training continued throughout 1943, Senesh's loneliness persisted, this time with her fellow soldiers. Emphasis was on weaponry, physical fitness, discipline, teamwork, patrols, marches, ambushes, infiltration, searches, and guerrilla tactics.

On the last day of January 1944, Gyuri arrived in Palestine, having spent nine months in a Spanish prison. Their reunion was brief, as Hannah, with basic training completed, left two days later for more intensive training under the British in Cairo, Egypt. There, the Jewish commandos practiced parachute jumps and learned the tricks of espionage: they studied Morse code, deconstructed and reconstructed wireless transmitters, translated ciphers, and forged documents. They were versed in what type of torture to expect if caught and how to give misinformation. Hannah Senesh was now a radio officer under British command, wearing the uniform of the British army.

Blessed is the match consumed in kindling flame.

—Hannah Senesh

There was disagreement between the Haganah and British Intelligence as to where to execute the drop. Hungary, though still with the Axis, was beginning to pull away from Germany, but the country had no support group to welcome paratroopers, whereas Yugoslavia had a strong partisan force. Yugoslavia was a better choice for Britain's interests but far more dangerous for Jews; most of the Jews of Yugoslavia had been liquidated. To Hannah's distress, the British won the argument. The commandos would enter Central Europe by way of Yugoslavia. Meanwhile, the British and Haganah agreed to get her mother Katalin out of Hungary.

With four other members, Senesh left Egypt in early March for the liberated town of Bari in southern Italy. On the night of March 13, 1944, they flew out from Brindisi and headed for Yugoslavia. That night "she was fearless," wrote her fellow commando Reuven Dafne. But the winds were strong and, on her jump, she drifted hundreds of yards off course, landing in a giant pine. After cutting herself loose, she was greeted by partisans, who were awed that the British had sent such a young girl to help. Her five-member group was escorted to a permanent partisan hideout. As far as the Yugoslavian partisans knew, the English-speaking commandos were British subjects on a British mission. For safety, Hannah and her compatriots were to hide their nationality and their language.

On March 19, six days after their drop, they heard over the wireless that Germany had taken over Hungary with "friendly" troops. The mission's crafted plans, founded on the ease of entering Hungary, were now useless. To the group's surprise, the usually stoical Senesh broke down in tears. They assured her that, by now, her mother was probably out, but that was not the reason for her tears. "What are the Nazis going to do to the one million Jews there?" she asked. "While we're just sitting here, doing nothing."

Her fears would be more than realized. Hungary had been the only nation left in Central Europe where Jews were still permitted to mingle with Aryans. The country had become a haven for Jewish refugees from France, Poland, and Czechoslovakia. While Senesh sat helplessly across the border, Adolf Eichmann arrived in Budapest to liquidate Hungary's Jews. Wrote Katalin: "All the humiliating, discriminatory, annihilating laws it had taken the Nazis years to institute in other countries were put into effect and enforced in Hungary with fantastic speed." By April, all the Jews in the provinces were forced into detention camps; in May, deportations to Auschwitz began, and 12,000 Hungarian Jews were murdered each day. By July, a German representative would declare that the Hungarian countryside was free of its 437,402 Jews. They could now direct their attention to Budapest and the other cities.

During this time, Senesh and her fellow commandos pursued sabotage operations, blowing up trains, ambushing small patrols and rescuing shot-down American pilots. Wrote Dafne:

A great number of people—partisans and civilians—were fascinated by Hannah, the young British officer smart in her army uniform, pistol strapped to her waist…. They had heard about her before our arrival, and she became something of a legend. When she encountered members of the high command she aroused their respect, and although the Yugoslavs had taken women into the army on an equal footing, and partisan women marched into battle alongside the men, there was a special, mysterious quality about Hannah which excited their wonder and respect.

