Hannah Szenes

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Hannah Szenes
Szenes in 1939[1]
Native name
חנה סנש
Born17 July 1921 (1921-07-17)
Budapest, Hungary
Died7 November 1944(1944-11-07) (aged 23)
Budapest, Hungary
Cause of deathExecution by firing squad
Allegiance United Kingdom
Service/branch British Army
Years of service1943–1944
UnitSpecial Operations Executive (SOE)
Battles/warsSecond World War Executed
Writing career
GenreLyric poetry
Notable works
  • Blessed is the Match
  • Halikha LeKesariya
    (A Walk to Caesarea)
    (Eli, Eli)

Hannah Szenes (often anglicized as Hannah Senesh or Chanah Senesh; Hebrew: חנה סנש; Hungarian: Szenes Anna; 17 July 1921 – 7 November 1944) was a Hungarian Jewish poet and a Special Operations Executive (SOE) member. She was one of 37 Jewish SOE recruits from Mandate Palestine parachuted by the British into Yugoslavia during the Second World War to assist anti-Nazi forces and ultimately in the rescue of Hungarian Jews about to be deported to the German death camp at Auschwitz.[2]

Szenes was arrested at the Hungarian border by Hungarian gendarmes. She was imprisoned and tortured, but refused to reveal details of her mission. She was eventually tried and executed by firing squad.[2] She is regarded as a national hero in Israel but has largely been forgotten in her birthplace of Hungary according to The Guardian.[3] In Israel her poetry is widely known and the Yad Hana kibbutz, as well as several streets, are named after her.

Early life[edit]

Szenes and her brother in Budapest c. 1924

Szenes was born in Budapest on 17 July, 1921, to an assimilated Jewish family in Hungary. Her father, Béla, a well known journalist and playwright, died when she was a child. She continued to live with her mother, Catherine, and her brother, György.[4]

She enrolled in a Protestant private school for girls that also accepted Catholic and Jewish pupils; however those of the Catholic and Jewish faiths had to pay double and three times the amount Protestants paid. After her mother thought it was too expensive, Szenes was declared a "gifted student" and allowed to only pay double the usual amount.

The realization that the situation of the Jews in Hungary was becoming precarious, prompted Szenes to embrace Zionism, and she joined Maccabea, a Hungarian Zionist youth movement and learned Hebrew.[4]

Immigration to Nahalal[edit]

Szenes graduated in 1939 and decided to emigrate to Mandatory Palestine in order to study in the Girls' Agricultural School at Nahalal. In 1941, she joined Kibbutz Sdot Yam[4] and then joined the Haganah, the paramilitary group that laid the foundation of the Israel Defense Forces.[5]

In 1943, she enlisted in the British Women's Auxiliary Air Force as an Aircraftwoman 2nd Class. Later the same year, she was recruited into the Special Operations Executive (SOE) and was sent to Egypt for parachute training.[6]

The parachutists’ mission[edit]

Between 1943 and 1944, the Jewish community in Palestine (Yishuv) decided to send Jewish parachutists behind enemy lines to assist both Allied forces and the Jews in occupied Europe. The mission was a cooperation between the Yishuv and British forces to create a Jewish commando unit within the British army. Szenes volunteered and was selected along with 32 others, out of 250 candidates, to be sent on active missions.[7]

Arrest and torture[edit]

On March 14, 1944, she and two colleagues were parachuted into 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 too dangerous.[2]

Szenes continued on and headed for the Hungarian border. At the border, she and her companions were arrested by Hungarian gendarmes, who found her British military transmitter, used to communicate with the SOE and other partisans. She was taken to a prison, stripped, tied to a chair, then whipped and clubbed for three days. She lost several teeth as a result of the beatings.[8]

The guards wanted to know the code for her transmitter so they could find out who the parachutists were and trap others. Transferred to a Budapest prison, Szenes was repeatedly interrogated and tortured, but only revealed her name and refused to provide the transmitter code, even when her mother was also arrested. They threatened to kill her mother if she did not cooperate, but she refused.[2]

