One of the more poignant songs included in many Holocaust memorial convocations held in Israel, is a short poem, set to music, known popularly as “Eli, Eli.” The four-line poem, actually entitled “Walking to Caesarea,” was written by one of the more mythological figures in contemporary Jewish and Israeli history, Hannah Szenes, whose short life and death have propelled her into the pantheon of Zionist history.
Hannah Szenes was born in Budapest on July 17, 1921, to a wealthy, distinguished, and assimilated Hungarian Jewish family. Her father, Bela Szenes (1874–1929), who died when she was a child, had been a well-known writer and dramatist and her mother, Katharine, an elegant homemaker. Having been given a modern Hungarian education, Szenes was exposed to antisemitism during her high school years, propelling her to learn more about her Jewish origins. It was at that time that she discovered the Zionist movement, joining a Zionist youth movement and learning Hebrew in preparation for immigration to Palestine. In 1939, after finishing her high school studies, Szenes came to Palestine to study at the girls agricultural school in Nahalal, continuing the diary that she had begun in Hungary. Having completed a two-year course in agriculture, Szenes joined the Sedot Yam kibbutz at Caesarea. Her choice was motivated by the preference of maintaining an anonymous status, rather than being known as “the daughter of Bela Szenes,” something that would have been likely had she joined one of the kibbutz groups whose members were primarily of Hungarian origin. Szenes worked in the kitchen and in the kibbutz laundry, and the difficulties that she encountered are echoed in her diary.
In 1943 Jewish Agency officials made overtures towards Szenes to join a clandestine military project whose ultimate purpose was to offer aid to beleaguered European Jewry. The young immigrant, who became a member of the Palmah (the pre-State assault companies of the Haganah), first studied in a course for wireless operators, and in January 1944 participated in a course for paratroopers. Before leaving Palestine she met with her brother Giora who had just arrived from Europe— the sole surviving member of her immediate family other than her mother—and the two spent the afternoon together on the shores of the Mediterranean, bringing each other up to date with personal and family news.
In mid-March 1944 she and several other Palestinian-Jewish volunteers (most of whom were also of European origin) were dropped into Yugoslavia in order to aid the anti-Nazi forces until they would be able to commence their true mission and enter Hungary. The German invasion of Hungary in March 1944 postponed their plans, and Szenes crossed the border to her former motherland only in June of that year. Captured within hours of having stepped on to Hungarian soil, she was sent to prison in Budapest where she was tortured by Hungarian authorities in the hope of receiving information regarding Allied wireless codes. Within days of entering Hungary, her two co-parachutists were also captured, unaware of Szenes’ whereabouts. Only one of them—Yoel Palgi—was to survive the war.
When the Hungarian authorities realized that Szenes would not be broken, they arrested her mother and the two women came face to face with each other for the first time in almost five years. Katharine Szenes had no idea that her daughter had left Palestine—not to speak of the fact that she was now in Hungary. Initially shocked as they brought in the young woman with bruised eyes and who had lost a front tooth in the torture process, she rapidly regained her composure, and both mother and daughter refused to give the authorities the performance that would lead to the information they had sought.
For three months the two women were near yet far, sharing the same prison walls but unable to catch more than short glimpses of each other. In September 1944, after Katharine Szenes was suddenly released, she spent most of her waking hours seeking legal assistance for her daughter, who—being a Hungarian national—was to be tried as a spy. In November 1944 Hannah Szenes came up before a tribunal and eloquently pleaded her own cause, warning the judges that as the end of the war was nearing, that their own fate would soon hang in the balance. Convicted as a spy, Szenes was sentenced to death, although the court had decided not to carry out the sentence with alacrity. However, her poignant speech during the trial was taken as a personal affront by the officer in charge, Colonel Simon, who came into her cell on the morning of November 7th and presented her with two options: to beg for a pardon, or to face death by a firing squad. Refusing to beg clemency from her captors, whom she did not consider legally permitted to try her case, Szenes penned short notes to her mother and her comrades and went to her death at age twenty-three in a snow-covered Budapest courtyard, refusing a blindfold in order to face her murderers in the moments before her death. Her body was buried by unknown persons in the Jewish graveyard at Budapest.
Katharine Szenes, who escaped from the infamous Budapest “Death March,” hid in that city until its liberation by the Soviet forces in January 1945. Having immigrated to Palestine where she joined her surviving child, Giora, she became an instrumental part of the Hannah Szenes legend, based on her daughter’s courageous life and death, brought to public knowledge by fifteen editions of her daughters diary, poetry, and plays, that have since been published in Hebrew. In 1950 Hannah Szenes’s remains were brought to Israel where they were buried in the “Parachutists’ section” in the military cemetery on Mt. Herzl in Jerusalem. In the same year a kibbutz was founded and called Yad Hannah in her memory.
Walking through history: Hannah Senesh (Meri Roth, right) helped to liberate Hungarian Jews during World War II. Katahdin Productions hide caption
Walking through history: Hannah Senesh (Meri Roth, right) helped to liberate Hungarian Jews during World War II.Katahdin Productions
Blessed is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh
- Director: Roberta Grossman
- Genre: Documentary
- Running Time: 86 minutes
Not rated: Images and writings from Holocaust survivors — and from those whose lives it claimed.
Farewell to a friend: Senesh parts with her mother in Blessed Is The Match. Katahdin Productions hide caption
Farewell to a friend: Senesh parts with her mother in Blessed Is The Match.Katahdin Productions
To look at the story of the Holocaust as told by Hollywood through the years, you might never guess there were Jews who fought back against the Nazis. Brutalized victimhood has mostly been the assigned role of Eastern European Jewry.
But this winter, Jewish heroism has been decently represented at the cineplex. First, Edward Zwick's drama Defiance brought audiences a lightly fictionalized account of the Bielski Partisans, who managed to hide more than 1,000 Jews from the Nazis for several years in Belarus.
And now Roberta Grossman's Blessed is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh offers a documentary portrait of a Hungarian woman's journey from poet-diarist to Zionist to paratrooper to resistance fighter.
Grossman, a writer and producer of television documentaries, has a robust story to tell, and she's found remarkable World War II footage — harrowing images of the Warsaw ghetto, vivid kibbutz training films — to help her tell it.
Also photos of the title character and her family, to complement the talking heads who narrate Hannah's story. And where those images can't bridge narrative gaps, she employs actors, often with cross-fades from their re-enactments to nearly identical black-and-white images of the real-life participants.
Yes, there's something vaguely unsettling about this device, which introduces demonstrably fabricated images into a true story that doesn't require them. But it proves a decently effective way for the director to guide us from Hannah's happy youth through her growing awareness of her separateness, as Hungarian society began to ghettoize Jews, to her Zionist flowering, her migration to Palestine and her subsequent return to Hungary to help her mother and other Jews escape.
That Hannah was captured when she returned from Palestine is more or less telegraphed by the film's title; even if it weren't, the sight in the film's early moments of her coffin being brought back to the newly created state of Israel in 1950 erases any doubt about her fate.
But the story's details are no less compelling for that. Grossman lays them out with greater emphasis on clarity than on the conjuring of personalities or passions. The film, in fact, feels dispassionate even when the events it recounts are harrowing. (It feels actively false, alas, when it theatricalizes — Hannah disappearing in a blazing white light, for instance, as she's led to her execution.)
Still, even that sort of visual overreaching springs from a poetic impulse at the film's heart — the title is drawn from a verse Hannah wrote just before she was captured — and that impulse is enough to sustain audience interest.