Monday, February 4, 2013

Hannah Senesh: Her Life and Diary, The First Complete Edition 2004

"For those unfamiliar with the story of Hannah's exceptional courage, this is a moving collection." from a review in Publisher's Weekly 10/25/2004

Hanna Senesh (Szenes), born in Hungary in 1921 and executed in 1943, was a thoughtful, soul-searching writer whose diary is the centerpiece of this volume. Other writings by Senesh
included are letters she sent, mostly to her mother in Budapest, Hungary from her new home in Palestine, and poetry, some of it translated from Hungarian, some of it translated from Hebrew. In this volume the diary is introduced by a foreword written by the American poet/novelist Marge Piercy, a preface by Eitan Senesh, son of Hannah Senesh’s brother, a translator’s preface by Marta Cohn, and a short essay entitled “Memories of Hannah’s Childhood” by Catherine Senesh, Hannah Senesh’s mother.

The diary published in this volume starts with an entry written when Hannah Senesh was thirteen in 1934 where she writes about having just visited her father’s grave. It ends in 1943, five years after she had immigrated to Palestine and was about to embark on a secret mission to help Hungarian Jews escape from what was, at the time it was being planned, not yet Nazi-occupied Hungary. Reading from start to finish, we embark on a journey along with the writer as she formulates goals and makes deliberate choices to help achieve those goals. She is constantly going back and reflecting on past wishes and choices, analyzing her doubts and deciding what her next steps might be.

Early in her story, like many teenagers, Senesh is preoccupied with her place academically, writing about her studies and her teachers, but she is also concerned, as many teenagers are, about her social status, evaluating the boys in her social circle, wondering which one was right for her, despairing that she’ll ever find the perfect match. She is from a wealthy, assimilated Jewish family and is not particularly religious, but in her diary, every year at Yom Kippur she looks back over the past year and makes a serious attempt to analyze what she has done wrong and how she can improve. 

Overt anti-Semitism rears its ugly head during her years at the Protestant girls’ school where her mother has to pay double to secure her Jewish daughter’s education and where Senesh, because she is Jewish, is eventually denied the opportunity to be an officer in the Literary Society. In addition, overt anti-Semitism is more and more prevalent in day-to-day Hungarian life. Her response is to embrace Zionism and to plan to immigrate to Palestine when she graduates high school in Budapest. She applies to attend a two-year agricultural school in Nahalal. Accepted by the school, she leaves Hungary in the early fall of 1939 right after war is declared by the French and British.

The entries written in Palestine are very interesting. Partly it is because she was maturing and her thinking and writing are more complex. And partly it is because she is a careful observer of the geography of the land, its settlers – their personalities and their politics - and its structures, especially of Kibbutz S’dot Yam where she decided to settle after she finished the two-year agricultural program. At first she is excited to be in Palestine. It feels liberating to her to be in what feels to her to be a Jewish country where there is important work to be done, far away from the oppression of Jews in Europe. But a theme that runs throughout this part of the diary and becomes stronger toward the end, is her constant analysis of her status in Palestine. She believed totally in the socialist principles of kibbutz life, but often found the drudgery of kitchen and garden work mind-numbing and not the best use of her talents. She is constantly questioning her decisions. Is she sorry she immigrated to Palestine? No. Is life here harder and less gratifying than she expected? Yes. Is there something she could be doing in Palestine to take advantage of her previous education and talents? She continued to hope so.

Another topic she returns to frequently is her loneliness and the guilt she feels at leaving her mother behind. She suffers from more and more anxiety as the war engulfs more countries, so when the opportunity to go on a secret mission is offered her, she sees it as the big moment she has been waiting for.

At the end of the diary and letters is a section called “The Mission” which picks up from where the diary ends and narrates the end of Hannah Senesh’s short life up to her execution in November of 1943. "The Mission" includes two pieces by fellow parachutists, Reuven Dafne and Yoel Palgi, and an extended piece by Catherine Senesh entitled, “Meeting in Budapest,” which is about the months she spent with her daughter once Hannah Senesh had been captured and returned to Budapest to jail. The last essay is a short historical note written by Professor Judith Taylor Baumel of Bar-Ilan University in Israel.

This volume also contains endnotes keyed to entries in the diary and other writings, and it also includes photos. A note on the title page indicates that parts of this book were published as “Hannah Senesh: Her Life and Diary by Shocken Books in 1972.

If you would like to read more about the parachutists from Palestine, including photos, click here.

Note: The documentary Blessed Is the Match, directed by Roberta Grossman, released in 2008 and available on DVD, is the story of Hannah Senesh's life based on the same material that is in the memoir. Voice-overs read excerpts from Hannah Senesh's diaries and from her mother's essay which is included in the memoir.  The film is most valuable for its many photos of the family, interviews with her brother's two sons, a short archival interview with her mother, and with contemporaries who knew Hannah Senesh. It also has archival footage of wartime Europe and of pioneers working the land in Palestine. Least satisfying are the dramatic reenactments, mostly in the last third of the film, deemed visually necessary because there is no footage and there are no photos of Hannah Senesh once she leaves Palestine and goes on her mission.

The film starts and ends with the moving ceremony of Senesh's coffin being taken from the ship in the harbor in Haifa that brought it from where her body had been buried in Hungary. The film shows the coffin being transported throughout Israel so its citizens can pay their respects, and then the ceremony where it is received in Jerusalem to be reburied with the bodies of other parachutists who had lost their lives.

The context provided in interviews by contemporary historians and in archival footage is useful. Having a voice off-camera recite several of Senesh's poems is affecting. But the diary itself reveals the life of this unusual young woman in a way the film can only hint at.

People (from the book and the film)
Bela Szenes – married Catherine Salzberger
    Gyuri Senesh – son of Bela and Catherine
        Eitan Senesh – son of Gyuri
        David Senesh - son of Gyuri
    Hannah Senesh – daughter of Bela and Catherine; author

Elizabeth Salzberger – sister of Catherine; married to Steve Sas
    Evi Sas – daughter of Elizabeth and Steve

Eva Beregi
Surika Braverman
Magda Csecsy
Reuven Dafne
Mihaly Fekete
Peretz Goldstein
Avigdor Hameiri
Judit Kiss
Ilona Krausz
Aharon Megged
Marta Ozary
Yoel Palgi
Gyuri Revesz
Dina Schechman
Enzo (Hayim) Sereni

Budapest, Hungary
Dombovar, Hungary
Janoshaza, Hungary
Nahalal, Israel
Sdot Yam, Israel
Haifa, Israel

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