The Extraordinary Heroism of Hannah Senesh

Museum Highlights All-Too-Brief Life of Hungarian Poet

ZIonist Heroine: Hannah Senesh, accompanied by a friend, looks out on a vista in Palestine.
Courtesy of the Senesh Family
ZIonist Heroine: Hannah Senesh, accompanied by a friend, looks out on a vista in Palestine.

By Laura Hodes

Published August 16, 2013, issue of August 23, 2013.
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“I think a lot about Gyuri and also about Mother out of fear and a terrible lack of faith: who knows if I will see them again, and when?” she wrote in her diary. “At such moments I feel an overwhelming obligation to do something great and important for the Land of the kibbutz, that will at least justify the sacrifice of having abandoned them.” Perhaps it was her painful separation from them that led her to take such a physical risk, to find some meaning in the separation.

It’s amazing to see in the exhibit a facsimile of the exact page from Senesh’s diary where she commits herself to writing only in Hebrew before she emigrates: On that page from her diary on June 18, 1939, the top two lines are in Hungarian and the rest are in Hebrew. It’s as if we are seeing her passionate decision to commit herself body and soul to making her home in Palestine encapsulated in that very page. (Sadly, we see her write in Hungarian again in her last days, captured in prison, returning to her mother tongue when she knows death is near.)

Another particularly noteworthy object is a photo of Senesh and her brother. She was about to go to Egypt for training to be in the British army when she heard that her brother was finally in Palestine. After having been separated from him for years, she had only 24 hours to spend with him. A street photographer took their picture and sent it to Gyuri Senesh. On the back, in Hebrew, her brother inscribed, referencing a famous psalm, “How good and how wonderful it is for siblings to be together”; he sent it to his sister in Egypt. Hannah then wrote, “How good” in Hebrew, and sent it back to him. This photo becomes a palimpsest of sibling love. The photo was found in her brother’s desk drawer upon his death in 1995.

At the end of the exhibit, a video interview with Hannah Senesh’s fellow kibbutzniks shows one elderly man saying that he didn’t want Senesh to be a martyr, that he and his friends just wanted to grow old with her. After witnessing the warm, vivacious young woman come alive in these rooms — the ordinary Hannah Senesh, and the heroic — we understand just what he means.

Laura Hodes is a frequent writer for the arts and culture section of the Forward.


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