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We Bet You Didn’t Know: 5 Facts About Simon Wiesenthal


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In 1977, when a Jewish human rights group was set up in California, it was named in Simon Wiesenthal’s honor. With that action, his name became one of the most recognizable on Earth. Today, the Simon Wiesenthal Center is a global advocate and a preeminent Holocaust trust, a testament to the memory of a man who would not let the world forget the horrors of the Shoah. Now, with Holocaust education a prominent part of the collective culture, it may seem unfathomable that the Jewish community was ever in danger of losing these records. It is due in no small part to Simon Wiesenthal that we remember.

We Bet You Didn't Know: 5 Facts About Shimon Peres



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He’s the oldest head of state in the world, and it seems like he’s been around forever, but there may be some things you’ve yet to learn about Shimon Peres. Here Jspace presents five facts about the indefatigable President of Israel.

We Bet You Didn’t Know: 5 Facts About Mark Spitz



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Mark Spitz is a legendary swimmer and arguably the greatest Jewish athlete on Earth. This record-breaking Olympian has scads of medals and honors to his name, though he comes from much humbler beginnings. Born in Modesto, California on February 10, 1950, Spitz hails from a Jewish family, with grandparents who fled Hungary in World War II. We’ve compiled here five more of our favorite facts about the iconic Mark Spitz.

10 Jewish Inventions That Changed the World



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Though often facing anti-Semitism, both institutional and cultural, the Jewish people have historically responded with innovation and adaptability. Jewish inventors, doctors, economists and scientists have left their mark over the years with a combination of creative thinking and hard work. Click through the slides to learn about the Jewish connections of 10 world-changing inventions.

We Bet You Didn't Know: 5 Fun Facts About Billy Crystal

41st AFI Life Achievement Award Honoring Mel Brooks - Red Carpet

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Billy Crystal—actor, writer, producer, director—is a beloved American icon. This Jewish funnyman has a prolific body of work, from memorable roles in films like “When Harry Met Sally” and “City Slickers,” to a number of memoirs and books as well as an extensive philanthropic career. Crystal is an Emmy and Tony award winner, a Disney legend, and a Hollywood heavyweight. Here are five more facts about this boy from the Bronx you might not know.

We Bet You Didn't Know: 5 Fun Facts About Steven Spielberg


Click through the slides to view 5 facts you didn’t know about Steven Spielberg!

Steven Spielberg is arguably one of the most prominent Jewish American film directors/screenwriters/producers of all time. He’s won the Academy Award for Best Director for both “Schindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan.” His body for work speaks for itself: “E.T.,” “Indiana Jones,” “Jurassic Park,” “Jaws,” Back to the Future,” “Men in Black,” “Catch Me If You Can,” and “Munich,” among many, many others. Born in Cincinnati, Ohio to a Jewish family, Spielberg made amateur 8mm films as a young boy with his friends. He admitted to suffering embarrassment about his Orthodox Jewish family around his friends as well as experiencing anti-Semitism and bullying in his early life. “In high school I got smack and kicked around. Two bloody noses. It was horrible,” Spielberg said.

Primo Levi: The Holocaust Survivor Who Wrote Through Pain

Primo Levi was born into a Jewish-Italian family in 1919 in the industrial city of Turin. Except for a period of time during World War II, Levi spent most of his life in the apartment in which he was born—which was the same place where he would die at his own hands in 1987. In the years that occurred in between, the chemist-turned-writer created literary works as remarkable as his career as a laboratory chemist was unremarkable, and put words to the most unspeakable events in history.

Levi’s family had moved from the countryside in the northwest region of Piedmont to the region’s capital Turin a generation before he was born, and they were assimilated into broader society in Italy. In 1922, when Levi was just a young boy, Benito Mussolini came to power, but although Levi grew up under fascism his Jewishness was not much of an issue until the Italian Race Laws of 1938. Even then, thanks to a professor who ignored the discriminatory legislation precluding Jews, Levi managed to continue to study chemistry at the University of Turin. But for the first 18 years of his life, Levi’s Jewishness was somewhat incidental to him—he was not a religious man—and his integration into the general population was not atypical of Italian Jews.

