Yesterday, 7th November, was the Yahrzeit of Hannah Szenes, one of my childhood heroines. On November 7th, 1944 in Hungary, Hannah came up before a tribunal for trial, and with no legal assistance elegantly pleaded her own cause but was convicted as a Spy, sentenced to death and shot, aged only 22. Parachutist, Poetess & a Jew Girl!
Hannah Szenes was born in Budapest on July 17th, 1921, to a wealthy, distinguished, and assimilated Hungarian Jewish family. Her father, Bela Szenes (1874-1929), an esteemed Hungarian playwright died when she was just six years old .... she grew up in his shadow to become one of Israel's most esteemed poetesses. Her works have been read throughout Israel and have inspired many to continue in the Zionist tradition of Aliyah, of building the Jewish State and eventually giving their lives for their Judaism. Hannah is no exception here.
Her mother, Katharine, a lady of culture and an elegant homemaker, raised her and her brother, Giora, who was one year older than Hannah, in relative affluence and comfort in Hungary. Little was heard about Judaism in their house. Although their family never denied their Jewishness, they paid no importance to Torah learning of doing Mitzvoh on a daily basis. Her father had in fact believed in Humanism and encouraged it, both in action and in speech. At an early age, Hannah stood out as an exemplary student. She was enrolled in a Prestigious Protestant girls' school and was quickly seen by her teachers and fellow students as being an exceptional student. In addition to her academic standing, she had a charming personality and admirable speaking abilities that made her friends among the staff and student body. She was elected to the school's Literary society as her grade representative and most excited about this. Unfortunately, the school rules barred a Jew from holding an office in the society. This was a very severe blow to Hannah.
So, Hannah, having been given a modern Hungarian education, wasn't expecting the antisemitism she was exposed to during her high school years, but this propelled her to began an exploration of what it meant to be a Jew and return to her Jewish origins. At the age of seventeen, she discovered the Zionist movement, and increasingly came to feel that there was no room in the Hungarian world for Jews. She joined a Zionist youth movement and began learning Hebrew in preparation for Aliyah to Eretz Ha'Kodesh.
At the same time, Nazism was on the upturn and Europe was witnessing major Nazi aggression. In 1937, the question of Anschluss, the political unification of Germany and Austria was debated in Europe. Germany demanded the resignation of the Austrian Chancellor, Dr. Kurt von Schuschnigg. Suddenly Germany invaded Austria compelling them to submit and Schuschnigg left Austria. These events caused tension to build indescribably in Hungary. It became the main topic of discussion. Shortly afterwards in 1938, the Hungarian parliament began a debate on the "Jewish Law". This became the Jewish Bill which reduced the ratio of Jewish representation in the various fields to a specific percentage. It also stated that the "expansion of the Jews is detrimental to the nation and dangerous".
|Hannah in Hungary|
With this came the 'Arrow-Crossers', the young Hungarian Nazis who began to proliferate in the schools and streets. Although at this point they were not threatened, yet it was a sign of the Nazi influence in the daily life in Hungary. Again in 1938, the Nazi threat began to encroach on life in Europe as Hilter made his demand on Czechoslovakian Sudetenlands. British Lord Chamberlain entered into negotiations with him, and with the seccession of the Sudeten to Germany, Hungary began its own mobilization. As the second Jewish Law was announced in 1939, the numbers of Jews in all walks of Hungarian life were to be reduced even further. No Jew was allowed to be a member of the Parliament, a Judge, a lawyer, teacher ... the list goes on & on!! On February 1939, a bomb was thrown into the largest synagogue in Budapest during the Friday evening service resulting in deaths and many injuries. War was advancing in the world's most Cultured & Civilised Continent!
As all of these tragic events were taking place, Hannah increased her identification with the Zionist movement as the only possible solution to European Jewry's problems. She was so Correct!! She took deep pride in being a Jew and prepared for her life in "Palestine", as Eretz Israel was called before Independence. She defined Zionist in the words of Nachum Sokolov, the Zionist leader of that period, as "the movement of the Jewish people for its revival." She began to realize, that the only hope of lessening or ending anti-Semitism is to realize the ideals of Zionism. Only when Jews live in their own Jewish State, granted eternally to them by Ha'Shem Himself, with the ingathering of the exiles, could she exist without the cancerous anti-Semitism that she knew too well in Europe.
