Remembering Hannah Szenes on the 70th anniversary of her death

Hannah Szenes, who today is considered a national hero in Israel, was born into an assimilated Jewish family in Budapest, on July 17, 1921. Her original given name was Anikó.  The young Anikó’s father, Béla Szenes, was a journalist, playwright and translator. Hanna Szenes attended the Baár-Madas Protestant School. Even then, she had a passion for writing poetry. But the increasingly restrictive Jewish laws, the growing discrimination and Nazism convinced Ms. Szenes to become a Zionist. In September 1939, she left Hungary for Palestine. After her arrival, she attended the Nahalal agricultural school, and then worked on a kibbutz near Caesarea, a town located between Tel Aviv and Haifa. By this point, she had changed her name to Hannah.

Hanna Szenes

Hannah Szenes

After the start of the Second World War, Ms. Szenes decided to take up the fight against fascism, thus supporting the work of the Jewish resistance movement. She rescued her family and some of her Jewish compatriots from Hungary. In 1942, she joined a group of armed movement called Haganah Palmach, and in June 1943 Ms. Szenes was enlisted into the British Army. After basic training in Egypt, she was trained as a paratrooper, to organize the resistance from behind the Nazi lines. Ms. Szenes and her comrades were parachuted over an area controlled by partisans in Yugoslavia in March 1944. She journeyed towards Hungary on June 9th, but she did not get far in completing her mission. Probably as a result of betrayal, after Ms. Szenes crossed the border into Hungary, she was captured almost immediately by the Gendarmerie and was taken to the counter-intelligence unit in Pécs.

Ms. Szenes began five months of horrific suffering, in which she was interrogated repeatedly and was brutally tortured. Yet her captors could not get her to betray her mission or her comrades. She was first handed over to the Gestapo in Budapest for interrogation, then in September 1944 to Hungarian counter-intelligence. Hannah’s mother, Katalin was also arrested, but Hanna did not give in, even after she was allowed to meet her mother briefly in prison. Eventually, her mother was released and she tried desperately to have her daughter freed as well. On October 28, 1944, however, Hannah was tried in a military court, convicted of treason and was sentenced to death. There was no room for an appeal, although it was possible to ask for a pardon. Hannah, however, refused, noting that she will not ask murderers for mercy.

Hannah Szenes was executed on November 7, 1944, in a jail then located on the Margaret ring road. She apparently refused to wear a blindfold, as she wanted to stare the firing squared in the eye, as they killed her. Her remains, first buried in the Budapest Jewish cemetery, were transported to Israel in 1950, and were re-buried on Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl. Revered as a national hero in Israel, many streets and squares bear her name, as well as the Yad Hana Kibbutz, which was once associated with Mapam, Israel’s United Workers Party. Yad Hana was considered to be Israel’s only “communist kibbutz.”

In 2001, the Israeli embassy in Budapest  unveiled a plaque in her honour. Additionally, in Budapest’s 7th District, a small park bordered by Rose Street and Jósika Street now bears her name.

Her diary, letters and poems were published in Hungarian in 1991, by the Szépirodalmi Kiadó. Katalin (Katerina) Szenes, who survived the Holocaust and fled to Palestine in 1945, played a key role in popularizing her late daughter’s story and her writings. Within a few years, some of Hannah’s poetry were sung as folk songs in Israel and remain widely known to this very day.

Hannah Szenes inscribed the following poem on the walls of her jail cell:

One – two – three… eight feet long
Two strides across, the rest is dark…
Life is a fleeting question mark
One – two – three… maybe another week.
Or the next month may still find me here,
But death, I feel is very near.
I could have been 23 next July
I gambled on what mattered most, the dice were cast. I lost.

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