There have been Jews in Italy for two thousand years, since before the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD. Although Italy was the country (or rather Venice was the city) that gave the world the ghetto to separate Jews from Christians, by the 20th century ghettoes seemed a thing of the past. The Jewish population of Italy may have been small—it was around 55,000 out of a total population of 40 million in 1938—but it was generally an old and well established community.

The Levis were Sephardim from Piedmont, a community that had settled the area in the 15th century as refugees from the Spanish Inquisition. The situation for Jews in the northern region had improved in the wake of the political upheaval of 1848, a year in which there was a push for progressive liberalism across Europe. Among other events, 1848 was the year in which Jews in Piedmont were emancipated. Once emancipated, it didn’t take long for Jews to become actively involved in mainstream life in Italy and before World War I the country had had two Jewish prime ministers, Luigi Luzzatti and Alessandro Fortis. Indeed the Italian Fascist Party even had a Jewish minister of finance in 1932.

This is not to say there was no anti-Semitism in Italy. There was, of course. The most egregious was the as-racist-as-advertised Race Laws, which restricted the civil rights of Jews and their ability to travel, banned their books, excluded Jews from public office and higher education and took their assets. The laws also meant that Jews could be interned in internal exile. However assimilated or without religion a Jew might have been, the laws and World War II made his or her Jewishness a central, defining feature. “This dual experience, the racial laws and the extermination camp, stamped me the way you stamp a steel plate,” Levi recalled. “At this point I’m a Jew, they’ve sewn the Star of David on me and not only on my clothes.”

Nevertheless life continued during World War II, until the fall of Mussolini in July 1943. Then German troops invaded Italy, which had been an ally of Nazi Germany, and Germany occupied the north of the country. An Italian resistance movement operated against the Germans in response. As a liberal Levi joined a leftwing partisan movement that was active in the foothills of the Alps in the north of Italy. Although he was politically and personally motivated for a fight, Levi and his comrades in arms were not trained soldiers or partisans, and they were quickly caught and arrested by fascist militia.

Upon discovering Levi was a Jew, the fascists sent him to an internment camp for Jews at Fossoli, where he met generally poor and pious Jews form the Italian colony of Libya as well as upper-middle-class Italian Jews like himself. Italian fascists controlled Fossoli at that time, and as long as the camp remained in their hands and not under German control, Jews were relatively safe. Unfortunately, Fossoli did fall to the Germans, however, whereupon Jews were deported to death camps. For a year and a half Italian Jews suffered terribly under Nazi occupation. Around 7,000 were deported and killed.

In February 1944, Jews interned at Fossoli were packed into 12 cattle trucks and sent to Auschwitz. On arrival, their average life expectancy was three months. Levi was one of 650 Italian Jews in his transport, of whom only 20 lived to see the camps liberated. Levi was at Auschwitz for 11 months before the Russian army liberated the camp in January 1945. But the 11 months at Auschwitz were more than enough to irreparably change and define his life, even they didn’t take it.

Apart from his time as a partisan fighter and concentration camp prisoner, Levi led a rather unremarkable life. But he was clearly a brilliant man and used his training and work as a chemist to see the world in a way of which few others—including most writers—are capable. In his work as a writer he clearly set out his thoughts and feelings, and perhaps his most powerful, irrepressible emotion was guilt at surviving Auschwitz where he was saturated by death and had seen so many lose their lives.

The guilt of the survivor is not simply guilt at surviving when so many others did not. It is also guilt at failing to adequately convey the horrors that those who died went through, explaining how they suffered so it wasn’t in vain. It can be guilt at not spending every minute of every day testifying to the monstrosities perpetrated on innocent people who have no voice. In this way, no one ever survived a camp and the Nazis’ victory was irrevocable. As the Italian Jewish writer and survivor Nedo Fiano explained, “At bottom I would say that I never completely left the camp.”

Levi was intensely preoccupied with his shame of escaping death by virtue of an unearned privilege, as he saw it. This was a primary concern of his first book, “If This Is A Man.” Levi opens the book with a poem, which reads:

Consider If This Is A Man

You who live safe

In your warm houses,

You who find, returning in the evening,

Hot food and friendly faces:

Consider if this is a man

Who works in the mud

Who does not know peace

Who fights for a scrap of bread

Who dies because of a yes or a no.

