Hannah Szenes was one of thirty-two Jews from Palestine who parachuted into Europe as members of the British Army in the spring of 1944. Their goal was to rescue other Jews, although their British leaders emphasized that this objective must be secondary to reconnaissance tasks and enabling the escape of captured Allied airmen. After working with partisans in Yugoslavia, Hannah attempted to cross the border into her native Hungary, but was captured and executed five months later, aged just 23. A passionate Zionist and a gifted writer during her brief lifetime, Hannah is remembered as a national heroine in Israel.
Hannah Szenes (also known as Hannah Senesh) was born in Budapest on 17 July 1921. Her father, a journalist and playwright, died when she was six, but Hannah inherited his gift for writing, becoming a talented poet and regular diarist as she matured. Although the Szenes family were assimilated Jews, Hannah experienced anti-Semitism first-hand when she enrolled at a private high school in the early 1930s and was forced to pay triple tuition fees because of her religion. An intelligent and studious pupil, she became increasingly interested in Zionism, the movement to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
Emigrating to Palestine
In September 1939, the same month that the Second World War broke out, Hannah’s dream of travelling to Palestine became a reality. Despite her strong academic performance, she chose to enrol in the Nahalal Agricultural School instead of a traditional university, as she firmly believed that Jewish youth should build the new country. She became particularly interested in poultry farming and after two years of study, joined a new kibbutz near the ruins of an ancient Roman city, between Tel Aviv and Haifa.
As news of the war and the increasing persecution of the Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe trickled through to Palestine, Hannah grew ever more concerned for her brother George, who was studying in Paris, and for her mother, who was still living in Budapest. Despite the natural beauty of the kibbutz’s location, Hannah failed to find contentment in her new work and longed to actively assist her compatriots in Hungary. In 1943 she joined the Haganah (an underground Jewish military force) and was subsequently accepted for a British Army mission that would enable her to travel back to Central Europe. Her seemingly fearless nature, particularly when it came to parachute training, earned the respect and admiration of her fellow volunteers.
The day before she left for further training in Cairo, in early 1944, Hannah received news that George had just arrived in Palestine. They were able to meet for a few short hours, in an emotional reunion made all the harder by the fact that Hannah couldn’t reveal any details about the mission she was about to embark upon.
Return to Central Europe
Hannah was the only female among five parachutists to jump into Yugoslavia on 14 March 1944. The German occupation of Hungary just days later cast doubt on whether their mission to assist the Jews would still be feasible, but Hannah nevertheless determined to cross the border. She spent three months assisting partisans before entering Hungary on 9 June, whereupon she was almost immediately captured. She refused to surrender her radio transmitter codes despite being beaten and interrogated, and was taken to prison in Budapest.
Hannah’s mother, Catherine, was also arrested and imprisoned in the same building as her daughter. Neither of them could have imagined that their first meeting after nearly five years apart would be in such harrowing circumstances. Although forced to remain in separate cells, the two women were occasionally able to meet and communicated by signalling from their windows across the prison yard. Hannah remained optimistic about her fate and her calm demeanour gave hope and reassurance to the other prisoners.
In October 1944, however, after nearly five months of internment, Hannah was tried for treason against Hungary. A sentence was not officially passed, yet on 7 November she was executed by firing squad. She refused a blindfold. Among the lines of poetry later found in her cell were the words:
I gambled on what mattered most.
The dice were cast. I lost.
A National Heroine
Catherine Szenes was among thousands of Jews sent on a death march from Budapest to Austria in 1945, but she survived the war, as did George. While some of Hannah’s British Army comrades did succeed in assisting Jews, seven ultimately died for their cause. They were one of the few groups from outside Europe who actively tried to make a difference to the thousands of men and women suffering under the Nazi racial policies.
Hannah’s body was returned to Israel in 1950 and buried in the military cemetery in Jerusalem. Several streets in Israel bear her name, as does the headquarters of the Zionist youth movement, and there is a small memorial park dedicated to her in Budapest, the city of her birth. Besides being held in high esteem for her courageous actions during the war, her poems are highly acclaimed, including the famous‘Blessed is the Match’, which was written shortly after she arrived in Yugoslavia:
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 flame.