Trial and execution[edit]

Memorial and bust of Hannah Szenes in Budapest

She was tried for treason in Hungary on 28 October 1944 by a court appointed by the fascist Arrow Cross regime.[9] There was an eight-day postponement to give the judges more time to find a verdict, followed by another postponement, this one because of the appointment of a new Judge Advocate. She was executed by a firing squad on November 7, 1944.[10] She kept diary entries until her last day. One of them read: "In the month of July, I shall be twenty-three/I played a number in a game/The dice have rolled. I have lost," and another: "I loved the warm sunlight."[2]

Her diary was published in Hebrew in 1946. Her remains were brought to Israel in 1950 and buried in the cemetery on Mount Herzl, Jerusalem.[11][12] Her tombstone was brought to Israel in November 2007 and placed in Sdot Yam.[13]

During the trial of Rudolf Kastner, who was a controversial figure involved in negotiating with the Nazis to save a number of Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust, Szenes's mother testified that during the time her daughter was imprisoned, Kastner's people had advised her not to obtain a lawyer for her daughter. Further, she recalled a conversation with Kastner after the war, telling him, "I don't say that you could have saved my daughter Hannah, but that you didn't try – it makes it harder for me that nothing was done."[14]

After the Cold War, a Hungarian military court officially exonerated her. Her kin in Israel were informed on November 5, 1993.

Poetry, songs and plays[edit]

Szenes was a poet and playwright, writing both in Hungarian and Hebrew. The best known of these is "A Walk to Caesarea", commonly known as Eli, Eli ("My God, My God"). The well-known melody was composed by David Zahavi. Many singers have sung it, including Ofra Haza, Regina Spektor, and Sophie Milman. It was used to close some versions of the film Schindler's List.


In popular culture[edit]

A poster in memory of Szenes
  • The Legend of Hannah Senesh, a play about Szenes written by Aharon Megged, was produced and directed by Laurence Merrick at the Princess Theatre in Los Angeles in 1964. Szenes was played by Joan Huntington.
  • Hanna's War, a film about Szenes's life directed by Menahem Golan, was released in 1988. Szenes was portrayed by Maruschka Detmers.
  • Blessed is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh, directed by Roberta Grossman, is a documentary film that recounts the events of Szenes's life. It was released in 2008.[15]
  • Darkness (one two three), a musical pilot project of the Association of Global Art, led by the musician and singer Pazit Nuni [he], in which Szenes's last poem was composed and sung (English and Hebrew, 2019).
  • Romanian composer Serban Nichifor released the song cycle "Four Poems by Hannah Szenes" for soprano and piano (2023).[16]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "דף הבית". palmach.org.il.
  2. ^ a b c d e Hecht, Ben. Perfidy, first published by Julian Messner, 1961; this edition Milah Press, 1997, pp. 118–133. Hecht cites Bar Adon, Dorothy and Pessach. The Seven who Fell. Sefer Press, 1947, and "The Return of Hanna Senesh" in Pioneer Woman, XXV, No. 5, May 1950.
  3. ^ Walker 2021.
  4. ^ a b c Senesh, H.; Piercy, M.; Senesh, E.; Grossman, R. (2007). Hannah Senesh: Her Life and Diary. G – Reference,Information and Interdisciplinary Subjects Series. Jewish Lights Publishing. p. 317. ISBN 978-1-58023-342-2.
  5. ^ Scharfstein, S. (1994). Understanding Israel. KTAV Publishing House. p. 103. ISBN 978-0-88125-428-0.
  6. ^ Schweber, S.; Findling, D. (2007). Teaching the Holocaust. Torah Aura Productions. p. 198. ISBN 978-1-891662-91-1.
  7. ^ Laqueur, Baumel & Baumel-Schwartz 2001, p. 467.
  8. ^ Blessed Is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh (2008 film)
  9. ^ Laqueur, Baumel & Baumel-Schwartz 2001, p. 623.
  10. ^ Baumel-Schwartz & Baumel-Schwartz 2010, p. 30.
  11. ^ "עצמותיה של חנה סנש למנוחות בהר–הרצל" [Hannah Szenes' bones are laid to rest at Mount Herzl]. Dvar (in Hebrew). March 20, 1950.
  12. ^ Photo and Timeline of Szene's Life, Reinterment at Mount Herzl, Hannah Sennesh House Website.
  13. ^ Ashkenazi, Eli (November 25, 2007). "Tombstone of WWII poet and spy Hannah Szenes arrives in Israel". Haaretz. Archived from the original on October 6, 2009.
  14. ^ Hecht, Ben. Perfidy. 1961, p. 132
  15. ^ "Blessed Is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh (2008)". Internet Movie Database. IMDb. Retrieved January 1, 2015.
  16. ^ "Free sheet music : Nichifor, Serban – Four Poems by Hannah Senesh – Homage to HANNAH SENESH (1921–1944), Holocaust Martyr (Soprano and Piano)".