Consider if this is a woman,

Without hair and without name

With no more strength to remember,

Her eyes empty and her womb cold

Like a frog in winter.

Meditate that this came about:

I commend these words to you.

Carve them in your hearts

At home, in the street,

Going to bed, rising;

Repeat them to your children,

Or may your house fall apart,

May illness impede you,

May your children turn their faces from you.

In another poem, “The Survivor,” Levi addresses his guilt head on.

Stand back, leave me alone, submerged people,

Go away. I haven’t dispossessed anyone,

Haven’t usurped anyone’s bread.

No one died in my place. No one.

Go back into your mist.

It’s not my fault if I live and breathe,

Eat, drink, sleep and put on clothes.

Levi tried to set out his experience of the Holocaust, and the product was some of the twentieth century’s most importing, most affecting literature. He was initially a chemist, not a writer, but he wrote beautifully and matter of factly about horrors that were unimaginable. Levi never truly escaped the camps and took his own life more than 40 years after the war. But in the intervening years, he did manage to address the issue of our humanity, exploring what it is that makes us human. Primo Levi explored how the Nazis attempted to take away their victims’ humanity. And he found that however bestial his persecutors were, they too were human. As he recalled, “Save the exceptions, they were not monsters, they had our faces.”

Eli Cohen, Legendary Mossad Spy

Eliahu Cohen, an Egyptian-born Jew who served as a legendary Mossad spy in Syria, was publicly hanged in a Damascus square on May 18, 1965. As his limp body dangled from a post, a poster in Arabic dangled from his body. It proclaimed to a crowd of crowd of 10,000 spectators Cohen’s crime: espionage for the Israelis.

The Syrian authorities knew there was a mole within their midst, someone leaking army secrets to Israel in the lead-up to the 1967 Six Day War.

But Cohen, who went by Eli, was an unlikely culprit.

He was the son of a Syrian Jew from Aleppo, who had moved to Alexandria, Egypt, before Cohen was born, and then later to Israel in the 1950’s. Not that the Syrians knew that history—Cohen went by the Arabic name Kamel Amin Thaabet, and built up his persona as a successful Syrian businessman.

Cohen, born in 1924, grew up in Egypt in an Orthodox Jewish and Zionist home. As a young man, he tried to enter the Egyptian army in 1947, but was denied, due to questionable loyalty.

In the wake of 1948 and Nasser’s military coup in 1951, Egyptian Jews increasingly became the targets of harassment. Though Jewish families had lived in Egypt for centuries, many left in after 1948, setting off for the newly established state of Israel, or for Europe, Canada, and the United States.

Cohen, however, thought that things would get better. He wanted to finish his degree in electronics, and decided to stay, while his family moved to Israel, according to a website set up in his name.


Cohen was implicated in Zionist activities, increasingly frowned upon in Egypt. In one case, an Israeli intelligence unit operating in Egypt attempting to destroy Egyptian relationships with Western countries was discovered in 1955. Two of the group’s members were found to be guilty and were executed. Though Cohen had been involved, no link could be established. Soon thereafter, Cohen was pushed out of Egypt by the Egyptian Ministry of the Interior and moved to Israel with the help of the Jewish Agency.

He soon met Nadia Majald, an Iraqi Jewish immigrant. They married in a modest Sephardic wedding in Tel Aviv, and eventually had three children. Cohen worked various odd jobs to support his new family.

Nadia didn’t know that her husband had been recruited by the Mossad. In the decades after Israel’s establishment, the Israeli spy agency drew heavily from its Arab Jewish immigrants, knowledgeable of both the Arabic language and the cultures of the surrounding nations.

According to Community Magazine, “the circumstances surrounding his recruitment are unclear,” but “it appears that intelligence officials eyed Eli because of his fluency in Arabic, Middle Eastern features, exceptional memory, quick wit, natural charm and charisma, and ability to work unflinchingly under pressure.”

The magazine continues:

“Eli underwent an intensive six-month training course, in which he studied Muslim religion and culture, map reading, and radio broadcasting and cryptography – the latter two being the means by which he would send encoded messages to his dispatchers in Israel. Additionally, he had to change his Arabic accent from Egyptian to Syrian. [Mossad] also taught Eli his new, carefully-designed identity and background… He was born in Beirut to Syrian-born parents, and his family emigrated to Alexandria when he was three years old….”