Though her orders were to stay with the partisans in Yugoslavia, Senesh was determined to enter Hungary. She became obsessed, convinced their work was useless. The commandos tried to convince her that going into Hungary was a suicide mission; one small group could do very little. She disagreed. One small group, she

said, could boost morale. One small Jewish group might give Hungary's Jews the spark to defend themselves. She finally induced them to join her, and the Jewish commandos headed for the border, uniting with other partisans in acts of sabotage along the way.

They arrived at the border the first week in June. Not yet comfortable with the arrangements for entering Hungary, Dafne wanted to wait a little longer. Senesh's patience had run out. Against all warnings, she convinced three refugees fleeing Hungary to reverse course and return with her to Budapest. As she left, she handed Dafne a poem, then marched down the road with one last flung "Shalom." Furious at a soldier writing poems instead of studying maps on such an occasion, Dafne threw the crumpled paper away unread. The following morning, regretful, he traversed the area and found the poem:

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 honor's sake.
Blessed is the match consumed in kindling flame.

That night, wrote biographer Peter Hay, Senesh and the three others "set out for the Yugoslav-Hungarian border, carrying on their shoulders the sum total of the Allied rescue effort at that moment to save the Jews of Hungary." The next morning, June 9, just across the border, two of them went into a village and were stopped by Germans; one panicked, pulled out a gun, and shot himself. In a short time, Senesh found herself surrounded by 200 Germans; she only had time to stash the wireless and jettison anything that would tip her identity. But they found a headset on the one who had already been captured. Since Senesh had insisted on bringing the wireless, she admitted the headset was hers to save her comrade.

As they were taken by train to Budapest to the military prison on Horthy Miklós Boulevard, Senesh left on a seat a seemingly innocuous book of French lyric poetry. By disposing of it, she could no longer divulge the code words under interrogation by the Hungarians, for they were located throughout the book. "She suffered dreadful tortures, and she didn't want to talk about them," wrote Yoel Palgi, another commando who landed in the same jail:

The tooth missing from her mouth testified to this. I heard from others how they had tied her; how they had whipped her palms and the soles of her feet; bound her and forced her to sit motionless for hours on end; beat her all over the body until she was black and blue. They asked her one thing, only one thing: what is your radio code.

She never gave them the code or the names of her colleagues, but, convinced that her mother was now safely in Eretz Israel, she admitted who she was.

But Katalin was not in Israel. She was still in Budapest. On June 17, she was packing to move to the obligatory ghetto when a detective arrived from the state police and demanded that she accompany him to the military barracks on Horthy Miklós Boulevard. There, the Hungarian police interrogated a puzzled Katalin as to her daughter's whereabouts and why Hannah had gone to Palestine. Then four men dragged in her daughter. The young woman, barely recognizable, blurted out, "Forgive me, mother!" When Katalin was told to convince her daughter to talk, she refused; she assumed Hannah was withholding information for good reason.

Released, Katalin returned home. A few hours later, she was picked up by the Gestapo and taken to Polizeigefängnis, the German jail, interviewed once again, and put into a cell. Hannah was given three hours to divulge the cipher or her mother would die. For the first time, Senesh wavered. If she told of the book, others would die. If she didn't, her mother, who had not volunteered for this mission, would die. But Senesh "knew suddenly with brilliant clarity," wrote Hay, "that her mother would gladly die rather than see her daughter betray the cause." Once more, Hannah refused to talk.

After more days, more interrogations, a prisoner trusted by the Gestapo whispered to Katalin to look out her window; across the courtyard, her daughter waved from a high narrow window. Morning after morning, they signaled each other. When the same prisoner set up a rendezvous in a bathroom, mother and daughter were alone together for the first time in five years. By now Hannah had won the hardened prison matrons over to her side. With the Allied victories, Hungarians were beginning to change allegiances. Taken out of isolation and put in a cell with others, Senesh promptly added daily exercises and lectures about life in Palestine to her cellmates' routine. Rules were relaxed; mother and daughter met more often. For Hannah, the German interrogations continued, lasting for hours in an attempt to trip her up. But she had not told them she spoke German. Thus, while they translated into Hungarian, she had time to deliberate before answering.

