Lili Eylon
Lili Eylon
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‘A voice called and I went’: Hanna Szenes’ centenary

The famous parachutist was a hero and a martyr, but those who loved her wish she'd been neither, and instead had come home to grow old with them on kibbutz
Hanna Szenes. (From the collection of the National Library)
Hanna Szenes. (From the collection of the National Library)

To die… so young to die no, no, not I

I love the warm sunny skies,
Light, songs, shining eyes, I want no war, no battle cry –
No, no…not I.

But if it must be that I live today
With blood and death on every hand,
Praised be He for the grace, I’ll say
To live if I should die this day…

Upon your soil, my home, my land.

* * *

Her beginnings were unremarkable, her life extraordinary. Her end — a bullet by a Hungarian execution squad — catapulted her into history, turned her into a symbol of courage, an inspiration for generations.

At the time of her death, Hanna Szenes was 23, innocent of all crime. On that fatal November 7, 1944, my heart leaped across the ocean and I cried. I cried for the injustice. I cried for Hanna Szenes who was — and still is — my hero.

If her young life had not been cut short, her writing might have become a welcome addition to the Israeli literary canon.

We never met. Our lives flowed only as two parallel lines. Five years after she was born on July 17, 1921, circumstances deposited my cradle not far from her native Budapest — in Brno, Czechoslovakia. Both of us came from solid Jewish families; Hanna’s, upper middle class, assimilated; mine, more modest, Modern Orthodox.

Hanna grew up surrounded by culture and love. Vivacious, precocious, protected, she possessed all: a good school where she excelled in all her studies, friends who sought her lively company, summers in the countryside. She learned French and English, played the piano, tutored weaker pupils. Popular with her peers, she partied and danced, she traveled, swam and skied.

She had boyfriends who proposed marriage to her. Years later, thinking of her Right Man whom she never found, she confessed to her diary, I am 22 and have never been kissed.

Her diary was her confidant: to it, she entrusted her thoughts, her feelings, her ambitions.

Like her father, Bela Szenes, well-known for his plays applauded on the Budapest stage, Hanna also wrote. She composed poetry and prose that was read and admired in her many circles. Bela  died when she was a child of six; all her life, she remained fiercely attached to her mother Katerina and to her brother George.

Hanna and her brother, George, in Budapest. (From the collection of the National Library)

Both Hanna and I could have continued to live our separate cultured European lives.

If not for a monstrous hitch.

We were growing up in the ’30s and ’40s of the ill-fated 20th century — a time the Jews of Europe were targeted with deadly antisemitism. Hanna was confronted with the ogre personally: voted to be officer in her high school’s literary society, she discovered that, as a Jew, she was refused to fill the post.

She was badly hurt.

Already before she met the scourge of antisemitism, Hanna felt her life was missing something. Something bigger than just personal pleasure and satisfaction.

The Zionist Ideal

She discovered Zionism and immediately plunged into studying Hebrew with the same intensity and dedication that she tackled all her tasks.

On November 12, 1938: she wrote “… Although I confess that it’s painful for me to tear myself from my Hungarian sentiments, I must do so in my own interest and in the interest of Jewry. Our 2,000-year-old history justifies us; the present compels us, the future gives us confidence.”

For us in Czechoslovakia, antisemitism was something that only occurred elsewhere. But my father sensed danger. I still recall my father’s never-to-be-forgotten surprising declaration one Sabbath morning, shortly after the Nazi occupation of Austria. “Children,” he said, “Europe is no longer a place for Jews.”

Words which eventually ushered us into New York in February 1939.

The Jewish Homeland

Both Hanna and I had dreamed of making our respective homes in Eretz Israel.

I achieved my goal only in 1959, in my 30s, a mother of two. Hanna arrived 20 years earlier in ’38; she was 18. Full of youthful enthusiasm, she was looking forward to studying at the Nahalal Girls’ School for Agriculture.

She complemented her theoretical learning with practical application in all branches of agriculture in  Kibbutz Sdot Yam at the edge of the Mediterranean. Those months were among the happiest in her life..

On June 4, 1940, shaken by world events, she observed in a letter to her mother, “The sky is a brilliant blue, peace and fertility encompass the land. I would like to shout into the radio, ‘It isn’t true! It’s a lie! It’s a fraud that there are a million dead and countless injured, bombings, cities destroyed!’ … Who could understand the historic mission of this butchery?”

Hanna in uniform. (Wikimedia Commons)

“I must go to Hungary,” she wrote on January 8, 1944, “to help organize youth aliyah, and bring out my mother. I realize the absurdity of this notion, and yet somehow I think it possible….”

The Mission

But the “absurdity” becomes real. A few days ago a comrade came and told me of the mission being planned …just what I had dreamed of.…I feel… just as I did before I went to Palestine. Then, too, I was not my own master. I was caught by an idea that did not let me rest. I knew that I would enter Palestine, no matter what the difficulties. A voice called and I went… Now I again feel this tension toward an important and inevitable task…. How will I act in this situation? How will I inform my mother of my arrival? How will I organize the youth?

