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Senesh, Hannah. (Born 17 July, 1921 in Budapest, Hungary; died November 7, 1944 in Budapest, Hungary). Diarist, poet, playwright, and parachutist in the Jewish resistance under the British Armed Forces during World War II.

Now part of the popular heritage of Israel, the diary and letters of Hannah Senesh provide a primary source of information for Jewish life in Budapest during the rise of Nazism in Europe and in the work of early Zionists in Palestine. Her literary work also includes several poems, most notably, "Blessed is the March," and two plays, "The Violin" and "Bella gerunt alii, tu felix Austria nube." Senesh won even greater renown after suffering torture and death for her role as a parachutist in a 1944 Hagana campaign to assist Jews in Nazi-occupied Hungary.

The daughter of playwright Bela Senesh and his wife Katherine, Hannah Senesh was raised and educated in Budapest; she enjoyed a comfortable standard of living, despite the death of her father in 1927. Hannah inherited her father's literary talent and she began to excel in school at an early age, writing plays for school productions, tutoring her peers, and winning a scholarship that defrayed the inflated tuition for Jewish students at her Lutheran school. She began her diary at thirteen, recording her travels, relationships, day-to-day life, and desire to become a professional writer. As anti-Semitism increased in Europe, Hannah was deposed from an elected post as president of her school's literary society, and her interests soon turned to Zionist appeals for Jewish immigration to Palestine. Though raised in a secular household, Senesh yearned to join young Jewish pioneers in Palestine. She resolved at age seventeen to learn Hebrew ("it is the true language and the most beautiful; in it is the spirit of our people") and leave for Palestine upon her high school graduation ("What I love is the opportunity to create an outstanding and beautiful Jewish state"). From this time on her writings strongly indicate her Jewish consciousness and passion for a new life in Palestine ("I am a Zionist... I am aware now of my Jewishness and sense it with all my heart ... I want to believe that what I have done, and will do are right. Time will tell the rest").

Hannah departed for Palestine shortly after the outbreak of war in Europe and the formalization of legislation restricting economic and cultural opportunities for Hungarian Jews. After arriving in Haifa, Hannah began her studies at the Nahalal Agricultural School and continued her literary pursuits in Hebrew rather than Hungarian. Though she corresponded frequently with her mother, she wholeheartedly embraced her new life ("I am already convinced I could not possibly live in the Diaspora again. My place is here in the Land."). In 1941, Hannah joined kibbutz Sdot Yam where she encountered the rigors of farming and authored her most passionate poetry. Here she also authored "The Violin," a semi-autobiographical play about the sacrifices made by a young artist after joining a collective. Her diary chronicles wartime Palestine, detailing the influx of refugees under the British Mandate, the report from Europe, and the hardships of the kibbutz members.

Concerned for the fate of fellow Jews after the curtailing of Jewish immigration into Palestine and mounting persecution in Europe, Palestinian Jews proposed the active engagement of a Jewish force to be allied with the British. In 1943, the British allowed a limited number of Palestinian Jewish volunteers to cross behind enemy lines in occupied Europe. Determined to liberate her mother from the hardships long discussed in their correspondence, Hannah enlisted with the resistance. She joined the Women's Auxiliary Air Force along with several other young Jewish women, and their male counterparts joined the Pioneer Corps. She wrote, "I must go to Hungary, be there at this time ... and bring my mother out." Hannah took the code name "Hagar" for her mission, and after entrusting her poems to a friend at the kibbutz, she departed for intelligence training at Cairo.

The missions of Hannah and here cohort were to notify the British of enemy placement in the Balkans and the engineer the rescue and evacuation of southeastern European Jews to liberated partisan territories. In March, 1944, Hannah flew with other paratroopers to Bari, Italy and shortly thereafter parachuted into Slovenia, where she witnessed the decimation of towns and villages by Axis troops. Here she wrote "Blessed is the Match," a tribute to altruism, which she gave to a fellow paratrooper before crossing into Hungary. Hannah successfully crossed the border despite a German campaign to deport all Jews from Hungary, only to be denounced the following day by an informer and taken to a Gestapo prison in Budapest. After four months of imprisonment without official sentencing, Hannah was executed by a firing squad. Her final days were reported by fellow prisoners and parachutists who survived, and by here mother who shared the same prison for a time and was occasionally allowed to meet with Hannah. Eyewitnesses report that she defended her actions fervently to her captors, denounced Hungarians who had succumbed to Nazism, and refused to seek the mercy of her judges. Hannah Senesh was one of seven parachutists from a group of thirty-two who died, and she is the only one whose fate after capture is attested with any clarity.

Hannah's body was buried in the "Martyr's Section" of the Jewish cemetery in Budapest. Her remains and the remains of other paratroopers were later transferred to the Israeli National Military Cemetery on Mt. Herzl near Jerusalem. Since her re-burial, several monuments to Hannah Senesh have been erected throughout Israel, and numerous streets, a forest, settlements, and a species of flower were given her name. A museum devoted to her memory was built at her former home in kibbutz Sdot Yam. Hannah's literary reputation far outlives her short career: her diary and poetry have been translated into several languages, and many of her poems have been set to music. Hannah Senesh remains an inspiration to young writers, and her own work ensures her place as a national heroine.

Selected Bibliography:

Cohn, Marta, trans. Hannah Senesh: Her Life and Diary. London: Vallentine, Mitchell, and Co., 1971.
Hay, Peter. Ordinary Heroes: Chana Szenes and the Dream of Zion. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1986.
Masters, Antony. The Summer that Bled: A Biography of Hannah Senesh. London: Michael Joseph, 1972.
Syrkin, Marie. Blessed is the Match. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1947.

--Melissa Aubin

this page last updated on: 5/14/00
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