  • חנה סנש: חייה, שליחותה ומותה, in Hebrew. 1952.
  • Diario, cartas, iniciación literaria, misión y muerte, memorias de la madre, 1966. in Spanish. 396 pages.
  • Hannah Senesh, Her Life & Diary, Schocken Books, 1972.
  • Masters, Anthony. The Summer That Bled; The Biography of Hannah Senesh. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1972. OCLC 677086
  • Goldenberg, Linda. In Kindling Flame: The Story of Hannah Senesh, 1921–1944. New York: Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Books, 1985. ISBN 0688027148 OCLC 10302495
  • Hay, Peter. Ordinary Heroes: Chana Szenes and the Dream of Zion. G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1986. ISBN 0399131523 OCLC 13395114
  • Whitman, Ruth. The Testing of Hannah Senesh Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1986. ISBN 0814318533
  • Maxine Rose Schur, Hannah Szenes: A Song of Light, Philadelphia, 1986. ISBN 0827606281
  • Betzer, Oded. The Paratrooper Who Didn't Return. World Zionist Organization, 1989.
  • Ransom, Candice F. So Young to Die: the Story of Hannah Senesh. Scholastic, 1993. ISBN 0590446770 OCLC 28137831
  • Senesh, Hannah, and Marge Piercy (foreword). Hannah Senesh: Her Life and Diary. Jewish Lights Publishing, 2004. ISBN 9781580233422 OCLC 269444258
  • Gozlan, Martine, Hannah Szenes, l'étoile foudroyée. Paris: Ed. de l'Archipel, 2014. ISBN 9782809815818 OCLC 897806840 In French.
  • Shalom, Avner, Hannah Senesh, Poems within the Depth, שירים מן המעמקים, The Association of Global Art Publishing House, Budapest and Caesarea 2018 ISBN 9786150033730 in English and Hebrew, appendix A and B in Spanish and Lithuanian
  • Baumel-Schwartz, J.T.; Baumel-Schwartz, J. (2010). Perfect Heroes: The World War II Parachutists and the Making of Israeli Collective Memory. WWII history / Judaica / Cultural studies / Israel. University of Wisconsin Press. ISBN 978-0-299-23483-6.
  • Laqueur, W.; Baumel, J.T.; Baumel-Schwartz, J.T. (2001). The Holocaust Encyclopedia. The Erwin and Riva Baker Memorial Collection. Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-08432-0. Retrieved July 17, 2021.
  • Senesh, H.; Piercy, M.; Grossman, R.; Senesh, E. (2007). Hannah Senesh: Her Life and Diary. Jewish Lights Publishing. ISBN 978-1-58023-342-2.

Web sources[edit]

External links[edit]