This week, sixty-nine years ago, Chana Szenesh entered eternity as Hungarian Arrow Cross fascists executed her in her native Budapest just weeks before the city’s liberation by Soviet forces.
Chana Szenesh, age 23, 1944
As the nation of Israel commemorates the jahrzeit 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 in 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 of the safety of the Land of Israel, these youngsters volunteered to enter the iron furnace of Nazi-occupied Europe in an attempt to try to help and forewarn their Jewish brothers and sisters.
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.” (Avot, 2:21) 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 has been a role model for our 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 during 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 youngsters is needed more than ever today. A fitting eulogy for such heroes can be found in Chana’s 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.
Chana’s final resting place at Mount Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem where she was reinterred in 1950, after a State funeral.