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Hannah Senesh archives, including handwritten poems, come to National Library

Access will be available to the diaries, songs, letters and notebooks of the Hungarian-born heroine and poet

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Hannah Senesh and her brother Giora, right, in 1924, part of the Hannah Senesh archives now being put in place at the National Library of Israel (Courtesy National Library of Israel)
Hannah Senesh and her brother Giora, right, in 1924, part of the Hannah Senesh archives now being put in place at the National Library of Israel (Courtesy National Library of Israel)

It’s been 76 years since Hungary-born poet and paratrooper Hannah Senesh, at the age of 23, was parachuted into occupied Europe by the British in an attempt to save Hungarian Jews from the Nazi death camps.

Senesh was captured, tortured and executed in Hungary, but her story and poems have lived on.

Her archives, which include poems, diaries, songs and letters found in a suitcase under her bed after the war, have been transferred to the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem, offering global access to the iconic heroine for the first time.

It’s a moment of pride for the national library to include the complete Hannah Senesh Archival Collection along with other greats of early modern Hebrew language, said David Blumberg, chairman of the National Library.

“The people of Israel will be able to view her archives, offering another exposure of this heroine to Israeli culture and society,” said Blumberg.

Hannah Senesh with chickens on Mosha Nahalal, part of the Hannah Senesh Collection that is now part of Israel’s National Library (Courtesy National Library of Israel)

For many, Senesh, or Senesz, as her name is written in Hungarian, represented the very essence of Jewish heroism and bravery. Born in Budapest, she discovered Hebrew and the Land of Israel in her late teens, writing that Hebrew was the true language.

Senesh immigrated to pre-state Israel in 1939 at the age of 19, receiving one of only three Hungarian immigration certificates offered that year.

While living in Moshav Nahalal where she was studying agriculture, Senesh spent a week at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, said Hezi Amiur, curator of the Israel Collection at the National Library of Israel. It was there that she spent time writing, he said, and discovering her voice in Hebrew.

Her archives includes the letters she wrote to her beloved mother, Kathrine; her four diaries, including two written in Hebrew; and her book of 17 poems and songs. She signed some of her works with the biblical name Hagar, which was the secret code name for Hungary.

Senesh joined the Haganah Jewish underground and then enlisted in the British Women’s Auxiliary Air Force and was recruited as a paratrooper.

Hannah Senesh’s iconic poem, ‘Eli, Eli,’ ‘A Walk to Caesarea,’ found in her notebook after she was executed in Hungary (Courtesy National Library of Israel)

Her last entry before her final rescue mission was on January 14, 1944, when she wrote a personal prayer, for her family, and for Europe. She also wrote about the new pencil she was using, and not wanting to waste too much paper. It’s possible, said Amiur, that it was too difficult, even for Senesh, to find the words at such a tense and fearful time.

One of Senesh’s most iconic poems was “Eli, Eli,” also known as a “A Walk to Caesarea,” for she lived in Kibbutz Sdot Yam, near the seaside town, prior to her final mission. A handwritten copy of the poem, set to music and sung by many Israeli singers in the decades after her death, was found among Senesh’s personal items.

My God, My God, I pray that these things never end,
The sand and the sea,
The rustle of the waters,
Lightning of the Heavens,
The prayer of Man.

A year after her execution, a friend and fellow soldier named Moshe Braslavski returned to Sdot Yam where he found a suitcase full of previously unknown letters, diaries, songs and poems under Senesh’s bed. 

The collection includes the suitcase, her typewriter and camera, as well as Senesh’s handwritten poems and diaries, and a note her mother discovered in Senesh’s dress pocket after she was executed.

Kathrine Senesh, followed by her son, Giora Senesh, and then his sons, handled the Hannah Senesh archives, including cataloguing and translating her literary estate.

Hannah Senesh’s immigration certificate from Hungary, 1939 (Courtesy National Library of Israel)

The entire archives will be digitized and exhibited, said Amiur, shedding new light on Hannah Senesh, her mother and her whole family, “on her short but rich and heroic life,” he said.

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