On September 10th, as the increasingly victorious Allies grew closer, soldiers arrived and took Senesh away. Katalin was transported to an internment camp at Kistarcsa two days later. Soon released, she learned that her daughter had been taken to another prison, on Conti Street, to stand trial for treason, and she set out to find a defense attorney. On October 14th, the attorney assured her that there was nothing to worry about: Hannah would get a few years in prison which would quickly be nullified when the war was over, and it would be over soon, for even now the city was being bombarded by the Allies. But on October 15, the extremist right wing of Hungary staged a coup, forcing out the more humanitarian elements of the Hungarian government. Within hours, Eichmann was back and a new batch of anti-Jewish laws were put into effect. Hannah's trial was set for October 28th.

Senesh pleaded not guilty at the trial. She told the judges that she would never betray her country; that they, and other leaders, had betrayed their country by handing it to the Germans. She also warned the Hungarian magistrates that those responsible would pay at war's end. Her speech had a chilling effect on the court. Though she was found guilty, the judges were locked in a dilemma as to the harshness of the sentence. On the one hand, the Allies would arrive any day, and they did not want to have to explain her death. On the other, they were fearful of the Germans who expected the death sentence. So the judges announced that they were postponing the sentencing for eight more days, then fled the country.

That day, as Hannah and her mother passed in the corridor, both were relieved. By the time her sentence was announced, the Allies might be in Budapest. But without Katalin's knowledge, a death sentence was proclaimed and carried out, thought to be an illegal one-man verdict by Captain Julian Simon, the Hungarian judge advocate. On November 7, Hannah Senesh was executed for treason. Eyewitnesses say she resisted the blindfold and faced the firing squad with courage. After the war, Simon found his way to Argentina. When asked at age 74 about the execution of Hannah Senesh, he replied: "If I were to start my life over, I would have chosen again to become a military judge and would have sentenced her to death again." He seemed particularly put out that Senesh had not asked for a pardon, for he said they had given her the chance. Her pride infuriated her accusers.

The story of Hannah Senesh filtered through Hungary and Eretz Israel and into history. Her writings and diaries were preserved and eventually published with the help of Yoel Palgi. When Katalin searched for her grave, a Christian gardener named János Nyíri remembered that she was buried in the martyrs' section of the cemetery in Rákoskeresztúr; he knew, he said, because he had taken it upon himself to bury her there. Her body was disinterred, and Hannah Senesh was enshrined with full military honors overlooking Jerusalem atop Mt. Zion, near the tomb of Zionist leader Theodor Herzl, in Israel's Cemetery for Heroes.

The difference between Hannah Senesh and a million others, notes Peter Hay, is that she acted on her convictions:

No matter what difficulties were put in her way, no matter what others were doing or not doing, no matter what difference her going would ultimately make. When she felt she had to act, she acted…. She understood the symbolic value of her gesture…. In a world that has not been kind to armed Jews or to self-willed women, … the symbol of a young woman dangling alone from a parachute in the dark night of Europe, while the British who sent her would not bomb the railway lines to Auschwitz, is disturbing.


Cohn, Marta. Hannah Senesh: Her Life and Diary. NY: Schocken, 1973 (originally published by Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 1966).

Hay, Peter. Ordinary Heroes: The Life and Death of Chana Szenes, Israel's National Heroine. NY: Paragon House, 1989.

suggested reading:

Bar-Zohar, Michael, ed. Lionhearts: Heroes of Israel. Warner, 1998.

Masters, Antony. The Summer That Bled: A Biography of Hannah Senesh. London: Michael Joseph, 1972.

Palgi, Yoel. "… és jött a fergeteg" ("And there came a great wind"). Tel Aviv: Alexander, 1946.

Syrkin, Marie. Blessed is the Match. Philadelphia, PA: Jewish Publications Society of America, 1947.

related media:

Hannah's War (148 min), produced by Golan-Globus for the Cannon Group, starring Ellen Burstyn, Maruschka Detmers , and Anthony Andrews, 1988.