In 1939, after finishing her high school studies, Hannah came to Eretz Yisrael to study at the girls agricultural school in Nahalal, continuing the diary that she had begun in Hungary. She threw herself into her chores & her studies and soon became an exemplary student yet again. Hebrew too soon became an important part of her life and she began to compose her poems in Hebrew. She relates that she only wished that she could find her chosen spouse, but although the boys were in amour of her, she only would maintain a platonic relationship with them, preferring to wait until the "right" person would come her way. She was now inbued with Zionist ideology, studying works of many of the various Zionist and Jewish thinkers.
|Hannah in Israel|
Having completed a two-year course in Agriculture, Hannah joined the S'dot Yam kibbutz at Caesarea. She worked in the kitchen and in the kibbutz laundry, and the difficulties that she encountered are echoed in her diary. She was given a tent and survived a difficult and freezing winter there. She lists as one of her accomplishments as washing 150 pairs of socks with out going mad. Eventually she was accepted as a member and was elected as the Supply Officer of the kibbutz. Her choice was motivated by the preference of maintaining an anonymous status, rather than being known as "the daughter of Bela Szenes," something that would have been likely had she joined one of the kibbutz groups whose members were primarily of Hungarian origin.
In 1940 she wrote her first poem in Hebrew .....
In the fires of war, in the flame, in the flare,
In the eye-blinding, searing glare
My little lantern I carry high
To search, to search for true Man.
In the glare, the light of my lantern burns dim,
In the fire-glow my eye cannot see;
How to look, to see, to discover, to know
When he stands there facing me?
Set a sign, O Lo-d, set a sign on his brow
That in heat, fire and burning I may
Know the pure, the eternal spark
Of what I seek: true Man.
At this time the war was raging in Europe and her heart was with her mother in Hungary and her brother who was in occupied France. A representative of the Palmach, the armed forces of the Jewish Agency contacted her concerning a mission in Hungary. The purpose of this was to organize and prepare the Jews for escape from the Inferno of Europe. Her answer was that she was ready. After a delay of several months she was accepted but her assignment required special training and enlistment in the British army. For this she was transferred to Egypt. Upon completion of her training she returned to Haifa where she met her brother, Giora, who finally was in Israel. Their reunion lasted for only one day.
|Parachutist & Poetess|
In March of 1944, Hannah and her comrades were parachuted into Yugoslavia in order to aid the anti-Nazi forces until they would be able to commence their true mission and enter Hungary. Hannah was the only woman in a group of infiltrators. According to the reports that were given by her comrades, she was a compelling and reassuring force in the darkness during their hiding. Hiding in the forests with the partisans, she earned their respect and admiration. She was always enthusiastic and warm, radiating energy in the face of death. During this time she wrote one of her most famous poems, entitled
Blessed is the Match ......
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 honour's sake
Blessed is the match consumed in kindling fame.
The Nazi invasion of Hungary in March 1944 postponed their plans, and Szenes only crossed the border to her former motherland in June of that year. Captured within hours of having stepped on to Hungarian soil, she was sent to prison in Budapest where she was tortured by Hungarian authorities in the hope of receiving information regarding Allied wireless codes. Within days of entering Hungary, her two co-parachutists were also captured, unaware of Hannah's whereabouts. Only one of them-Yoel Palgi-was to survive the war.
When the Hungarian authorities realized that Hannah would not be broken, they arrested her mother and the two women came face to face with each other for the first time in almost five years. Katherine Szenes had no idea that her daughter had left Palestine-not to speak of the fact that she was now in Hungary. Initially shocked as they brought in the young woman with bruised eyes and who had lost a front tooth in the torture process, she rapidly regained her composure, and both mother and daughter refused to give the authorities the performance that would lead to the information they had sought.
For three months the two women were near yet far, sharing the same prison walls but unable to catch more than short glimpses of each other. In September 1944, after Katharine Szenes was suddenly released, she spent most of her waking hours seeking legal assistance for her daughter, who-being a Hungarian national-was to be tried as a spy. On November 7th, 1944 in Hungary, Hannah came up before a tribunal for trial, and with no legal assistance elegantly pleaded her own cause but was convicted as a Spy, sentenced to death and shot. Hannah went to her death at age twenty-two in a snow-covered Budapest courtyard, refusing a blindfold in order to face her murderers in the moments before her death. Her body was buried by unknown persons in the Jewish graveyard at Budapest.
(Katharine Szenes who escaped from the infamous Budapest "Death March," hid in that city until its liberation by the Soviet forces in January 1945. She made Aliyah to EY where she joined her surviving child, Giora, she became an instrumental part of the Hannah Szenes legend, based on her daughter's courageous life. She brought to public knowledge by fifteen editions of her daughters diary, poetry, and plays, that have since been published in Hebrew.
In 1950 Hannah Szenes' remains were brought to Israel where they were buried in the "Parachutists' section" in the Military Cemetery on Mt. Herzl in Jerusalem. In the same year a Kibbutz was founded and called Yad Hannah in her memory.
To Die ....
To die… so young to die… no, no, not I.
I love the warm sunny skies,
Light, songs, shining eyes,
I want no war, no battle cry –
No, no…not I.
But if it must be that I live today
With blood and death on every hand,
Praised be He for the grace, I’ll say
To live, if I should die this day…
Upon your soil, my home, my land.
Two movies have been made about the life of Hannah Szenes .... 'Blessed is the Match'.
And this one .... 'Hannah's War'.