"This is not a Holocaust story, this is a war story": The life of Hannah Senesh | Bleader

"This is not a Holocaust story, this is a war story": The life of Hannah Senesh


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Hannah Senesh and her brother Gyuri in Israel, 1944
  • collection of the Senesh family
  • Hannah Senesh and her brother Gyuri in Tel Aviv, 1944
"In the end," says curator Louis Levine of his latest exhibit, dedicated to the life of the poet Hannah Senesh, "this is not a Holocaust story. This is a war story."

Except that "Fire In My Heart: The Story of Hannah Senesh" just went on display at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie.

Nonetheless, it's true that "Fire In My Heart" does not bear any of the hallmarks of a Holocaust exhibit. There are no yellow stars, no striped uniforms, no photos of starving concentration camp inmates. Hannah Senesh spent most of World War II in the relative safety of Palestine. Though she did die at the hands of the Gestapo, it was while facing a firing squad, not in a gas chamber.

"She was not murdered," says Levine. "She was executed. She was given a soldier's death. She was buried in a Jewish cemetery, not dumped in the Danube. She was executed because she was a traitor to Hungary. For these reasons, this is not a Holocaust story."

It is, however, one of the most remarkable stories that came out of the Holocaust era.

"Fire In My Heart" began as a documentary film five years ago, called Blessed is the Match after one of Senesh's most famous poems. The film's director, Roberta Grossman, approached the Museum of Jewish Heritage, a Holocaust museum in New York City, with the idea of putting together an exhibit from the materials she'd assembled for the film. It would be the first museum exhibit devoted to Senesh.

"She had incredible material," says Levine, who is a senior advisor at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. "We agreed to do the exhibit." It opened in New York in 2010.

Grossman also put Levine and his colleagues in touch with David and Eitan Senesh, Senesh's nephews and only living relatives. They never knew her, but Senesh was very close to their father, her brother Gyuri. "They were twin souls," says David Senesh, who lives in Israel but who was in Skokie this week for the opening of the exhibit at the Illinois Holocaust Museum. "I almost read her through him."

Hannah Seneshs typewriter
  • collection of the Senesh family
  • Hannah Senesh's typewriter
The exhibit tells the story of Senesh's life through photos, artifacts such as her portable typewriter, and excerpts from her diary and letters. Senesh was born in Budapest in 1921. In the grand scheme of European history, it was a relatively good time and place to be a Jew. Her father Béla was a journalist and playwright and, although his religion prevented him from advancing as far in his career as he would have liked, the family was still fairly well-off, even after he died prematurely in 1927.

Hannah, then known as Anna, and Gyuri had a comfortable upbringing. They played sports (Gyuri was a ping-pong champion), spent summers in the country, traveled in Europe, and attended private schools (though tuition for Jewish girls at Anna's school was three times that of Protestants). The family was not very religious. "I believe in God," Anna wrote in her diary, "even if I can't express just how. Actually, I'm relatively clear on the subject of religion, too, because Judaism fits in best with my way of thinking. But the trouble with the synagogue is that I don't find it at all important."

As a young girl, Anna decided she would be a writer like her father. She confided to her diary that she would like to be a "great soul," though the following day she scoffed at that ambition. "Great soul! I am so far from anything like that. I'm just a struggling fifteen-year-old girl whose principal preoccupation is coping with herself."

In 1938, the Hungarian government began setting up restrictions against Jews. Around that time, Anna started attending meetings of a Zionist youth group. The word had a slightly different connotation in 1938 Budapest than it does now. As Anna explained, "To me it means that I consciously and strongly feel that I am a Jew and am proud of it. My primary aim is to go to Palestine."

Hannah and the offensive cow
  • collection of the Senesh family
  • Hannah and the offensive cow
In 1939, she got her wish. She immigrated to Palestine, then under British control, where she was known in Hebrew as Hannah, and began studying poultry farming at a women's agricultural school. In her letters home to her mother Kató, she describes swearing at a recalcitrant cow in Hungarian (because her Hebrew is not yet up to the task), draws pictures of herself sinking into a pile of manure, and nags for a pair of sturdy boots.

