Hannah Senesh

Hannah Senesh (1921-1944), born in Hungary, was a Jewish paratrooper from Eretz Israel and a poet. From her childhood, Hannah had shown literary talent, keeping a diary which describes the events of her life from the age of 13 up to a short time before her death.

Senesh immigrated to Eretz Israel before the Second World War, and settled in Kibbutz Sdot Yam. During the War she was sent by the Jewish Agency to save Jews in Hungary, which was occupied by the Nazis. She was captured and executed by the Nazis in November 1944. In 1950 her remains were brought to Israel.

In her short life Hannah Senesh became a symbol for idealism and self-sacrifice. The poems that she wrote, even as she faced her tragic fate, show her to be a strong, hopeful young woman – even in light of the sad circumstances that she was confronted with. Kibbutz Yad-Hannah in Israel is named after her.

Life Story of Hannah Senesh

[left] Hannah Senesh and her brother Giora. From the Senesh Family and The Hannah Senesh memorial center's archive, Sdot Yam Wikimedia Commons. [right]Hannah Senesh on Purim, dressed in the uniform of the Hungarian Army, before immigrating to Eretz Israel. Courtesy of SlimVirgin at en.wikipedia Wikimedia Commons.

Hannah Senesh was born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1921. Her father, Bela Szenes, was a well known writer and journalist, who died while she was still a child. Although she grew up in an assimilated home, anti-Semitic outbursts in Budapest led her to become involved in Zionist activity there.

Hannah Senesh in Kibbutz Sdot Yam. From the Senesh Family and The Hannah Senesh memorial center's archive, Sdot Yam (Wikimedia Commons).

In 1939, before the Second World War, Hannah Senesh immigrated to Eretz Israel. She studied at an agricultural school for women in Nahalal, and two years later she joined Kibbutz Sdot Yam. She worked in agriculture, but also continued writing poetry, and even wrote a play about life on the kibbutz.

Read what Hannah Senesh wrote in her diary on September 21, 1941. Try to explain in your own words what she meant.

In 1943, Hannah joined the British Army. When the leadership of the Yishuv in Eretz Israel received permission from the British to set up a unit of Jewish paratroopers from Eretz Israel, who were to penetrate occupied Europe as part of the British Army, Hannah was among the volunteers. The aim of the operation was to assist the Allied struggle against the Germans, by attempting to link up with the partisans, but also by saving Jewish communities that were trapped under the Nazi regime. Hannah participated in signals, demolition and parachuting courses.

From Her Diary...

From the age of 13 Hannah Senech kept a diary, and wrote poems and literary pieces in Hebrew. The pages and writing presented below are graphical representations but the text is an accurate translation from the Hannah Senech Legacy Foundation.

Photo: Hannah Senesh. From the Senesh Family and The Hannah Senesh memorial center's archive, Sdot Yam (Wikimedia Commons).

Her Exploits in Hungary During the War

Hannah Senesh after parachuting into Europe. From the Senesh Family and The Hannah Senesh memorial center's archive, Sdot Yam (Wikimedia Commons).

On March 14, 1944, Hannah Senesh and her colleagues Reuven Dafni, Yona Rosenfeld and Abba Berdichev were sent by the British to work alongside the partisans in northern Yugoslavia, primarily to save British pilots who had been taken prisoner. The leadership of the Yishuv asked them to make contact with Jewish and Zionist organizations in Romania and Hungary, before the possible seizure of those countries by the Nazis. They were parachuted into northern Yugoslavia, near the Hungarian border, and were able to operate among the local population to save Allied pilots.

That period saw the beginning of the deportation of Hungarian Jews to the extermination camps, and Hannah Senesh left her fellow paratroops in order to cross the border into Hungary.

On June 7, 1944, Hannah crossed the border. Three days later she was captured by the Germans, and was held in prison in Budapest, her birthplace. She was put on trial for spying and also, since she was a Hungarian citizen, for treason.

Reuven Dafni speaking about the 1944 action in 1990 (Hebrew)

Transcript (English)

The story, as recounted in the video by Reuven Dafni, a paratrooper in the Palmach’s paratroop unit:

When we parted and embraced, she suddenly puts something into my hand, and says, “If I don’t come back, get this to my friends at Sdot Yam.” I put it in my pocket. About three hours later, around 6:30 in the morning, the partisans come back and say, “It’s OK, she got across.” I then remember it. I take it out, and see that a poem, Blessed is the Match. First, I have no understanding of poetry, maybe I’m missing something, I don’t understand poetry. And also, it really made me mad. Here we’re under such stress, and she’s writing me poems. I really got angry. I took it and threw it away. I left, but a little while later some inner voice said to me: After all, the chance of her not coming back is pretty high, and she asked you to bring it to her friends. I went back, it took me about an hour until I found the poem. Luckily for me, the wind had blown into one of the bushes in the forest, the paper had gotten caught in the bush. And if you ever get to Sdot Yam, you’ll see there, in a frame, the poem, which had been crumpled up. I was really angry. So the conclusion from this is, that if someone asks you to do something, then do it, don’t play around.

Read the poem.

Hannah Senesh was interrogated and tortured, but although she knew that her mother was in danger because of her arrest, she refused to cooperate with her interrogators. Hannah forcefully defended her right to act as she did, demonstrating determination and courage. She refused to ask for a pardon, and was sentenced to death. On November 7, 1944, at the age of 23, Hannah Senesh was executed. Even as she faced the firing squad, she refused to be blindfolded, and faced her fate squarely.

Following her death, she was buried in the Jewish cemetery in Budapest, not far from her father’s grave. Some time later, Hannah’s mother received a note that her daughter had written a few days before her execution:

Dearest Mother, I don't know what to say - only this: a million thanks, and forgive me, if you can. You know well why words aren't necessary. With unbounded love – your daughter.
(Origin: Doing Zionism)
Photo of Hannah Senesh’s gravestone. From Valley2city (Wikimedia Commons).

In 1950, Hannah Senesh’s remains were brought to the State of Israel. The funeral processing passed through Kibbutz Sdot Yam, where her friends from the Hannah Senesh House, which was dedicated at that time, spoke in her memory. She was buried in the military cemetery on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, and many people, including then Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, laid flowers on her grave.

Her life was turned into a play by Aharon Meged, and performed by the Habimah Theater. Writer Avigdor Hameiri also wrote a play about her life, under the title Blessed is the Match, the name of one of her poems. Oded Betzer described her life in the children’s book, The Paratrooper who Didn’t Return.

50 years following the Second World War, a military court in Hungary annulled the guilty verdict against her, and declared Hannah Senesh innocent of the crime of treason against Hungary.

Hannah Senesh wasn’t the only paratrooper who was sent to save Jews from Europe; she wasn’t the only woman, and wasn’t the only one executed by the Nazis. Why do you think her name is so strongly stamped in the national memory of the Jewish people?

Hannah Senesh had skills as a writer that were already apparent at a young age. From the age of 13 she kept a diary, and wrote poems and literary pieces in Hebrew. Among her poems, which were published following her death, the most famous are Blessed is the Match, which became symbolic of the underground movements in Eretz Israel, and Walk to Caesarea, a song in praise of hope. You can read these and others of her poems here.

She also wrote a play about kibbutz life, entitled The Violin. A selection of her writings, found after her death, were published in Hannah Senesh, her Mission and her Death.

Hannah Senesh wrote the poem Blessed is the Match in Yugoslavia, in May 1944, when she was operating there. It’s interesting to think whether there is some connection between the poem and the date when it was written.