Hannah Senesh was a young Hungarian poet and diarist who was captured and executed November 7, 1944, at age 23, by military police after parachuting into Yugoslavia and then entering Hungary to try to smuggle Jews out of the country. Many know of her brave act of enlisting with the British army and the Haganah, and of her beautiful lyrical poem “Walking to Caesarea.” Indeed she is an Israeli heroine, buried on Mount Herzl, but few know the personal side of Senesh, which is powerfully revealed in “Fire in My Heart: The Story of Hannah Senesh,” now showing at the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center, in Skokie, Ill.
What is remarkable about the exhibit, originally shown at New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage, is its intimate feeling. Through ordinary objects from Senesh’s life, photos from her childhood and adolescence, and excerpts and pages from her diary and her letters, we become privy to her private life — to the “fire in her heart,” which we see as not just a fire to become a Zionist, but also as a fire to find meaning in her life, and as a fiery, passionate love for her small family.
The exhibit begins with three screens, on which images are shown of ordinary life in Hungary at Senesh’s time. The images suggest one of the exhibit’s major themes: that, though she may have begun her life as a seemingly ordinary girl, Senesh became heroic through the choices she made when confronted with the war and the Holocaust.
The exhibit is a testament to the power of a few well-chosen ordinary objects — Senesh’s first diary, her typewriter — to represent a person’s whole life. Each object is almost like a poem: symbolic and elegant in its beauty, and far more illustrative of Senesh’s interior life than her published poems actually are.
We observe Senesh’s evolution into a courageous woman who gave up her life for the cause of trying to save her fellow Jews, while we can also hear her vulnerable voice as the ordinary young woman who yearns for her mother. Studying at a girls’ agricultural school in Palestine, drawing optimistic sketches of chickens, she writes in her diary, “I would so like to talk a bit with Mother,” and, “When I meet someone new, I wonder what Mommy would say.”
The bond between mother and daughter was so powerful that her mother devoted the rest of her life to tending to her daughter’s words and publications, just as Otto Frank devoted himself to the publication of Anne Frank’s diary.
At times I felt as though the exhibit was a love story of a mother and daughter: When she crosses the Hungarian border to immigrate to Palestine during the war, Senesh writes to her mother, “I felt only the pain of parting from you.” When she leaves Palestine to cross the border into Hungary, she writes: “My dear Mother, in a few days I will be so close to you — and so far. Forgive me, Mother, and try to understand me. A million hugs, Anny.”
Senesh’s yearning for her brother, Gyuri Senesh, and mother was so strong that it seems inextricably linked with her decision to risk her life to save Jews in Hungary.