Hannah Senesh And The Case For Moral Courage


There is no reason to think that a wealthy girl in Europe, enrolled in a fine private school, would give it all up to live in a hot and fetid desert. But this was Hungary in 1939. The Nazis were sitting on its border, and that privileged girl was a Jew. More important, she was Hannah Senesh, a precocious teenager whose breathtaking facility with words was matched only by her profound moral courage.

In “Fire in My Heart: The Story of Hannah Senesh,” a moving exhibit now on view at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, we see how the ominous threat of anti-Semitism compelled Senesh to immigrate to Palestine and help build a new nation there.

Senesh had left her mother and brother behind; her father, a noted playwright, died much earlier. But when life in Palestine proved less idyllic than she hoped — sexism on her kibbutz meant she could aspire to no more than a kitchen manager, and she spent more time killing flies than building schools or planting trees — she joined the war effort.

In 1943, the British military enlisted 30 Jews in Palestine for a mission to rescue soldiers caught behind enemy lines in Europe. The Jewish brigade had a more personal objective, too: saving family members still trapped in Europe. Three of the volunteers were women, one of them was Senesh.

“My dear mother,” Senesh wrote in a letter to her mother, Kato, still living in Budapest. The original note is on display, along with dozens of Senesh’s belongings — hand-written poems, a pesticide can she used in Palestine, her typewriter — many on view for the first time. “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.”

The letter is postmarked from Italy, dated March 13, 1944, which means it was written six days before Senesh entered into Yugoslavia, en route to Budapest.

Senesh reached the Hungarian border three months later, but was immediately captured. Hungarian officials interrogated her, hoping to get secrets about the British military, but she would not budge. They arrested her mother shortly after, allowing the two to meet only briefly. After Senesh still refused to reveal anything, her mother was allowed to go. But by the end of the year, Senesh was still in prison and eventually convicted of treason.

“Death, I feel, is very near,” she wrote in her poem, “One, Two, Three,” from June 1944, while in prison. The hand-written poem, in Hungarian, is also on display, and concludes with these final lines: “I could have been / twenty three next July. / I gambled on what matter most. / The dice were cast. I lost.”

It was the last poem she ever wrote. Senesh did make it to 23, but was executed by firing squad not long after, on Nov. 7, 1944. The materials that make the exhibit possible come from Senesh’s nephews, Eitan and David Senesh, but they have been in the family’s possession since that November in 1944.

One of the last things Senesh did before heading off on her rescue mission was collect all her belongings in a suitcase, which was to be given to her mother and brother in case anything went wrong.

Both her mother and brother, Giora, just a year older, survived. And it is in part because of them that Hannah’s story is known. Many of her poems and diaries were in that suitcase, and by 1945, all of the Jews in Palestine had heard her story. When the Holocaust entered its darkest hour, Senesh’s life gave hope to the hundreds of thousands of Jews living in Palestine, which would soon become Israel. Some of her poems today, like “Eli, Eli,” almost function as Israel’s national anthem.

Senesh’s diary entries provide much of the show’s narrative, many of their entries reprinted as wall texts. Any exhibit that relies heavily on texts, however, runs the risk of boredom. And while “Fire in My Heart” never succumbs to that, it can at times feel like a jazzed up e-book, as if walking through those new editions that come embedded with video and sound. Fortunately, with Senesh’s writing as the guide, the museum has an evocative and authoritative voice that trumps any flaws of display.

Senesh began writing poems when she was 7. But it is when she began writing in a diary, at age 13, that we see the emotional depth and intellectual seriousness that would later define her style. In a diary entry reproduced on the wall, written when she was 15, Senesh writes: “When I began keeping a diary I decided I would write only about beautiful and serious things, and under no circumstances constantly about boys, as most girls do.” She adds, “But it looks as if it’s not possible to exclude boys from the life of a fifteen-year-old girl.”

In fact, one of the final anti-Semitic affronts that compelled Senesh to leave Budapest for Palestine revolved around boys. In July of 1937, after a visit to relatives in Dombovar, another city in Hungary, she writes in her diary that Christian boys had no interest in Jewish girls. “It’s already quite clear that there will be no social life here,” she writes. “One can’t possibly imagine that a Christian boy would even go near a Jewish girl. This segregation often seems comical.”

In 1938, not long after her brother leaves for Paris, she decides that the window is closing on her own chances of leaving. And in October, she writes what becomes the premise for her escape: “I don’t know whether I’ve already mentioned that I’ve become a Zionist,” she writes. “To me it means, in short, that I now consciously and strongly feel that I am a Jew, and proud of it. My aim is to go to Palestine.”

To read these words today is to be reminded of the powerful hold Zionism once had on idealist young Jews. That may be an implicit message of this show, and it should not be criticized for it. The very word “Zionism” has lost much of its appeal in recent decades, and a historical reminder may help recapture some of its original value.

Which is not to say that the show cheerleads for Israel, even though it can at times give a one-dimensional view of its Israeli history. For instance, there are regrettably few words by either the curators or Senesh about the Arab population then living in Palestine. And even less noble words by Senesh, if they even exist, would have added complexity.

But the curators have at least avoided outright jingoism, and have only included the parts of Israel’s history that give necessary context. We see the British perspective, for instance, of their notorious “White Paper,” the document issued in 1939 that severely restricted the number of Jews who could immigrate to Palestine. The Middle East was critical to the larger war effort, we read on a wall text. And to allow the legions of Jewish refugees from Europe to settle in Palestine would risk inflaming the local Arab population.

Senesh immigrated legally, however, just before the White Paper was issued. She was accepted to a women’s agricultural school and some of the exhibit’s best artifacts are included in the section covering this part of her life: the turquoise insect gun, for example, and the typewriter she used while there.

But even the less glamorous pieces here reveal much about Senesh. There are a handful of postcards with paintings by Peter Paul Rubens. She took them with her from Europe and hung them on her bunk wall, the equivalent of today’s ubiquitous college dorm room posters.

And nearby we get more glimpses of Senesh’s immense erudition. Yehudit Rosen, one of Senesh’s classmates, explains in an interview reprinted on wall text that Senesh introduced her to classical music. Rosen noticed Senesh wearing a necklace and asked her who it was hanging on its medallion. “It’s Liszt,” Senesh told Rosen. “Have you ever heard of Liszt?” Rosen said that she hadn’t. “Truth be told,” Rosen remembered, “we didn’t even have a radio at home.” But then Senesh replied, “I’ll have to make sure that we can hear some Liszt.”

It is tempting to view Senesh’s intellectualism as somehow disjointed from her steely physical courage. But after walking through this commendable exhibit, it becomes clear that both her intellectual gifts and moral courage grew out of the same fiery passion that was her life. Senesh sometimes admits to seeing this division within herself, as she writes in her diary in 1941: “What will my future be? Writing or doing? Both? Neither?” You have to wonder how should could even ask.

“Fire in My Heart: The Story of Hannah Senesh,” is on view at the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, 36 Battery Pl. (646) 437-4202. Exhibit on view through Aug. 7, 2011.