A voice called, I went.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
“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.
- American Jewry
- Campus Life
- European Jewry
- Israel on Campus
- Israel-Diaspora Ties
- Jewish Education
- Jewish Life on Campus
- Jewish-Christian Relations
- Jewish-Muslim Relations
- Nonprofit Organizations
- Peace Process
- Race Relations
- The Holocaust
- Women & Judaism
- Young Judaea