“The plan was to send Eli to Argentina, where he would join the large, wealthy community of Syrian émigrés in Buenos-Aires and open a business. His story was that his uncle had moved to Argentina and opened a textile business in 1946, and a year later invited Eli – Kamal – to join him. When the textile business went bankrupt, Eli’s script read, Kamal opened his own successful import/export business, but always pined to return to the homeland, Syria.”

“Eli learned the language, culture, and ins-and-outs of Syrian-Argentinean trade. His training also included a thorough study of the geography and social norms of the Buenos-Aires community that he would be joining… The plan was for Kamal to establish ties with prominent businessmen in Syria, where he would then relocate.”

Cohen moved to Syria during the Ba’ath coup, becoming a party member and telling fellow Syrians that he promised to become “a true example of the struggling Arab.”

As the Ba’ath party gained power, so did Cohen’s access to top-level Syrian officials. He was viewed as a loyal party member, and gained access to closed government sessions, the content of which he would pass on to the Mossad—via radio, letters, and occasionally, in person.

In the early 1960’s, Cohen is said to have taken photographs of Syria’s southern border, which later proved vital to Israel’s military strategy in the 1967 war. In one instance, he feigned concern for Syrian soldiers guarding the Golan Heights, and requested that trees be planted at their placements in order to provide them shade. These trees, of course, became markers for the Israelis, vertical verdant targets indicating where to shoot.

In 1964, Cohen also learned that the Syrians were planning to divert the headwaters of the Jordan, thereby cutting off Israel’s water supply. Cohen relayed the message to his brother Maurice, who was also working for the Mossad.

Later that year, Cohen secretly returned to Bat Yam, telling Nadia that he would go on his last mission. It was forebodingly accurate.

The Syrians were growing increasingly wary of spies within their midst—not only of Israelis but also of political opponents to the Ba’ath regime. Aided by Soviet technology, they listened for any “illegal” radio transmissions. In 1965, Syrian authorities raided Cohen’s home while he was relaying a message. He was caught red-handed.

What proceeded was a military trial during which Cohen was granted no legal defense. On May 8, 1965, he was proclaimed guilty and sentenced to death by hanging.

But Cohen’s case gained international ground in the media. As Community Magazine writes, “Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir led the campaign to appeal to the international community on Eli’s behalf. Numerous leaders and heads of state, including Pope Paul VI and the governments of Belgium, Canada and France, petitioned the Syrian President to have the sentence commuted. Despite the efforts, the sentence stood.”


Cohen was allowed to meet with the local Damascus rabbi, where he recited viduy (confession), and to write one letter before his execution. That letter, addressed to Nadia and his parents, read:

“I am writing to you these last words, a few minutes before my end, and I would

like to beg you to maintain a good relationship forever. I request you dear Nadia to pardon me and take care of yourself and our children… You can get remarried in order not to deprive the children of a father. You have the full liberty to do so. I am begging you my dear Nadia not to spend your time weeping about something in the past.”

Nadia never remarried. Instead, she has been at the forefront of a movement to have Cohen’s remains sent back to Israel for burial.

“All these years, I remained faithful to him. I want him, here and now, because I’ve reached the age that I deserve tranquility,” she told Haaretz in 2010. “I don’t want to go to my death longing for my Eli to rest in the soil of the land that he loved and for which he gave his life.”

The Syrians have repeatedly refused to return Cohen’s remains to his family. A few years ago, a senior Syrian official said that Cohen had no grave. But Nadia and her remaining family don’t believe it.

“There is a body; it’s buried somewhere secret, and at some stage, they’ll find it. I’m sure of it. Meanwhile, they torture us. The Syrians have become addicted to my pleas and my sadness,” she continued.

When Hafez Assad’s eldest son, Bashar (the current president), was born, Nadia says that she called her children and four grandchildren and had a photo of them taken together. She sent that photo, along with a warm letter of congratulations, to Hafez Assad.

“I wished that he would raise his son in joy and peace. I even asked his forgiveness for Eli’s actions,” she told Haaretz. “It didn’t move anything. They’re taking revenge on him, not letting the circle of our lives come to a close. They condemned him to the gallows and us to suffering.”

