Englewood survivor knew Hannah Senesh, hero and martyr
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Englewood survivor knew Hannah Senesh, hero and martyr

Growing up in Israel, Hannah Senesh’s nephews David and Eitan Senesh knew their aunt’s life story. But when they inherited the archive containing her diary, correspondence, photos, and personal effects after their father Gyuri’s (Giora) death in 1995, they realized there was much more depth to that story than the daring mission she had been a part of. Says Eitan Senesh, “We knew the stories of my aunt, but it was a surprise to see the richness of the letters.”

The brothers hope to bring the story of Israel’s national heroine to a worldwide audience through both Roberta Grossman’s documentary film and now the first major museum exhibition about her, “Fire in My Heart: The Story of Hannah Senesh,” on view at the Museum of Jewish Heritage”“A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in New York City. “My main goal for this exhibition is for Hannah’s story to be known throughout the world – especially the younger generation,” says Eitan Senesh, who is chairman of the Hannah Senesh Foundation.

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Photograph of last meeting of Senesh and her brother Gyuri (Giora), Tel Aviv, Palestine, Feb. 2, 1944. Collection of the Senesh family

Hannah Senesh was born in 1921 in Budapest, Hungary. The daughter of the well-known Hungarian playwright and journalist Bela Senesh and his wife Catherine, Hannah and her brother Gyuri grew up in an affluent household in cosmopolitan Budapest. Although not observant, her family did celebrate Jewish holidays. Hannah’s spiritual journey began after an anti-Semitic incident at a Protestant secondary school where she was a student. Barred from public office after she was elected president of the school’s literary society because she was Jewish, she came to believe that the only way to counter anti-Semitism was the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. At 17, she announced in her diary that she had become a Zionist.

She realized her goal to immigrate to Palestine in September of 1939, just two weeks before Germany’s invasion of Poland and the outbreak of World War II. After a two-year program of study at the Nahalal Agricultural School, she joined the newly formed Kibbutz Sedot Yam. As the war raged in Europe, she grew determined to go back to help Europe’s Jewish community, including her mother, who was still living in Budapest. Chosen for the mission from among hundreds of Palestinian Jewish recruits, she was drafted into the British army and sent for special training. Then she and four Jewish comrades were parachuted into Yugoslavia, where she spent the next three months with partisan units. Attempting to cross into Hungary, she was captured by the Gestapo, interrogated, and tortured before being imprisoned in Budapest, where she revealed her identity as a British officer. Tried by the Hungarian authorities, she was convicted of treason and executed by firing squad on Nov. 7, 1944.

A gifted writer and poet, Hannah kept a diary from the time she was 13 that has been read worldwide. She also left a body of poetry, including her most famous poem, “Blessed Is The Match,” written before she crossed the border into Hungary. The hymn “Walking To Caesarea” known as “Eli, Eli,” which she wrote in 1942, was set to music after her death, and has since become a second national anthem in Israel.

For the museum’s multi-media exhibition, filmmaker Roberta Grossman provided archival film footage and excerpts of interviews with people who had known Senesh. The exhibit attempts to dispel the one-dimensional image of Hannah as a martyr. “The woman who emerges is far more complex – not just a child’s action hero,” says museum curator Louis Levine.

“What a life she had – tragically cut short but lived with conviction and meaning,” says museum director David Marwell. Artifacts donated by the Senesh family add dimension, including Senesh’s letters, photographs, archival British intelligence documents, and personal belongings such as her typewriter and the suitcase she left behind when she set off on the mission. One compelling example is the note Senesh wrote her mother in her cell and which was found in the pocket of her skirt after her execution. It read:

“My dearest Mother,

I don’t know what to say-
Just two things:
A million thanks
Forgive me if possible.
You know well why there is no need for words.
With infinite love,
Your daughter”

After Senesh’s death, her remains were taken to Israel in 1950, where they were interred at Mount Herzl. After the exhibition concludes at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in August, it will go on a nationwide tour and return to Israel, where it will be permanently housed at Kibbutz Sedot Yam, near Haifa.

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