Embassy in Budapest honors wartime heroine

BUDAPEST, April 19 (JTA) — Proud words and anguished tears marked a Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony here this week for a wartime Jewish heroine.

On Thursday, as events were held around the world to remember the Holocaust, guests gathered at the Israeli Embassy for the unveiling of a plaque honoring Hannah Senesh.

Known better outside of Hungary than within, Senesh was a fighter with the Haganah, the leading Jewish fighting force before the creation of the Jewish state. She was tortured and killed by Hungarian fascists after parachuting into Nazi Europe in 1944.

The few surviving members of Senesh’s family were among those attending Thursday’s ceremony at the embassy.

Ivan Senesh, a 77-year-old cousin, said she had not died in vain.

“Her death has a symbolic meaning, which gives strength at those times when evil again raises its head,” he said.

He later told JTA, “I hope that Hannah will be remembered in Hungary, because she sacrificed her life for Hungarians.”

In Israel, her name became a symbol of devotion and self-sacrifice.

But to this day, Senesh is not mentioned in Hungarian history books, and she is virtually unknown among most Hungarians, including the country’s Jews.

In 1994, 50 years after her death, a square was named in Budapest in her honor. Her name was inscribed on a small stone in the square, without any mention of who she was or what she did.

During the Communist regime, the only Jewish school in Budapest was named after another Jewish wartime heroine, Anne Frank.

Like Anne, Senesh began writing a diary at the age of 13. She continued making entries until 1944.

Reeling under the impact of the anti-Semitism that prevailed in Budapest before World War II, Senesh became an ardent Zionist.

In September 1939, as the war began, she went to Palestine.

At the end of 1942, deeply concerned with the fate of European Jewry and of her mother in Budapest, she joined a group of parachutists organized by the Haganah to rescue Allied prisoners of war and organize Jewish resistance.

In March 1944, she parachuted into Yugoslavia. In June, when the Nazis were hastily deporting Hungarian Jews to death camps, she crossed into Hungary — and was soon arrested by Hungarian police.

Though tortured, she did not reveal any information about the Haganah.

She was executed by a firing squad in a Budapest military prison on Nov. 7, 1944, only a few weeks after the fascist Hungarian Arrow Cross Party took power in Hungary.

Her remains were taken to Israel in 1950.

Another speaker at Thursday’s ceremony was 82-year-old Irene Sugar, who was Senesh’s cellmate until the day a firing squad separated them.

She spoke of her memories of Senesh — but stopped when tears forced her to break off her story.

Israel’s ambassador to Hungary, Judit Varnai Shorer, told the gathering that Senesh’s memory would serve as a beacon for future generations.

“The example of Hannah Senesh helps in the fight not to let the Holocaust happen again,” she said.

The black marble memorial tablet inaugurated Thursday in the embassy’s central hall bears a simple inscription in Hebrew:

“The Hall of Hannah Senesh, May Her Memory be Blessed.”

Next to the tablet was a photo of Senesh at the age of 18, when she was still a student at a Budapest high school.

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