Two years later, Nadia is still waiting for her husband’s remains.

Rachael Levy is a freelance writer who recently graduated from The American University of Paris with a degree in international and comparative politics. You can follow her on Twitter at @rachael_levy.

Albert Einstein: A Jewish-American Hero

Albert Einstein is, of course, remembered as one of the greatest physicists of all time. But this Jewish scientist also had a prolific love of music, politics, and writing, and a profoundly deep love for Israel.

Einstein was born on March 14, 1879, in the German city of Ulm. As a young child he moved to Munich with his family—Jewish parents Hermann and Pauline Einstein. Hermann was a salesman and engineer, moving the family to found a company that manufactured electric equipment utilizing direct current, the unidirectional flow of electric charge.

Clearly, an appreciation for the sciences ran in the family. Young Albert attended advanced classes in primary and secondary school, building models and mechanical apparatuses for fun in his spare time.

At the age of 10, Einstein met Max Talmey, a Jewish medical student who introduced the future Nobel laureate to a variety of science, math and philosophy texts.

As a teenager, Einstein moved with his family once more, first to Milan, then Pavia in northern Italy. Once the family settled in Pavia, Einstein returned to Munich to finish his secondary studies.

At 16, Einstein was accepted to the Aargau Cantonal School in Aarau, Switzerland, then a year later began studies at ETH Zurich to earn a four-year degree in mathematics and physics teaching.

During this period Einstein met his future wife, Mileva Maric. Maric was also studying under the math and physics teaching program. The couple had a child, daughter Lieserl, in 1902, who was either adopted or died of scarlet fever.

In 1903, Einstein married Mileva. Over the next few years the pair had two sons, but the couple divorced in 1919. During that time, Einstein worked on his theory of general relativity, prompting his summation that light from various stars would bend with the sun’s gravity.

In 1921, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on the photoelectric effect.


Over the next few years, Einstein traveled extensively, making a much-heralded first trip to New York City in 1921. He traveled through Asia and then-Palestine, the only trip he would make to Israel.

He said at the time, “I consider this the greatest day of my life. Before, I have always found something to regret in the Jewish soul, and that is the forgetfulness of its own people. Today, I have been made happy by the sight of the Jewish people learning to recognize themselves and to make themselves recognized as a force in the world.”

Einstein remarried shortly after his divorce from Mileva, to Elsa Lowenthal. The Einsteins stayed in the US following a trip in 1933, choosing not to return to a Germany becoming swept up in Hitler-furor.

The physicist wrote to a friend at the time: “For me the most beautiful thing is to be in contact with a few fine Jews—a few millennia of a civilized past do mean something after all.” In a separate letter he wrote, “In my whole life I have never felt so Jewish as now.”

Einstein became associated with the Manhattan Project in 1939, an elite group of scientists organized to develop an atomic weapon. It would become a source or regret for Einstein in later years, though he still felt vindicated in making a move to urge President Roosevelt to take action.

“I made one great mistake in my life — when I signed the letter to President Roosevelt recommending that atom bombs be made; but there was some justification — the danger that the Germans would make them,” he reportedly told a friend later in life.

In 1940, Einstein officially became an American citizen. He also joined the NAACP at Princeton and campaigned for equal rights for the nation’s African American community.

Einstein passed away on April 18, 1955, at the age of 76, after suffering a rupture of an aortic aneurysm.

In the last days of his life, the iconic scientist was working on an address commemorating Israel’s seventh anniversary, meant for broadcast to the American people. Einstein carried the draft pages of the speech with him to the hospital to undergo surgery for the rupture, but died before he was able to publicly give his address.

In the draft pages, Einstein wrote, “International policies for the Middle East should be dominated by efforts to secure peace for Israel…this would conform with the universal ideals of peace and brotherhood which have been the most significant contribution of the people of Israel in its long history.”

Famous quotes from Einstein:

“We must enhance the light, not fight the darkness.”

“Tragedy is the difference between what is and what could have been.”

“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

“Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.”

“Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish on its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

“Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning.”

“A man should look for what is, and not for what he thinks should be.”

Hannah Senesh, the Unlikely War Hero

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.

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