Hannah Szenes (Hungarian spelling), a heroine-poetess of Israel, was born in Budapest in 1921, but her life was cut short by the horrors of World War II, before she reached the age of 23. Her father, Bela Szenes, was famous as a journalist and playwright. He died when Hannah was only 6 years old. Her assimilated, middle-class Jewish background did not allow for a meaningful Jewish education. But she excelled in poetry and composition in the local public school, and it was there that she received an introduction to one of the harsh realities of life: anti-Semitism. She attended a Protestant girls’ high school, where one of her teachers, in one of life’s great ironies, was the Chief Rabbi of Budapest, Imre Benoschofsky, who was an ardent Zionist. Under Benoschofsky’s influence, Hannah joined Maccabea, a Zionist youth group in Hungary. In 1938, a diary entry reads, “I’ve become a Zionist. This word stands for a tremendous number of things. To me it means, in short, that I now consciously and strongly feel I am a Jew, and am proud of it. My primary aim is to go to Palestine.”
Her application for admission was accepted by the Girls’ Agricultural School in Nahalal. In her first letter to her mother, she wrote, “I am home!…Here almost every life is the fulfillment of a mission.” In 1941, she joined the Haganah (Jewish Self-Defense Organization). In 1942, with World War II raging, she wanted desperately to return to Hungary to organize Youth Aliyah (emigration to Palestine) and to help her mother escape Hitler’s closing net. The first woman volunteer to join the parachutist group, Hannah joined the British Royal Air Force and began training for a mission to parachute behind enemy lines. The purpose of the mission was to help assist British airmen who’d been shot down. But for the Jewish volunteers, there was an additional, and even more urgent purpose; namely, to assist their People in their plight.
In June of 1944, she parachuted into Yugoslavia, and crossed the Hungarian border with the aid of a partisan group. There she was very quickly captured by the Germans, and imprisoned in Budapest. She was tortured in order to reveal her secret communication code, but never did. The following description was written concerning her behavior in that crucible of fire: “Her behavior before members of the Gestapo and the SS was quite remarkable. She always stood up to them, warning them plainly of the bitter fate that awaited them after their defeat… Curiously, these wild animals, in whom every spark of humanity had been extinguished, felt awed in the presence of this refined, fearless young girl.” Hannah was convicted of treason, following which she made an eloquent and moving speech to the court, protesting her innocence and the great injustice that was being done to her People, but she was executed nonetheless by a firing squad. Her remains, together with those of 6 fellow paratroopers killed in Europe, were transferred for re-burial as heroes, to the military cemetery on Har Herzl in Jerusalem.
One of her poems is:
“L-rd my G-d, I pray that these things never end;
The sand and the sea, the rush of the waters,
The crash of the heavens, the human prayer.”
A Diary Entry (9/17/38):
“We’re living through indescribably tense days. The question is: Will there be war?…No news concerning the discussions of Hitler and Chamberlain… The devil take the Sudeten Germans and all the other Germans, along with their Fuhrer. One feels better saying these things. Why is it necessary to ruin the world, turn it upside-down, when everything could be so pleasant. Or is that impossible? Is it contrary to the nature of man?”
Diary Entry 6/14/41
“This week I leave for Egypt. I’m a soldier. Concerning the circumstances of my enlistment, and my feelings in connection with it, I don’t want to write. I want to believe that what I’ve done, and will do, are right. Time will tell the rest.”
Time has told the rest. Her courage and devotion to her People in Israel and in Europe have made her a legend, and have added her name to the ranks of her sisters who have contributed to the survival of her People.
Her final message to her comrades:
“Continue on the way, don’t be deterred. Continue the struggle till the end, until the day of liberty comes, the day of victory for our People.”