"She had a fabulous sense of humor," Levine says. "She was a real person, not a mythical hero."

But the notion of becoming a "great soul" still lingered in her mind. She worried constantly whether the work she was doing was serving the greater good.

"She was tough with herself," says David Senesh. "She was self-reflective, always looking into herself. Maybe it would have been easier for her without a sense of mission."

After she graduated from agricultural school, Senesh joined a kibbutz. But she wasn't satisfied. In 1943, she suddenly had the idea that she should return to Hungary to help the Jews who were trapped there. Coincidentally, the British Army began recruiting settlers in Palestine for a mission that would require them to parachute behind enemy lines and rescue captured Allied pilots. Senesh, hoping she might be able to help her fellow Jews, too, volunteered and was accepted. In the spring of 1944, she parachuted into what was then Yugoslavia. Three weeks later, she crossed the Hungarian border and was immediately captured.

Levine insists that her mission was not as foolhardy as it sounds. "It was not insane," he says. "The missions to Yugoslavia, Romania, and Greece smuggled out thousands of people. Every time you send a soldier into battle, there's the risk he could get killed. This mission didn't succeed. It's very sad, but it doesn't condemn the people who conceived the mission and tried to carry it out."

"For my family," says David Senesh, "they had doubts. They were critical of the people who sent her. But it was her mission. She felt compelled. My father once asked, 'Is it worth it? Is it worth the sacrifice?' If you want to live in Israel, you pay the price."

Senesh would spend the rest of her life in a prison in Budapest. One of the most surprising discoveries Levine made in curating the exhibit, he says, was how gently she was treated.

"She was not abused," he says. "When she was captured, she tried to escape and they beat her and knocked out her teeth, but afterward, no one ever tortured her. On one hand, I have no idea why. On the other, I wonder if she just didn't charm them. She had the language—she spoke German. She would teach the Gestapo about what was happening in Palestine. People reported that jailers who were fearsome were nice to Hannah."

Other prisoners recall Senesh as optimistic and cheerful. (They appear in a short film at the end of the exhibit that was spliced together from footage from Grossman's documentary.) But privately, particularly in the weeks she spent in solitary confinement, she despaired. One of the most chilling things in the entire exhibit is a poem she wrote in her cell:

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.

Levine points out that Senesh did live past July and her 23rd birthday. She didn't stand trial until the autumn. Her mother, who had also been arrested then freed, found her a lawyer. "She wasn't a stupid hero," says Levine. "She wanted to live. She asked for mercy."

She was executed on November 7. She refused to wear a blindfold as she faced the firing squad. In her skirt pocket, written in pencil in Hungarian, was her final note to her mother. This Levine considers the saddest piece in the whole exhibit.

My dearest Mother:
I don't know what to say—just two things:
A million thanks
Forgive me if possible
You know well why there is no need for words.
With infinite love,
Your daughter

  • collection of the Senesh family
By the end of the war, six months later, Senesh was already a legend. Before she left Israel, she put her diary and papers, including her poetry, in a suitcase (on display at the museum) that was to be opened only by her brother Gyuri, who arrived in Israel the same day she left. Two of her poems, "Eli, Eli", written in Israel, and "Blessed is the Match," written in Yugoslavia just before she crossed the border, were widely reprinted and set to music. (For the exhibit, Levine translated the latter poem as "Happy is the Match." By the end of her life, he says, Senesh had become an atheist and probably no longer believed in blessings.)

The question remains: did Senesh fulfill her mission? She failed to rescue anyone, but she died a hero. She didn't survive the war, but she was the rare example of a European Jew in the early 1940s who took control of her own destiny instead of being forced into hiding or marched off to an anonymous death. Her writing is remembered, perhaps as much because of the circumstances under which it was composed as for the words themselves, but the words are powerful and haunting, and they linger, even outside the walls of the museum.