Finding Hannah’s Voice in Hungary

A voice called, I went.

Stop working (6)
Graphic, Copyright 2017 Rayna Rose Exelbierd

Hannah Szenesh, one of my biggest inspirations, would have celebrated her 96th birthday this year. Although Hannah died when she was 23, as I get older, her story takes on a deeper meaning. Hannah was a very active Jewish teenager who grew up in Hungary. I’ve always been so focused on how she died, my recent trip to Budapest gave me an opportunity to time-travel and see how she lived.

Hannah attended a school where Jews paid three times the amount of Protestant students. Hannah was blackballed from holding student office as a teen in 1937, despite her popularity, involvement and success because of her Jewish faith.  This incident inspired Hannah to study more about her faith, Zionism, and ultimately led to her decision to immigrate (make Aliyah) to the Land of Israel.  

Floor design in the Jewish Chapel of the Budapest cemetery.
Floor design in the Jewish chapel in the Kozma Street Cemetery, 2017. (Rayna Rose Exelbierd)

 

The bitterness Hannah experienced back then, reminds me of what we see happening on far too many college campuses and high schools in the United States. Hannah did not fight this particular battle even though the winner was upset, and thought Hannah should have the position. Citing from Hannah’s diary, she told the winner,

”Accept it calmly, and don’t think for an instant I begrudge it to you.  Not at all. If you don’t accept it, someone else will. After all, it has nothing to do with whether Hannah Sennesh or Maria X is more capable of fulfilling the assignment, but whether the person is Jew or Gentile.”

Thank God for StandWithUs, because if this were to happen today we would be there to support Hannah every step of the way. None of the students I work with will ever feel the same helplessness because of the work of the different StandWithUs departments –  especially legal and research.  I hope her story inspires others to see how they can be heroes by promoting tolerance for their peers and acting on their dreams.

Jewish Chapel in the Kozma Street Cemetery, where Hannah was formally buried.
Jewish Chapel in the Kozma Street Cemetery, where Hannah was formally buried,2017. (Rayna Rose Exelbierd)

 

Hannah was executed in November 1944, just before the Soviet liberation of Hungary, at the age of 23. She parachuted behind enemy lines as part of a detachment of young Palestinian Jews serving with the British forces during WW2. After successfully accomplishing the initial part of her assignment and rescuing downed Allied pilots in Nazi-Occupied Yugoslavia, she proceeded to the second phase – crossing the border into Hungary in order to try and warn and save Jews from death.  She was captured by Hungarian fascists the day she crossed.  She was imprisoned, tortured and executed by the Hungarian Arrow Cross, but never divulged the details of her mission.

Hannah's new memorial at her former burial spot in Budapest.
Hannah’s new memorial at her former burial spot in the Kozma Street Cemetery in Budapest, Hungary, 2017. (Rayna Rose Exelbierd)

 

Hannah’s remains were transferred to Israel’s Mt. Herzl military cemetery in 1950. It was incredibly empowering to see a new memorial left by the Israeli government on her former Hungarian burial space.  It was sad to see many of the Jewish graves overgrown, even though some were ornate with gold tiles shining through the dirt. This is a stark reminder that pre war Jewish life was once very financially and culturally rich in Budapest. The Holocaust memorial had names engraved and even more poignantly names written in by hand, where loved ones discovered their tragic fate later in life.

Holocaust memorial in the Hungarian Jewish Cemetery containing many names inscribed in sharpie.
Holocaust memorial in the Kozma Street Cemetery containing many names inscribed in sharpie, 2017. (Rayna Rose Exelbierd)

 

There were hundreds of memorial tombstones symbolizing the souls of Hungarian Jews murdered during WW2 and sadly no bodies in those graves.  I can only imagine how many names and faces will never be known to us.

Tomb stones belonging to Hungarians murdered in the Holocaust. There were no bodies, just tomb stones.
Tombstones memorializing Hungarians murdered in the Holocaust at the Kozma Street Cemetery, 2017. (Rayna Rose Exelbierd)

 

Towards the end of my trip, It was an honor to eat a special Friday night meal in a restaurant named Hannah. It was such a beautiful feeling to share my work with an Israeli couple touring Budapest.

In the 2016-17 school year, the Southeast StandWithUs High School Interns and I organized 110 different Israel educational programs in six states reaching over 6,000 teenagers.  In 2017-18, I will continue this work with my seventeen interns and also ensure that the fire stays lit by developing their connection to Hannah, the story of Israel, and most importantly the Jewish people. Even though times may seem dark, I have never been more inspired to spread Israel’s light and be appreciative that Israel exists as a safe haven for Jews facing danger around the world. 

2017-2018 Southeast StandWithUs High School Interns at the fall High School Conference in Los Angeles.
2017-2018 Southeast StandWithUs High School Interns at the fall High School Conference in Los Angeles, 2017. (Rayna Rose Exelbierd)

 

“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 even though they are no longer among the living. These lights are particularly bright when the night is dark. They light the way for humankind.”  -Hannah Szenesh 1921-1944

This is Part 2 of 2 articles describing my experiences in Budapest.

 

About the Author
Rayna Rose Exelbierd, granddaughter of Holocaust survivors was born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee. After graduating high school she spent a year in Israel. She then moved to South Florida to study International Business at Florida Atlantic University. During her undergraduate studies Rayna became a victim of the pernicious campaign against Israel that permeates many college campuses around the world. She overcame those challenges and that led Rayna to become proactive in educating other students about Israel. Upon graduating, her passion became her full time career as the Southeast High School Director for StandWithUs, an international Israel education organization. In this role she has mentored hundreds of students and has reached thousands of others. Rayna's love for Israel is what defines her both professionally and personally.
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