Hanna Senesh: A woman of valor

Hanna Senesh in dress

Blessed is the match consumed in kindling flame.

Blessed is the flame that burns in the secret fastness of the heart.

Blessed is the heart with strength to stop its beating for honor’s sake.

Blessed is the match consumed in kindling flame.———-Hanna Senesh

She died for Israel

This is the story of Hanna Senesh, a woman for all seasons, part poet, part warrior, part dreamer, and complete hero.  she was destined to be remembered for something, and indeed in Israeli history, she is. A Palestinian Zionist Jew who grew up in Hungary, and was educated in a protestant school. Born into an assimilated upper middle class Hungarian family, she first experienced anti-Semitism in high school. As a result she sought out her Jewish roots, and became enamored with Zionism.

In 1939 the writing on the wall for Jews was to get out of that part of Europe. Hitler was already on the move  swallowing larger and larger swaths of neighboring countries leaving the Jews in those places to the mercy of the Nazis. There were disappearances of Jews and others. They would leave home and just never return. The Gestapo was suspected.

A commemorative stamp honoring her commitment and sacrifice in the name of the Jewish people. courtesy of

Imbued with the Zionist dream she decided to move to Palestine to work toward the establishment of a Jewish State. At the age of 18, she finished high school and went to Palestine in the summer of 1939. She hoped that Hitler would give them enough time to establish their state first before he gobbled up all of Europe. But, it was not to be.

Hitler and his Nazis would  not wait for anyone. The destruction of European Jewry was already on the table by the time Hanna had decided to go to Palestine. Just two months after her arrival, the world came to a halt on September 1, 1939. Hitler invaded Poland and two days later Europe was at war again, when Britain and France both declared war on Germany.

Hanna like most Palestinian Jews was extremely concerned for her family and friends who were now for all intents and purposes behind enemy lines. Her whole reason for being, her whole reason for building a Jewish homeland was to save the Jews of Europe from the Nazi claws. She and her Zionist colleagues did not give up hope but with war they knew it would be much harder to do.

Like everyone else Hanna went about her life trying to do the best she could under the circumstances, constantly reminding herself of the importance of establishing a Jewish state in Palestine. Her poetry reflected a melancholy, but persistent single mindedness to establish a homeland for the Jews.

She made two moves In 1941 which changed her life. She joined both Kibbutz Sdot Yam and the Haganna.

Babi yar in southern Russia. one of the Nazi atrocities discovered after the war which was only rumored in 1941. 33,000 people were murdered and buried in mass graves. Only the Jews in Palestine really believed what was happening. courtesy of

As the prospects grew darker for the Jews of Europe, and the war carried on,  communication broke down, letters from family were less and less, a collective dread like a heavy blanket fell over the Palestinian Jewish community.  Rumors of summary executions and torturous concentration camps raised concern to unprecedented levels. Even for the confident Zionist community the feeling of helplessness was overwhelming.

By the spring of 1942 the Germans were moving across the Libyan desert and threatening to invade Palestine. Hanna’s job now was to protect the Jewish community within the British Mandate. Preparations were made to fight the Axis powers in Palestine.

By 1943, the German threat had been thwarted thanks to the British turning them away at el Alamein and Hanna once again turned toward thinking about her mother and brother still in Hungary. Hanna’s situation was no different than most. Rumors of killings by now had grown into rumors of mass killings.

Could it be? The Germans were wiping out whole communities of Jews in Poland and Byelorussia.

In early 1944 the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) which had used Jews in the past to infiltrate the enemy hatched a plan to send in small groups of fighters to set up underground railroads, form resistance groups and confound the Nazi sympathetic government in Hungary. Thirty three people were chosen from a group of volunteers to train, Hanna was one of them. They took a crash course, in Egypt in parachuting, hand to hand combat, instruction in weapons, guns and knives, and basic survival techniques.

She and her commandos parachuted into Yugoslovia in March 1944 and found that when they got there they were too late. The Germans had already invaded Hungary, beginning on March 19. Hanna and her comrades spent three months fighting with Tito’s partisans trying to figure a way  to get into Hungary to facilitate their mission.

Deemed too dangerous by the SOE most of the paratroopers either stayed with Tito’s partisans, move to other operations for the SOE inside Europe or returned to Palestine. But Hanna was determined. She and two of her fellow Haganna, Yoel Palgi and Peretz Goldstein  crossed the border into Hungary to try and do anything they could to upset the enemy. They were caught almost immediately. Finding the transmitter that the three used for communication to link up with others behind the lines gave them away as allied spies.

They were tortured to give the information about who they were  to contact and where the rest of their people were. Hanna, was stripped naked, tied to a chair  for several days and beat brutally with a club and violated through every opening in her body. Most of her teeth were knocked out. But, she never revealed anything, about her contacts or the other commandos still in Yugoslavia.

All she would tell them was here name and that she came from Palestine. Under the Gestapo tutledge the Hungarian facsists were very complete in their techniques. They found and arrested her mother. Dragged her in to where Hanna was tied to the chair held a gun to her head and told Hanna to tell them what they wanted to know or they would kill her. Hanna still refused. They didn’t shoot her mother probably planning to use her for something else in the future.

Hanna never talked. Broken and battered she stood trial in October 1944, in a Nazi, Fascist, kangaroo court, during the same time that Hungarian Jews were being marched into gas chambers at Auschwitz.  She was executed by firing squad on November 7, 1944. She refused a blindfold and faced her executioners with courage and pride.  With every bit of strength she had left she held her head high, singing ha-Tikva as best she could with her broken jaw and other bones in her face. She was twenty three years old.

Hanna never wavered, never faltered, she was a true hero of Israel.

And, she is one my personal Zionist heroes. My middle daughter Hanna is named after her. I think I will send this to her.

I gambled on what mattered most,
The dice were cast. I lost—————-

Hanna Senesh upon execution, 1944

Here is the trailer to a documentary  about the significance of this extraordinary young women, “Blessed is the match: The Life and Death of Hanna Senesh. If interested it can be had around the net for a small fee. She is someone we should all admire. Check it out. Let me know what you think.


Come to my website for more Israeli history, news reports, op eds, stories, and scholarly works at

About the Author
Larry Hart has been writing and commenting on Jewish issues since 1985. His body is in the U.S., but his heart is in Israel.
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