The fantasy has come true. She trains as a parachutist in the Palmach, learns how to be a wire operator in the Special Operations Executive, (SOE,) a secret British Army unit waging war against the Nazis in occupied Europe during the years 1940-46.

May 27, Caesarea, I would like to fill my lungs with fresh air with which to breathe and dispense it to those who have been so long denied the taste of freedom…

Hanna will descend from the skies into her native Hungary.

Budapest

Chapter 3 of her life saw her back in Europe. She landed in Yugoslavia to join Tito’s resistance fighters. The major goal of the Palestinian volunteers who participated in the underground actions is to make contact with the Jewish communities, plant seeds of resistance, help them organize, get them out to safety, to Palestine.

By the time the British permitted the jump into Hungary, the Nazis had already occupied that country. A few days before her intended jump, she wrote her most famous poem, “Blessed Is the Match.”

Before she was able to make contact with the local Jewish leadership, Hanna was captured and arrested. Pointing to her officer’s uniform, she demanded prisoner-of-war treatment. The Gestapo merely scoffed and handed her over to Hungarian prison authorities.

Questioned for long hours, Hanna was beaten, tortured, threatened. She steadfastly refuses to reveal the secret wireless code which could enable the Germans to misdirect Allied bombers. Her mother, incredulous that her daughter was not safe in Palestine, was brought into her prison cell. Hanna was told that her beloved mother would be killed if she did not comply. Neither she nor her mother reacted.

In the same prison, the two met briefly a few times. Hanna assured Katerina that she was doing nothing to harm Hungary. After three months, Katerina was released and began to ask daily for permission to visit her incarcerated daughter. On the day she was finally allowed to visit, she sat waiting in the prison director’s office. Suddenly, she heard a shot.

It was the fatal shot. Hanna, her daughter, was dead.

Accused falsely of spying against Hungary, Hanna was defiant to the end. According to Reuven Dafni, a fellow volunteer, she refused to have her eyes covered, looking straight into the faces of her executioners. She refused to submit a last minute plea for mercy, “I do not ask for mercy from hangmen.”

Hanna returned to the Land of Israel in a coffin, no longer to British-mandated Palestine, but to a fledgling independent Israel. In an official reburial on November 7, 1950, with hundreds of thousands of mourners lining the streets, and ceremonies in Haifa, Tel Aviv, and Jerusalem, Hanna’s gravestone was moved to the Parachutists’ Section in Jerusalem’s military cemetery at Mt. Herzl. It is only a short walk  from the grave of my 19-year-old son David, who had soldiered with the IDF. My bitter price for having escaped the Holocaust.

Hanna’s mother arrived in Haifa in 1945. Together with her son George, Katerina devoted the rest of her life as guardian of Hanna’s rich legacy. After their demise, George’s sons, Eitan and David Senesh* continued the labor.

That legacy — writings, graphic material, personal effects — can now be seen both at Kibbutz Sdot Yam’s memorial Beit Hanna, and at the recently opened archive of the National Library in Jerusalem — in both cases, the items donated largely by the family.

Beit Chana on Kibbutz Sdot Yam. (courtesy, Beit Chana)

Numerous books and films have appeared about Hanna Szenes and her indomitable spirit.

The German newspaper, Judische Allgemeine, reports that some 100 soldiers from Israel, Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia, and England will take part in a five-day (July18 to 22) military  exercise and parachute jump in honor of Hanna Szenes, poet and resistance fighter. The exercise will be called, “Lightening from Heaven,” a line from her famous 1942 poem, “Going to Caesarea.”

In Roberta Grossman’s award-winning film, “Blessed is the Match,” based on the book that was edited and published in 1950 by Eitan Senesh, a petite gray-haired lady who had shared Hanna’s prison cell recalls, “Hanna organized the young Jewish girls in prison, spoke to them of Palestine and Zionism, taught them to sing Hatikva. She gave the hopeless hope,” is how Eitan sums up the victory of Hanna Szenes.

A member of Sdot Yam expresses the sentiments of the kibbutz where Hanna was happy for such a brief time, “We wanted Hanna not as a martyr, not as a hero. We wanted Hanna to come back as a friend whom we loved and admired. We wanted her to grow old with us.”

 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 humankind.

— Hanna Szenes

 —

*The family chose to spell their name Senesh.

About the Author
Lili Eylon is Czech by birth, American by education, Israeli by choice. She has been a journalist since the days of Methuselah, having studied English Literature and journalism at Brooklyn College and the University of Wisconsin. She traveled widely as the spouse of Israeli diplomat Ephraim Eylon, and is mother to Raanan Yisrael and David Baruch z"l, who fell in the service of the IDF.
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