The photo provides no hint of what’s to come. There’s no reason to believe the teenager in a flowing white dress, corsage at her waist, posing before fine china and modern art, would become a beloved symbol of resistance.
Looking like a poster child for pampered princesses, Hannah Senesh seems an unlikely war heroine. But Hannah was a fighter. And she took part in the only military rescue mission for Jews during World War II.
Born into an affluent, assimilated Hungarian Jewish family in Budapest, Hannah wasn’t the kind of girl who had to do things herself. She had a governess and a maid and parents—Béla, a successful playwright and journalist, and Catherine, a pianist—who doted on her and her older brother Gyuri.
The family could afford to send Hannah to a private Protestant girls’ school, even though Jewish students had to pay triple the normal tuition. Hannah, one of the few Jewish students there, excelled. She seemed set for a life in the Mitteleuropean Jewish upper middle class.
When Hannah was born in 1921, one in every four residents of Budapest was Jewish. While Hungarian Jews faced some discrimination, most of the city’s doctors, lawyers, musicians, journalists and writers were Jews. There were approximately 600,000 Jews in Hungary, about 7 percent of the country’s population.
Hannah was a happy girl until tragedy hit in 1927, with the death of her father. He was only 33, Hannah barely 6. Devastated, she started writing poems. From age 13, she kept a diary.
“I’m now five feet tall and weigh 99 pounds,” she wrote in an early entry. “I don’t think I’m considered a particularly pretty girl, but I hope I’ll improve.”
For the next few years, Hannah wrote and excelled at school, while Europe headed toward war.
In 1938, Hungary passed anti-Jewish legislation, which, among other restrictions, limited the number of Jews in higher education. As a result, Gyuri left Budapest to study in France.
When Hannah was elected to office in the literary club, she was barred from the position because she was Jewish. Hannah had considered herself fully Hungarian. “Only now am I beginning to see what it means to be a Jew in a Christian society,” she wrote.
Anti-Semitism pushed Hannah toward Zionism, much as the Dreyfus Affair mobilized Theodor Herzl, another assimilated central European Jew, to launch the political movement.
Hannah threw herself into Zionism. She avidly studied Hebrew and encouraged her Jewish classmates to do so too. “From today, I will only write my journal in Hebrew,” Hannah announced. “I now consciously and strongly feel that I am a Jew, and proud of it. My aim is to go to Palestine.”
Catherine was aghast when she heard her daughter’s plan. She was further perplexed by Hannah’s determination to attend agricultural school not university.
“There are already too many intellectuals in Palestine,” Hannah explained. “The great need is for workers to build the country.”
Palestine was under British control and immigration was limited to 15,000 Jews a year. Immigration certificates were in high demand but Hannah got lucky and received hers. Catherine felt like she lost the lottery.
Hannah went to Palestine giddy with excitement. She joined some 100 other girls at agricultural school at Nahalal where she hung postcards of paintings by Peter Paul Rubens on her wall. She fell in love with the land of Israel, captivated by the hills, lakes and natural beauty.
After her agricultural studies, Hannah joined a kibbutz. Located on the Mediterranean coast between Tel Aviv and Haifa, Sdot Yam was an isolated place, two hours’ walk from the nearest Jewish settlement. Its landscape inspired her poem, “A Walk to Caesarea:”
My God, My God,
May it never, never end.
The sand and the sea,
the jitter of the water,
the shine of the sky,
the prayer of Man.
Set to music and commonly known as “Eli, Eli,” the poem has become almost a second Israeli national anthem.
Meanwhile, war raged in Europe. Hannah grew deeply concerned about her mother. She decided she had to do something.
A member of Hagganah, the Jewish fighting force, came to the kibbutz to recruit for a special Jewish unit of the British army to operate behind enemy lines.
There they would use their local passports, knowledge and language skills to perform undercover missions for the British, contact endangered Jews and foster resistance.
Hannah jumped at the chance to participate. She was one of three women accepted to the team of 37. After quick training in parachuting and radio transmission, Hannah was about to set off.
Then she learned that Gyuri had arrived in Palestine. The two spent 24 hours together in Tel Aviv. The next day, Hannah, age 22, parachuted into Europe.
