This week I accompanied a group of my students to meet with Dr. David Senesh. Dr. Senesh is the nephew of inspirational Zionist role model and hero, Hannah Senesh. He is a world-renowned Clinical Psychologist, based in Israel, specialising in post-traumatic stress disorder, moral resilience, and restorative processes.

It was fascinating to hear raw personal anecdotes from inside this iconic family. On the subject of his famous aunt he questioned what about her made her so inspirational. “It’s not a simple story, there are many ways to look at it,” he began. “Her diaries weren’t meant to be published”, observed Dr. Senesh, “but were a way for Hannah to let her passions and desires come to life through poetry and prose.” Thankfully they were published and widely taught and circulated, so we, as the next generation, can get a feel of what she was going through before and during the Holocaust. “Hannah was a gift after the Holocaust”, he asserted. Her spiritual and stirring poetry has been translated into over twenty different languages, including Japanese!

One of Hannah’s universal messages she penned at the age of seventeen, when she observed:

I don’t know whether I’ve mentioned that I’ve become a Zionist. This word stands for a tremendous number of things. To me it means, in short, that I now consciously and strongly feel a Jew, and am proud of it…One needs something to believe in, something for which one has a whole-hearted enthusiasm. One needs to feel that one’s life has meaning. That one is needed in this world. Zionism fulfills this for me.”

“One is thrown into situations one cannot predict,” Dr. Senesh declared, as he described the mental, physical and emotional roller coaster that he and Hannah shared. He too joined the army, where, during the Yom Kippur War he was captured by the Egyptians and, as a prisoner of war, spent forty days incarcerated in Cairo. No one in his family was informed of his whereabouts. He kept himself sane by thinking about his family, specifically the courage and fortitude of his aunt, and thinking about what the future would hold.

Movingly, Dr. Senesh talked about what psychologists refer to as the “complicated bereavement” of both his father and grandmother. He mentioned that the tragedy for his grandmother (Hannah’s mother) Catherine was that, not only did she have to undergo the trauma of a “reverse-order death,” but also she lived to a ripe old age in the shadow and light of her daughter. She was never able to overcome the tragedy and to focus on the world around her. Dr. Senesh’s father, Giora, like his mother, lived to be a nonagenarian and was deeply affected by the tragic early death of his beloved sister. He spent the rest of his life lecturing about her in the plethora of languages he was conversant in. He also built an archive, which his sons now manage, to preserve his sister’s legacy. When David was captured during the Yom Kippur War and his whereabouts were unknown, his father was deeply distressed. Giora remarked that he had already lost his sister for the Zionist dream and now his son was MIA. He questioned how much one family could bear.

channa szenesh

In what could be one of the famous “what ifs” of history, Dr. Senesh shared with our group a story his father Giora told him and his brother Eitan. Giora mentioned that, after years of separation from his beloved sister, he finally made it to the Land of Israel and was reunited with Hannah on the eve of what was to be her fatal mission. They only spent one day together and then parted forever. He told his sons that if Hannah would have told him the exact nature of her proposed mission (to parachute into Nazi-occupied Europe in order to rendezvous with Partisans in Yugoslavia to aid in the rescue of downed Allied aircrews and then to proceed into Hungary to try and warn Hungarian Jewry (and her mother) of their impending doom) he would have talked her out of it. But she never told him the details of her mission (maybe figuring that he would talk her out of it) and the rest is history.

The world gained an inspirational hero and role mode, a modern-day Joan of Arc, but, in the words of her nephew, “the world lost an incredibly bright and talented woman who would have gone on to make a huge impact and contribution.” He mentioned that she chose the foreshadowing code name “Hagar” for the mission; as if she knew from the outset that she would be cast out to the wilderness, never to return, similar to her biblical namesake. In honour of his aunt, the middle name of Dr. Senesh’s daughter is Hagar. Nearly seventy years after her Ill-fated mission Hannah’s legacy lives on in her poetry and her writing that has inspired generations. A fitting eulogy for Hannah can be found in her own words:

There are stars whose radiance is visible on earth
Though they have long been extinct.
There are people whose brilliance continues to light the world
Though they are no longer among the living.
These lights are particularly bright when the night is dark.
They light the way for mankind.