Hannah Senesh was a young Jewish poet from Budapest who escaped Hungary in 1939 but parachuted back into Europe five years later as an Allied spy on a doomed mission to save Jewish lives.
Hannah was born in Budapest in 1921 to a secular Jewish family of writers and intellectuals. Her father Bela Senesh, a noted playwright, died when she was only six years old, and she was raised by her devoted mother Katherine. As soon as she could read, Hannah became a writer. She started keeping a diary at 13, which she continued for rest of her life.
Although Hannah was assimilated, that didn’t protect her family against rising antisemitism in Hungary. She joined Maccabea, a Zionist youth group, and for the first time in her life, cared about being Jewish and was proud of her identity. At age 18, after graduating from high school, she made aliyah – moved to the Land of Israel, then the British Mandate of Palestine. She settled on Kibbutz Sdot Yam in 1939.
Life at the kibbutz was difficult and Hannah wrote vividly in her diary about working long hours in the kitchen and laundry. She continued her creative writing, penning poems as well as a lively play about the kibbutz community. Hannah hadn’t forgotten the world she left behind in Hungary, and was determined to help her Jewish brethren escape from Europe, which was quickly becoming a deathtrap for Jews. In 1941 she joined the Haganah, the paramilitary group that later became the Israel Defense Forces. Two years later, she joined the British Woman’s Auxiliary Air Force as an Aircraftwoman 2nd Class.
Her goal was to return to Europe to fight the Nazis and save her fellow Jews. She was recruited into the Special Operations Executive (SOE), a secret British spy organization, and underwent intensive military training in Egypt. Her performance was so exceptional that she became one of 33 people selected for the high-stakes mission. In March 1944, she parachuted into Yugoslavia, where she joined the Partisans, a highly effective resistance group led by Josip Tito, later to be the long-serving prime minister of the country. At this time she wrote the poem, “Blessed is the March.”
Germany invaded Hungary in March, 1944, and immediately started deporting and murdering Jews with shocking speed. Fearlessly, Hannah snuck into Hungary on June 7, ready to do whatever it took to save her Jewish brothers and sisters. Tragically, she was caught soon after by Hungarian police, working with the Nazis. They found her British military transmitter, used to communicate with the SOE, and promptly arrested her and threw her in prison. Immediately upon arriving at the prison, she was stripped naked and tied to a chair for three days, during which she was whipped and beaten with a club. She lost several teeth as they tried to force her to reveal the code for her transmitter so they could catch other resistance workers and parachutists.
Desperate for Hannah to reveal information about resistance activities, they tracked down her mother, hiding in Budapest, and arrested her, hoping that Hannah would talk to protect her mother. Katherine, who had no idea Hannah was even in Hungary, was shocked to see her daughter for the first time in five years – missing teeth, covered in bruises, and malnourished. Together the two Senesh women agreed they wouldn’t help their captors in any way. Katherine was eventually released from prison and sent on the infamous Budapest “Death March,” but managed to escape. She hid in Budapest until it was liberated by the Soviets in January 1945,
During several months of imprisonment, Hannah was beaten and tortured daily, but she amazingly refused to share any information about Resistance activities. From her squalid cell, she used a mirror to flash signals out the window to other prisoners. She drew a Jewish star in the dust outside her window so those outside could see her Jewish pride.
She was put on trial in Budapest for treason in October 1944. She used her moment in the spotlight to eloquently denounce Nazism, and Hungarian complicity in genocide against the Jews. She refused to apologize for her actions or request mercy from the court.
Hannah was sentenced to death. On the last day of her life, she wrote letters to her mother and her comrades in the resistance. As she was taken to face the firing squad in a snow-covered courtyard, she refused to wear a blindfold, forcing her killers to look her in the eye as they shot her. Hannah was only 23 years old. Somebody at the prison, whose identity remains a mystery, made sure Hannah was laid to rest in the Jewish cemetery in Budapest. Her body was brought to Israel in 1950 and buried on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem. In 1993, Hungary officially exonerated Hannah Senesh.
After Hannah’s death, poems were found in her prison cell, many of which have become songs written and performed by prominent Jewish singers such as Ofra Haza and Regina Spektor. Her diary and other writings were published in Israel – in fifteen editions so far. Hannah’s tragic, inspiring story has been the subject of multiple books and plays. A kibbutz and several streets are named after her, and every Israeli schoolchild knows of this legendary Jewish martyr.
One of Hannah’s most famous poems is known as Eli, Eli (“My God, My God.”). It was put to music by composer David Zahavi. The poem reads in part,
My God, My God,
I pray that these things never end,
The sand and the sea,
The rustle of the waters,
Lightning of the Heavens,
The prayer of Man.
For risking her life to save her fellow Hungarian Jews, and inspiring generations of Israelis, we honor Hannah Senesh as this week’s Thursday Hero.
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