A voice called. I went.
I went, for it called.
I went, lest I fall.
At the crossroads
I blocked both ears with white frost
For what I had lost.”
– Chana Szenesh – Caesarea, 1942
This week, seventy years ago on November 7, 1944, Chana Szenesh entered eternity. She was a visionary poet who felt that she had been chosen for a special mission, Chana Szenesh z”l left the kibbutz she had helped to build, Sedot Yam, and parachuted into Nazi-Occupied-Europe in an attempt to rescue her Jewish brethren trapped in her native Hungary at the tail end of the war. She was caught, imprisoned, tortured and killed at age twenty-three.
To commemorate the anniversary of her death letters she wrote to her friends and family have been compiled into a new book, “Hanna Szenes: Letters 1935-1944” (in Hebrew, At Livadech Tavini, or “You Alone Will Understand”). The letters provide exclusive insight into the woman behind the famous persona. As Yaakov Bar-On notes:
While Hanna Szenes is undoubtedly a hero, celebrated for her poetry and her bravery as a paratrooper, she was also a young girl, excited by the work that kibbutz life demanded, interested in her culture, contemplative about men and dedicated to her family.”
As the nation of Israel commemorates the yahrzeit of Hannah, the renowned historian, Sir Martin Gilbert, best answers the question of whether her mission, and that of her 31 compatriots, was a success. Gilbert noted that:
Hundreds of millions of Europeans were captive peoples and here was this little group who said we are going to try and do something.”
The fact that their mission even took place was a success itself. From its conception it was a poetic, almost romantic, plan: that this small group of young Palestinian Jews would attempt to try and stop the Nazi juggernaut. Rather than stay in their comfort zone in the safety of the Land of Israel, these youngsters volunteered to enter the iron furnace of Nazi-occupied Europe in an attempt to try and help their Jewish brothers and sisters.
Chana Szenesh. Illustration, Tuvia Book (c) 2014
Shockingly, their mission was the only Allied military rescue attempt for Jews of the entire war! On paper their mission might be classified as a failure, but Chana and her fellow volunteers understood that to sit by and do nothing would be even worse. Dialogue concerning the mortal threat of European Jewry was not enough – action was necessary! They understood the power of the individual to lead by example and to try and change the world for the better. In the words of the Mishnaic sage Rabbi Tarfon:
It is not up to you to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from trying.”
This is why Chana, and her fellow Jewish mission members, continue to serve as role models for our youth!
It takes just one small match to light up the darkness. In that darkest night of the Jewish people, during the Holocaust of our people, Chana’s selfless actions can best be summed up in her own words, in the last poem she wrote before she crossed into occupied Hungary:
Blessed is the heart with strength to stop
its beating for honour’s sake.
Blessed is the match consumed
in kindling flame.”
-Chana Szenesh, 1944
Chana has been a role model for youth for the past seven decades because of her selflessness and dedication to the Zionist enterprise. We all know that there are many problems in this world but how many of us get up and do something about it? Often the voice calls us, but we choose to ignore it. One of Chana’s poems she wrote in her brief and peaceful sojourn in the Land of Israel starts: “A voice called, and I went. I went because it called.” The example of these idealistic youths is needed more than ever today. May her memory and deeds serve as an inspiration and a blessing.