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In the Footsteps of Hannah Senesh

Hannah Senesh as a young girl in Budapest

Sarah couldn't believe that she had finally made it to Kibbutz Sdot Yam, near Caesarea, Israel. Her reason was to visit a museum, situated on the kibbutz, called 'Beit Hannah Senesh' (in Hebrew) or 'the Hannah Senesh Museum' (in English). Eagerly stepping through the door, she couldn't wait to learn more about the life of one of its most famous members, also considered a national hero in Israel. The museum was a modest, rectangular building that had recently undergone a renovation. Its exterior, pale grey walls reflected the dazzling rays of the sun positioned almost directly above.

Decades earlier, Sarah had come across the writings of Hannah Senesh and read about her short life. However, it was Hannah's poetry that had truly won her over. Intrigued by Hannah's use of few words to capture the depth of her human experience with a starkness of simplicity, Sarah wondered how she did it.

Maybe, it was a gift she had inherited from her father? He was the famous Hungarian playwright Bela Senesh who died when Hannah was six. In her visit to the museum, Sarah was surprised to learn that as a young girl, Hannah would spend time by his graveside, writing in her notebook.

As Sarah wandered through the various exhibits, she couldn't help thinking about the earlier period in her own life when she had first discovered Hannah's writing. She recalled the moment a book about Hannah Senesh had caught her eye on a library bookshelf in Australia. The commentary on the back cover made her sound so interesting. 'Who was this woman?' she wondered.

But here she was in another season of her life, standing in front of the various exhibits and photos through which the story of Hannah's life unfolded.

"So," she realized "Hannah went through a similar thing too." She was at the caption in the museum describing a new chapter in Hannah's life when she had decided in the late 1930s to move to Eretz Israel, then called Palestine under the British Mandate. Despite having been born and growing up with her brother George, in the loving home of her widowed mother Catherine in Budapest, Hungary, she nevertheless decided, in her late teen years, to leave her native country. An incident at the school she attended, when demoted from a leadership position for being Jewish, prompted this decision for it woke her up to the realization that her future lay elsewhere. She made up her mind to move to Eretz Israel and applied for a student visa which was one of the few ways at the time that guaranteed a Jew entry into Palestine.

Much to her mother's disappointment, she opted for agricultural school in the recently established settlement of Nahalal in the Galilee rather than an academic institution to which she thought her intellectual daughter was better suited. Yet, Hannah remained adamant that she wanted to work the land, for this, she believed, was key to the success of the Zionist enterprise.

Excerpts from her diaries and letters to her family back home in Hungary left a valuable record for posterity of Hannah's life at agricultural school. She described the sheer joy at getting her hands dirty and working with the animals, planting crops and growing trees on the land. However, in her writings she also alluded to the overwhelming loneliness she experienced while embarking on this new life for herself. World War 2 had broken out in Europe and she was also deeply concerned for the safety of her family who had remained in Hungary.

A worn, brown suitcase, from the 1930s placed on a low shelf behind the glass caught Sarah's attention. "Was that Hannah's?" she asked, directing her question to the woman from the front desk who was guiding her through the museum.

"Yes!" That was the suitcase she handed to her best friend on the kibbutz for safekeeping when she left on her mission with the British Army during the Second World War. Later, having learnt of Hannah's fate behind enemy lines in Hungary, her friend recalled the suitcase. Assuming it contained the sum total of Hannah's personal effects, she decided to take a peek before handing it over to Hannah's younger brother George who, in the meantime, had moved to Israel.

Sarah could imagine her friend's surprise, upon opening the suitcase and lifting the lid, at the piles of notebooks stacked to the brim that met her eyes. She would never have guessed that Hannah was a writer for she had kept this aspect of her life a secret. The chance discovery of this treasure-trove of her writings became Hannah's legacy and an important historical record of the years immediately prior to the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.

A short film about Hannah's life completed Sarah's tour of the museum. As the film drew to an end, the automated mechanism of the electric shutters, concealing the floor- to -ceiling windows, kicked in. Their gradual opening revealed the breathtaking view on the other side. Sarah gasped in amazement at the sight of the emerald green lawns of the kibbutz and beyond that, the sparkling blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea.

Unable to pull herself away from the beautiful scene outside, Sarah remained seated. Reflecting on all she had experienced during her visit to the museum, she admitted to herself it had been intense.

"What exactly was it?" she pondered, "about those shutters going up like that." They had conveyed something deep and meaningful that she couldn't quite pinpoint. Then it struck her that it was as though an invisible curtain had risen to unveil something. "Could it possibly be Hannah's indomitable spirit?" she wondered, for she could sense a certain 'energy' everywhere: inside the museum, outside on the kibbutz and now within herself.

Sarah realized there was one more thing to do before leaving the kibbutz. She needed to write Hannah a letter. So, heading towards the beach, she found a shady spot overlooking the Mediterranean Sea where Hannah had likely swum on many an occasion.

In her bag was Hannah's last poem, written in Hungarian, in a Budapest jail in 1944, a few days prior to being shot, execution-style, in the prison courtyard. The Gestapo was done with her for Hannah remained defiant to the end. Despite enduring the cruelest of torture, she would not divulge her military secrets. They remained undisclosed and went with her to the grave.

Sarah took out the poem and read it again.

The final verse went as follows:

I could have been twenty-three next July;

I gambled on what mattered most,

The die was cast. I lost.

Then, turning over the piece of paper on which the poem was written, Sarah began her letter.

Dear Hannah,

If you had known that there would be a museum on your beloved Kibbutz Sdot Yam, telling the story of your life, If you had known that a mere two years after the establishment of the State of Israel, your remains would be brought back from Hungary and re-interred in the military cemetery atop Mount Herzl, if you had known that your poems would become iconic songs, embodying the national spirit of Israel, if you had known that your writings would be translated from their original Hungarian and Hebrew into numerous languages reaching all four corners of the globe, you would know for sure, as I do today, that you never ever lost.

The point of this letter is to let you know that you won and they lost. Your pen was always mightier than their sword. From the writings you left behind, I have been able to get to know you as an ordinary woman with an extraordinary life.

I'd like to share a poem I once wrote. It popped into my head one day before I knew anything about your remarkable story.

It's called;

Life's color code

The green of growing

And the blue of reaching the stars

In the golden rays of sunshine

As they touch the light of God'

I always wondered about this poem and why it came to me? I now realize it was waiting for this moment to be dedicated to you. I somehow think that if you had continued living, you would have written something similar yourself. It's very much in keeping with your own style which was plain, simple and to the point.

Yet, it touches the essence of who you really were and always will be in my eyes. It's also my way of saying 'thank you' for blazing a trail for those of us, as your devoted followers, to trace your footsteps. We love and admire you so.




Comments 1

Guest - Eli Libenson on Sunday, 28 May 2023 09:40

Suzanne Schwartz's article on Hannah Senesh was superb. It was both instructive and moving. Articles like this make reading ESRA Magazine a real joy.

Suzanne Schwartz's article on Hannah Senesh was superb. It was both instructive and moving. Articles like this make reading ESRA Magazine a real joy.
Friday, 21 June 2024

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