In December of 1942, 21-year-old Hannah Senesh wrote a poem beginning with the words, “A voice called. And I went. I went because the voice called.” Weeks later, she would be asked to take part in a clandestine operation that would aid European Jewry during World War II.
Her prescient words are now splashed in black across a tower at Israel’s central memorial for fallen paratroopers. In mid-March of 1944, Senesh parachuted into what was then Yugoslavia, crossing into Nazi-occupied Hungary two months later in an effort to save her fellow Jews from certain death. She was caught at the border and interrogated, but refused to divulge information that could compromise the safety of her fellow paratroopers. On November 7, 1944, following months of torture, she was executed in Budapest by a Nazi firing squad.
Senesh was buried in a Jewish cemetery in Budapest, but in 1950 her body was exhumed and transported to Israel by a warship that docked in Haifa for a memorial ceremony. Her remains were then taken to her Israeli home, Kibbutz Sdot Yam near Caesarea, for another ceremony, and then on to Tel Aviv where yet another commemoration took place. Finally, she was laid to rest in the military cemetery at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem.
That same year, members of the kibbutz built a cultural center named for Senesh, a structure that served as the kibbutz archives and library. A special room was dedicated to the young paratrooper that contained personal items, a first-hand account of Senesh by a member who knew her well, and a slideshow about her life and death.
Because the building was located near the sea, over the years it slowly began to crumble. Preservation of the site required major renovations which took five years to complete. Along the way, the kibbutz decided to dedicate the entire building to the life and times of one of pre-state Israel’s most beloved heroines.
Although the museum was officially inaugurated last November, the coronavirus pandemic was raging and it was impossible to hold the kind of ceremony that the occasion demanded. Thus it wasn’t until July of 2021, the precise anniversary of her 100th birthday, that the Hannah Senesh museum finally opened to the public. Called the Anna Szenes House (in the Hungarian spelling of her name), or the Beit Hanna Senesh in Hebrew, this is where visitors really get acquainted with a truly remarkable young woman.
Photographs, poems, a diary, pictures from her camera projected onto a parachute in the middle of the room and a film with a surprise ending all help us understand why this particular young girl, born into a wealthy family of the Hungarian bourgeoisie, would pick up and leave for pre-state Israel and all the hardships that would follow. Through the picture that is painted here, we begin to comprehend why this extraordinary young lady would eagerly volunteer for an incredibly dangerous mission.
By following the chronological displays we learn that Senesh was a talented writer who produced dozens of poems, and a play about kibbutz life, as well. We discover that Senesh’s mother was an accomplished pianist and that Hannah herself played the piano. Senesh was also an enthusiastic photographer and a talented tennis player.
Life was good. But nevertheless, during her teen years, she saw how antisemitism was on the rise in her homeland. Becoming an ardent Zionist, she studied Hebrew to prepare for immigration to what was then British Mandate Palestine. Her first written words in Hebrew were: “I want to read the Bible in Hebrew. I know it will be very difficult but this is a beautiful language and in it lies the spirit of our people.”
She continued with a quote that her brother Giora had written in a letter, and whose sentiment she found extremely timely: the last words reported to have been spoken by Joseph Trumpeldor, a Russian Jewish soldier who lost an arm while fighting in the Russian army and who was killed defending the tiny settlement of Tel Hai in the Galilee in 1920. On his deathbed, Trumpeldor had stated something to the effect of, “It is good to die for our country.”
An outstanding student, Senesh graduated high school with honors in 1939. Soon afterward, she immigrated to the Holy Land, where she studied at an agricultural school for two years. With farming knowledge under her belt, she joined the pioneers of Kibbutz Sdot Yam, who had settled the previous year on the sands of Caesarea just south of what would become the marvelous Caesarea National Park of today.
While on the kibbutz, she penned an unusual poem for such a young woman. She called it “To Die.” It begins “To die young. No, I didn’t want to. I Ioved the warm sun, the light, the song, the spark in a pair of eyes.”
Information was reaching Palestine about a European genocide. The Jewish Agency made plans to rescue as many Jews as possible, and in 1943 Senesh joined a group of men and women tasked with parachuting into Europe and helping to organize the Jewish resistance.
The British were asked to assist. Balking at taking on all of 250 of the people from Palestine who had volunteered, they sent 110 men and women to Cairo for training. The volunteers would be considered British agents — and Jewish emissaries.
In the end, 30 men and three women parachuted into Eastern Europe. Twelve of the volunteers were captured and seven executed by the Nazis; five men and two women. Those who jumped but were not caught performed missions crucial to the Jewish resistance.
Three of the slain paratroopers — Hannah Senesh, Haviva Reik and Raphael Reis — were eventually buried in a uniquely designed plot on Mount Herzl. Next to them are memorial gravestones for the other four: Abba Berditchev, Zvi ben Yaakov, Enzo Sireni and Peretz Goldstein.
Hannah Senesh is both an inspiration and a heroine whose name is a household word. Her fame is the result of a poem she wrote while on the kibbutz, called “Walking to Caesarea.” Set to haunting music in 1945 by David Zehavi, it is so universal and poignant that until today, nearly 80 years later, Israelis from all walks of life know her anguished plea by heart:
“Eli, Eli” (My God, my God), wrote young Hanna Senesh at the age of 21. “May they never end, the sand and the sea, the lightning in the sky, the prayer of man.”
The museum at Kibbutz Sdot Yam is open Sunday through Thursday from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., and on weekends with advance arrangements. The displays are in Hebrew, but there should be an English-speaking guide on site. An English-language audio guide is currently being prepared for visitors.
Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven English-language guides to Israel.
Shmuel Bar-Am is a licensed tour guide who provides private, customized tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups.
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