Hannah Szenes (Senesh) (1921 – 1944)
During World War II, more than 30,000 Jews from Palestine volunteered to fight in British units. Some served in Allied campaigns in North Africa, Greece, and Italy, while others undertook missions deep inside German-occupied territory. Through such service, they hoped to contribute to the defeat of Nazi Germany and to aid in the rescue of their fellow Jews in Europe.
In 1943, British authorities agreed to create special commando units composed of European-born Jews who would be dropped into the Balkans and elsewhere on the continent. They would aid the anti-Nazi partisans, rescue downed Allied airmen, collect intelligence data, and assist their fellow Jews as much as they could. About 240 men and women recruited from the Haganah (the Jewish military underground in Palestine), the British Army, and various Zionist youth groups undertook intensive training for the dangerous missions. In the end, only 32 parachutists were sent to Europe, where they operated in Yugoslavia, Romania, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Italy, and Austria. Though few in number, the Jewish parachutists from Palestine fought bravely with partisans in Yugoslavia, took an active part in the Slovak National Uprising, and helped save Jewish lives. Of the 32 men and women, 12 were captured, and 7 of the 12 were subsequently executed.
Among the group of valiant Jewish fighters was twenty-three-year-old Hannah Szenes, an ardent Zionist and gifted poet who left her native Hungary in 1939 to live in Palestine. Born in 1921 in Budapest, she was greatly influenced by the artistic talents of her father and several other members of her family, among whom were poets, writers, and musicians. In September 1939 Szenes immigrated to Palestine where she began her studies at Nahalal Agricultural School and later joined Kibbutz Sedot Yam, near Caesarea. As news of the Holocaust spread, she became concerned about the fate of European Jewry and of her mother in Budapest. In 1943, she left the safety of the kibbutz to join the newly formed group of parachutists.
After training in Egypt, Hannah’s unit was dropped into Yugoslavia in March 1944. The group, composed of 4 men – including Yona Rosen – and Szenes, spent about 3 months with Tito’s partisans. Days after arriving, they learned that German troops had occupied Hungary, and that hundreds and thousands of Jews were in mortal danger. With her mind on her former homeland, she penned the moving poem, “Ashrei ha-Gafrur (Blessed is the Match), which she gave to one of her fellow parachutists.
Soon after writing the poem, Szenes and a few comrades began a dangerous trek through German-patrolled forests. She finally crossed into Hungary on June 9, 1944 – the peak of the deportation of Hungarian Jewry. Shortly afterward she was captured with a radio transmitter in her possession.
In her nearly five months in prison, Hannah Szenes was brutally tortured, but refused to give her interrogators any useful information. She was brought to trial in a Hungarian court and was convicted of “treason against Hungary.” On November 7, 1944, Hanna Szenes was executed by a firing squad in a Budapest prison courtyard.
In 1950 her remains were brought to Israel and interred on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem. Her legacy has continued to be an inspiration for Israelis and for people around the world.