After walking for four days and nights, the parachutists reached the partisan army’s headquarters in Yugoslavia. There they learned German troops had entered Hungary.
Suddenly their legal documents were worthless. They had no protection. The mission was now up against impossible odds. Some decided to abort it. Hannah refused.
As she prepared to cross the border into Hungary, Hannah gave her comrade Reuven Dafni a poem for her friends in case she didn’t return.
In Hungary, the Nazi occupation had immediate results. Nowhere was the destruction of Jewry as swift. Catherine and the Jews of Budapest were in a race against time.
Hannah crossed into Hungary in a team of four. Almost immediately, local gendarmes stopped the group. Hannah tried to escape but was caught and badly beaten. The Gestapo arrived and found an incriminating radio receiver. They demanded the codes used to communicate with the British army. Hannah refused to reveal them.
So they took her to Budapest.
Meanwhile, Catherine was summoned to prison barracks. An official interrogated her: Why Hannah had left Hungary? Where she was now? Catherine was surprised to be asked about her daughter.
“Where do you really think she is?” the official asked.
He told Catherine that Hannah was in the adjoining room. Catherine could see her, he said, but had to persuade Hannah to tell them everything. If she didn’t, it would be their last meeting.
Reunited, Hannah threw her arms around her mother. “Please forgive me,” she sobbed. She was missing teeth from beatings.
Catherine had no idea what was going on. But she knew Hannah. If she was hiding something, she was doing so for a reason. So she tacitly encouraged Hannah to stay strong.
Catherine was kept in prison, in a cell with other prisoners. Hannah was incarcerated alone. But the windows in both cells faced the prison yard. When Hannah stood by hers, the others could see her. Days passed. The women began to communicate.
Hannah saw the yellow stars the Hungarian Jewish inmates were forced to wear. As she was no longer a Hungarian citizen, she didn’t have to wear one.
“You are lucky not to have to be branded,” an inmate told her from Catherine’s cell.
Hannah responded by drawing a large Star of David in the dust on her window.
Reconciled to her fate, Hannah was heartbroken she had dragged her mother into trouble. Catherine replied she was just happy to be near to her. Eventually Catherine was released, but Hannah remained imprisoned.
Almost daily, Hannah was taken for interrogation at the Gestapo HQ. She held steadfast under beatings and torture. Their roles reversed, Catherine set about trying to free Hannah.
Jews were only permitted to walk the streets at certain times; even then it was incredibly dangerous to do so. Nevertheless Catherine went from government ministry to government ministry, fighting for her daughter’s release.
But it was to no avail. On October 28, Hannah was tried for treason at a closed military tribunal. Though her only audience was her enemies, Hannah gave an impassioned speech. The war will soon end, she told them, and you—supposed Hungarian patriots—will be tried for being enemies of your country, not me.
The tribunal told Hannah she was sentenced to death and that if she wanted to plead for clemency she could do so. She refused, just as she refused a blindfold to face the firing squad.
After Hannah’s death, Catherine received her personal effects. In her dress pockets, she found scraps of paper: lines of farewell and a poem she had written in her cell:
One – two – three… eight feet long
Two strides across, the rest is dark…
Life is a fleeting question mark
One – two – three… maybe another week.
Or the next month may still find me here,
But death, I feel is very near.
I could have been 23 next July
I gambled on what mattered most,
The dice were cast. I lost.
A week after Hannah’s execution, Catherine was sent on a forced death march to Austria. She escaped and in 1945 immigrated to Palestine, where she reunited with Gyuri.
After the war, Hannah’s friends at the kibbutz found a suitcase filled with her poetry. Her writings were published and she became a national symbol of resistance and hope in Israel.
In 1950 Hannah’s body was returned to Israel, where it lay in state and traveled the country for three days. Catherine was among the mourners. Then Hannah joined the other fallen parachutists, interred at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem.
In the poem she gave Reuven Dafni, Hannah had almost written her own obituary. “Blessed Is The Match” celebrates a match that gives itself freely to the fire, which briefly illuminates a world of darkness. By her actions and through her writing, Hannah Senesh, strong of both head and heart, would have the last word:
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.