Saturday, July 17, 2021

Israel’s Joan of Arc

‘This morning we visited Daddy’s grave. How sad that we had to become acquainted with the cemetery so early in life.’ This is from the diary of Hannah Senesh born a century ago today. Although a Hungarian Jew that had emigrated to Palestine, she returned to Europe to take part in a dangerous military plan to rescue Jews from Hungary. Aged but 23, she was caught, convicted of treason and executed by a German firing squad. Her beautifully-written diary - kept from the age of 13 until the day of her death - is widely read in Israel, where she is a national heroine.

Hannah Szenes, often anglicised to Senesh, was born in Budapest on 17 July 1921, the daughter of playwright Bela Senesh (who died when Hannah was about six) and his wife Katherine. She wrote plays for school productions, and developed a considerable talent for poetry. She attended a Protestant high school which accepted Jews, where one of her teachers was the Chief Rabbi of Budapest, an ardent Zionist. As a result of his influence, she joined a Zionist youth group, and then moved to study at an agricultural school in Palestine.

In 1942, however, with the war raging, Senesh was anxious to return to Europe and help her fellow Jews. She joined a group of volunteer parachutists who were part of a military plan to rescue remaining Jews in the Balkans and Hungary. They landed in Yugoslavia, and, with the aid of a partisan group, crossed the Hungarian border. There, however, she was captured by the Germans, imprisoned, and tortured. She was convicted of treason, and executed by a firing squad in November 1944 - at just 23 years of age. Further biographical information is available from Wikipedia, the Women in Judaism website and the Hannah Senesh Legacy Foundation.

Senesh started writing a diary aged 13, and continued, sometimes intermittently, until the day of her death. Her diary was first published in Hebrew in 1946; this, and her poems, are still widely read today in Israel, where she is something of a national heroine (and has been called Israel’s Joan of Arc). The diary was first translated and published in English by Vallentine Mitchell in 1971, but has since appeared in other editions and languages. In 2007, Jewish Lights published Hannah Senesh: Her Life and Diary, the First Complete Edition, as edited by Roberta Grossman. Some of this edition is freely available to read at Googlebooks.

Here are a few extracts.

7 September 1934
‘This morning we visited Daddy’s grave. How sad that we had to become acquainted with the cemetery so early in life. But I feel that even from beyond the grave Daddy is helping us, if in no other way than with his name. I don’t think he could have left us a greater legacy.’

4 October 1935
‘Horrible! Yesterday war broke out between Italy and Abyssinia. Almost everyone is frightened the British will intervene and that as a result there will be war in Europe. Just thinking about it is terrible. The papers are already listing the dead. I can’t understand people; how quickly they forget. Don’t they know that the whole world is still groaning from the curse of the last World War? Why this killing? Why must youth be sacrificed on a bloody scaffold when it could give so much that is good and beautiful to the world if it could just be allowed to tread peaceful roads?

Now there is nothing left to do but pray that this war will remain a local one, and end as quickly as possible. I can’t understand Mussolini wanting to acquire colonies for Italy, but, after all, the British ought to be satisfied with owning a third of the world - they don’t need all of it. It is said, however, that they are frightened of losing their route to India. Truly, politics is the ugliest thing in the world.

But to talk of more specific things. One of Gyuri’s friends [Gyuri - her brother] is courting me. He was bold enough to ask whether I would go walking with him next Sunday. I said I would, if Gyuri went along. If everything he told me is true, then I feel very sorry for him; evidently he doesn’t have a decent family life. There is something wrong there, that’s for sure.’

18 June 1936
‘. . . When I began keeping a diary I decided I would write only about beautiful and serious things, and under no circumstances constantly about boys, as most girls do. But it looks as if it’s not possible to exclude boys from the life of a fifteen-year-old girl, and for the sake of accuracy I must record the development of the G. matter.

He was not satisfied with my aforementioned answer, but put into a book I borrowed from him . . . a picture of himself autographed “With Love Forever, G.” I didn’t say a word about the picture. Ever since, whenever I see him (quite often) he showers me with compliments, which I try to brush off. . .’

14 June 1941
‘This week I leave for Egypt. I’m a soldier. Concerning the circumstances of my enlistment, and my feelings in connection with it, and with all that led up to 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.’

This article is a slightly revised version of one first published on 17 July 2011.

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