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Hannah Senesh
From the Hannah Senesh Archive, the National Library of Israel

Hannah Senesh

Hannah Senesh (1921–1944) was a Jewish soldier and a poet. She was born in Hungary and immigrated to what was then Mandatory Palestine in 1939, where she eventually became one of the founders of Kibbutz Sdot Yam. In 1943, during World War II, at the height of the extermination of European Jewry, she volunteered for the British Army and set out to parachute behind enemy lines in Europe. While crossing the border into her native Hungary, 23 year-old Senesh (often spelled Szenes) was captured by Hungarian forces, allied with Nazi Germany. She was executed shortly after. Her poems, diaries and letters published after her death established her as a national heroine in Israeli collective memory. The rich archive of her collected writings was deposited at the National Library of Israel in 2021.

Hannah Senesh was born in Budapest on July 17, 1921 to an educated family. Her father, a journalist, playwright and author, died when Hannah was six years old. Toward the end of her high school studies in Hungary Senesh experienced antisemitism and harsh restrictions imposed on Jews on the eve of the Second World War. She made the decision to immigrate to the Land of Israel and take an active part in the Zionist enterprise. She arrived in 1939 and underwent two years of training at the Nahalal Agricultural School for Girls, after which she joined the group establishing Kibbutz Sdot Yam. She worked in agriculture, and was a counselor for the Working and Studying Youth (HaNoar HaOved VeHaLomed), and at the same time, she wrote poetry as well as a play about life on the kibbutz.

Her embrace of Zionism and immigration did not diminish her concern over what was happening in Europe, and in particular, in her native Hungary. Senesh felt an urgent need to enlist in the struggle against Nazi Germany and its allies, and in 1943 she volunteered for the British Army. Her background, courage and determination made her a suitable candidate for one the most dangerous secret initiatives undertaken by British forces and the Jewish community in Palestine: the parachuting of fighters behind enemy lines in Europe, for the sake of gathering intelligence and helping to rescue Allied pilots who had been forced to abandon their planes. The mission also aimed to make contact with the partisans and anti-Nazi underground, while trying to help save Jews. For Senesh, the Nazi threat against Hungarian Jewry was the main motive for volunteering for the dangerous operation.

In March 1944, Hannah Senesh (whose code name was “Hagar”), Reuven Dafni, Yona Rosen and Abba Berdichev parachuted into Yugoslavia, near the Hungarian border. The paratroopers worked with local partisans in Croatian territory, and in June 1944 Senesh crossed the border into Hungary. Hungarian soldiers patrolling the borders quickly apprehended her and she was transferred to Budapest for interrogation. Though severely tortured, she refused to divulge any details about the mission or her comrades in the covert operation. Senesh was prosecuted as a British spy, and because she was also a native of Hungary, for treason as well. In November 1944, before the legal proceedings concluded, 23- year-old Senesh was executed in a Budapest prison.

Hannah Senesh's Artistic Legacy

Although Hannah Senesh was just 23 years old at the time of her death, she left behind a unique and important legacy. A talented poet and writer, she kept a personal diary right up until the day she left to take part in her final mission, and wrote many letters to her mother and brother still living in war-torn Europe. Her poems were discovered only after her death. Two of them, “Blessed is the Match” and “A Walk to Caesarea,” were set to music shortly after her death, and would go on to attain iconic status in Israeli culture.  Upon his return to Mandatory Palestine in 1945, fellow Jewish Brigade soldier Moshe Breslavsky found a suitcase containing Senesh’s letters, diaries, photo albums and more under her bed in Kibbutz Sdot Yam. Another friend had in her possession a book of poems Senesh had written before leaving for her mission. These works form the core of the Zionist soldier-poet's archive. Katrina Senesh, Hannah’s mother, who herself immigrated to the Land of Israel at the end of World War II, brought with her the family archive she had kept in Budapest, which completed the Israeli archive. For decades, Senesh’s mother managed and preserved the archive. Her son Giora, Hannah's brother, took over after her death, and his son Eitan eventually assumed responsibility for the family archive until its transfer to the National Library of Israel.

In 2020, the National Library of Israel contacted the Senesh family and Ori and Mirit Eisen of Arizona, who generously agreed to help facilitate the transfer of the archive to the National Library. The archive includes, among other things, the manuscripts of her poems; personal diaries; extensive correspondence with her family and with others; photographs; personal documents; notebooks from the Agricultural School for Girls; the minutes of her trial in Budapest; as well as objects such as her suitcase, her typewriter and camera. Two especially moving items are the notes that were found in her dress pocket after her execution: a final poem, and a farewell note to her mother in Hungarian.

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