Having lived in Israel for nearly 20 years, I have had the opportunity to watch the Holocaust Remembrance Ceremony broadcast live every year from Yad Vashem. Each year at the same period I also hear stories about the life and death of Hannah Szenes, the fiercely courageous and deeply profound young poet, who as a symbol of Jewish heroism became Israel’s national heroine.
For me there is a very special connection to Hannah Szenes, as the short, tragic and heroic story of her life became woven into many years of my own life.
Hannah Szenes’ diaries and poems were published in English for the very first time in 1971, but until that time, the name of Hannah Szenes was mostly unknown to the world outside of Israel. With the first publication of her diaries in English, Hannah’s story and her incredibly poignant and beautiful poems became available to people all over the globe.
A film ‘Hannah’s War’ was made about her in 1988, and more recently in 2008 a documentary: “Blessed is The Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh”.
Roberta Grossman, the producer of the documentary has said that she was ‘captivated’ by Hannah’s courage after reading her diaries in Junior High School, and that her interest in Hannah’s story persisted for 20 years until she finally made contact with Hannah’s nephew in Israel in regards to making a documentary film about Hannah.
Senator John McCain paid tribute to Hannah in his 2004 book ‘Why Courage Matters’ and an excerpt of his comments appear on the back cover of the publication Hannah Senesh: Her Life and Diary, the First Complete Edition, Published by Jewish Lights Publishing, 2007.
But 36 years had elapsed between the first publishing of Hannah’s diaries in 1971 and the more recent edition in 2007, and that is why it can be said that international awareness of the story and writings of Hannah Szenes can be largely attributed to one man, Nigel Abraham Marsh.
Nigel Abraham Marsh was my father, a British Jew who died at the age of 86 in Los Angeles, CA in 2004. He was an independent film producer and writer and much of his life’s work was dedicated to one particular project – that of making the story of Hannah Szenes known to the world outside of Israel.
My father ultimately failed in his quest to have the name Hannah Szenes as well known to the general public as Anne Frank; but he can definitely be credited with opening the door of knowledge to thousands of people around the world who since 1971 have had the opportunity to read and learn about Hannah Szenes.
IN GRATITUDE AND IN HIS MEMORY, I WOULD LIKE TO RELATE THE STORY.
Sometime during the early 1960’s my father read Ben Hecht’s book “Perfidy” that included a chapter about Hannah Szenes. Hannah’s story interested him and he started to research further information about her. By December 1965 he had made his first trip to Israel, where he met with Hannah’s mother Madame Catherine Szenes, and was successful in obtaining from her the sole rights to publish Hannah’s diaries and poems in English, to commission a writer for a biography of Hannah’s life, and for a film to be made based on that book.
In the summer of 1966 my siblings and I accompanied our parents to Israel, where we all had the opportunity to meet Madame Szenes. At the time I was 15 years old, my brother David was 14, and Debbie our sister was 12. All three of us have kept vivid memories of meeting Madame Szenes in her home on Mount Carmel in Haifa as well as Giora Szenes (Hannah’s brother) and his family.
After we returned to London, my father commissioned Anthony Masters to write the biographical book, “The Summer That Bled”. Tony was as impassioned about the story of Hannah as my father was and they spent a great deal of time together researching material for the book. Madame Szenes maintained a very steady correspondence with both Tony and my father, in which she shared with them her views on the progress of the book. I remember hearing often during those years that it was not so easy to please her, she had very specific ideas about the way that Hannah should be portrayed and those ways were not always conducive to making the kind of epic film that my father had in mind. He did not want to make a parochial story about Hannah, based solely on her life and diaries. He sought something far more historically wide-reaching and dramatic. There were aspects of the events that took place in the Hungary of 1944 that could possibly have made a difference to the destiny of Hannah Szenes, and so he wanted the book and subsequent film to reflect this. He envisioned the story of Hannah to unfold against a background of acerbic WW2 dealings that had been hitherto virtually unknown to the general public.
But Madame Szenes was extremely anxious about anything that could be considered politically inflammatory. She did not condone any reference to certain political figures of the time that could have been misconstrued or deemed derogatory; and she was convinced that the Israeli government would not want to attach itself in any way to a film that contained provocative content. Fortunately Madame Szenes’s worries were unfounded, and my father did receive approval from Israel’s Ministry of Commerce and Industry for production of the film based on the screenplay that had also been written by Anthony Masters.
Throughout the years from his first trip to Israel in 1965 until the publication of the book in 1972, my father spoke of, and did little else other than work on his ‘Hannah Project’. Conversations in our house invariably revolved around ‘Hannah’ and the progress or the predicaments that were taking place with either the book or the film. For my father it was really a labor of love into which his investment both of time and pecuniary was substantial. He believed that the book would be an enormous success and would enable him to easily find the financial backing he needed for the film. But although the book received some very good reviews, it did not achieve the success that he had hoped for, and the setbacks he encountered took on an emotional as well as a financial toll.
Putting together a ‘package’ in view to making a film is one thing……directors, actors, etc. may show their interest and even sign on some dotted lines to confirm their intention to be involved in a project. But actually getting to the point of being in production is something else. It is far more complicated and hard to achieve than one might imagine, but it is something that you learn to live with when you grow up in a family affiliated to the film industry. My mother used to say that periods of our life resembled either ‘a feast’ or ‘a famine’. By the mid-seventies we definitely were experiencing one of our ‘famine’ stages, as my father had been unable to get the finance he needed to start production of the film.
It was also a time of a ‘slump’ in the British film industry; so filled with optimism that he would have more luck to find the financial backing for “The Summer that Bled” in the United States, my parents left London and moved to Los Angeles.
By this time it was 1978, my father had been working on the Hannah Szenes project for already thirteen years; but despite re-writes of the screenplay and strenuous efforts he did not manage to raise the finance. It didn’t help either that it was not a time in Hollywood when epic WW2 stories were very popular, that genre came back slightly in the nineties with Stephen Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan”
The years of research and investment that my father had devoted to the project eventually made an impact on his personal finances, and he was finally forced to consider other options. It was an extremely painful decision for him to make, but in 1983 he ultimately agreed to sell his rights to the “The Summer that Bled” to Cannon Films.
There are few similarities between the film that Cannon produced and the film that my father had dreamed of producing. Whereas my father had never waned from his original concept to turn the story into a major WW2 film with Hannah’s life being the core of the story; Cannon’s production of “Hannah’s War” was one-dimensional and it received very lukewarm reviews.
We will never know if my father’s film would have been as successful as he had hoped, but I like to believe that it would.
In April 2004, my sister, Debbie called me from Los Angeles to tell me that Daddy had suffered an aneurysm and that he was in a very frail condition in hospital. I left immediately, but the journey from Israel to Los Angeles takes more than 20 hours and I was met at the airport by my sister with the sad news that he had died several hours earlier.
Debbie and I went straight to The Hillside Memorial Park to speak with the Rabbi and make arrangements for the funeral. As the Rabbi spoke, I found myself drawn to a poster with a photograph of a young woman that was on a wall at the end of the room. As the poster was at quite a distance from where I sat, I rose to investigate more closely the identity of the young woman in the photograph…… it was Hannah Szenes, and the poster was advertising a forthcoming lecture about her.
Until today “The Summer that Bled” is considered one of the best books written about the Holocaust and both the book and the 1972 edition of the diaries appear on the Hannah Senesh bibliography page at the online Multimedia Learning Center of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
The “Summer that Bled” was included in a list compiled by the Jerusalem Post as one of: ‘Books on the Shoah that make the points worth making’