To die, so young to die,
No, no, not I,
I love the warm sunny skies,
Light, song, shining eyes,
I want no war, no battle cry,
No, no, not I.
Hannah Szenesh (1921-1944), the legendary Hungarian-born Jewish poetess and parachutist, penned these words in Nahalal in 1941 aged twenty. Three years later she left the safety of the land of Israel, where she had arrived at the outbreak of the war, on a highly dangerous volunteer mission to occupied Europe in an attempt to warn the Hungarian Jews of their impending doom. In this Hebrew month of Cheshvan 68 years ago, Hanna, looking up to the skies with her shining eyes entered eternity as Hungarian fascists executed her in her native Budapest just weeks before the city’s liberation by Soviet forces.
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.”
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 Hannah 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.” (Avot, 2:21) This is why Hannah 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, Hannah’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.
May her deeds continue to be an inspiration and her memory blessed.