Wednesday, November 25, 2009

“The voice called, and I went.” The heroic life of Hannah Szenes

Hannah Szenes was born on July 17, 1921, to an assimilated Jewish family in Hungary. Her father, Béla, was a journalist and playwright. Her mother Catherine raised both her and her brother Gyorgy (Georgie) in the privileged, artistic, and educated world of the Jewish upper class in Hungary. Hannah inherited her father’s deftness with words and was a poet herself. She wrote constantly. Keeping a diary up until her death and writing a plethora of poems that are recognized the world over.

She studied agriculture for a little while, but soon realized her heart was in the changing climate of a world on the brink of war.

“Suddenly, the idea grabbed me that I must go to Hungary, and be there during these days, to lend a hand to the ‘Aliyat Ha'noar'’ organization and also to bring out my possible and vital and I decided to rise and act.''

She began paratrooper training in Egypt with 250 other Palestinian-Jewish volunteers in order to help save the Jews of Hungary, who were about to be deported to the German death camp at Auschwitz. The selection process for these types of resistance missions were rigorous and only 33 of the trainees actually parachuted into occupied Europe. Seven of these were caught and killed.

In March of 1944, she and two male colleagues, Yoel Palgi and Peretz Goldstein, were sent to Yugoslavia and joined a partisan group. After landing, they learned the Germans had already occupied Hungary, so the men decided to call off the mission as it was obviously too dangerous. Convincing Hannah to give up was next to impossible, so she continued and headed for the Hungarian border alone. Upon arrival, she was arrested by Hungarian gendarmes who found the British military transmitter she was carrying in her bag. She was taken to a prison in Budapest, tied to a chair, stripped, then whipped and clubbed for several hours. The guards wanted to know the code for her transmitter so they could find out who the other parachutists were. She would not give away any information that would put her resistance allies in danger or jeopardy. She felt the greater cause of the resistance was more important than her life.

Even when her beloved mother was brought before her and the guards threatened to torture her as well, Hannah would disclose no information.

During her time as a prisoner, Hannah used a mirror to flash light signals to other Jewish prisoners as way of communication and tried to keep their spirits up by singing and keeping her joyful and bright personality—even in the darkest of circumstances.

After a bogus 8-day trial, she was executed by a firing squad. Her remains were taken to Israel, where she was buried on a hilltop in Jerusalem.

She wrote this poem shortly after she was parachuted into Yugoslavia, which was where she met her eventual demise:

“Fortunate is the match that burns and kindles the flames.
Fortunate is the flame that burns inside the hearts.
Fortunate are the hearts to know when to stop with dignity.
Fortunate is the match that burns and kindles the flames.”

The following lines were found in Hanna's death cell after her execution:
“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.”


  1. That's very interesting. Stories like this always amaze me. Happy Holidays.

  2. Me too. Hence the reason I wrote about her! Happy Holidays to you as well!