Season 2, Episode 29
Dearest Mother, A Million Thanks
** Big thanks to Ariella Leaffer, who read for Hannah Senesh in this episode**
During World War Two the Yishuv (the Jewish community in Palestine) sent 32 parachutists behind enemy lines in Europe, in support of the Allies and to rescue Jews. Seven were killed, two among them women who became national heroes: Haviva Reik and, most famously, Hannah Senesh, whose poetry inspired generations of Israelis. Although they likely didn’t know each other, their lives were similar and their fates intertwined, and they represented a heroic and tragic moment in Zionist history.
Hannah was born in Hungary in 1921 and as a teenager began keeping a diary, so we know a lot about her experiences. She found her Jewish identity in Zionism and in opposition to the pervasive anti-Semitism in Hungary. Although she aspired to be a writer, she decided to move to Palestine to work in agriculture, convinced that’s what the Zionist Movement needed most from her. She arrived in 1939.
Hannah wasn’t the only young woman on this trajectory. Her life story parallels that of another, Haviva Reik, who was born in Slovakia in 1914. Although she had a different upbringing, Haviva also developed a burning desire to emigrate to Palestine, also to work in agriculture as a chalutzah — a pioneer building the Jewish homeland. She arrived in Palestine in 1939, and settled in the north.
Both women were eventually recruited for the Palmach. The Palmach teamed up with the British to support the Allied war effort by inserting clandestine operators into Europe. The British wanted the paratroopers to assist downed pilots and bring supplies to local resistance groups. But the Yishuv wanted the volunteers to organize Jewish self-defense and effect rescue operations out of conflict areas. The British and the Jews agreed to compromise, and in 1943 29 men and 3 women — including Haviva and Hannah — were trained to go behind enemy lines.
In the summer of 1944 Haviva and three other volunteers infiltrated Slovakia. Haviva took up the task of organizing the effort to feed thousands of starving and homeless Jews desperately trying to flee the Nazis. They also helped to smuggle Jews, especially children, out of Europe and into Palestine. As the Germans closed in Haviva and her comrades hid in the mountains with a group of forty Jews. Captured by a Ukrainian SS unit, Haviva was first imprisoned and then, on November 20, 1944, executed with her fellow parachutist Rafael Reiss.
Meanwhile, Hannah Senesh, and several men had been dropped into Yugoslavia to help the anti-Nazi forces there before moving into Hungary. While in Yugoslavia the Nazis invaded Hungary and began deporting the Jews, making the mission too dangerous to carry out. But Hannah insisted on going to find her mother and rescue her fellow Jews. But just after infiltrating into Hungary, Hannah was captured.
Tortured for radio codes that she never gave up, Hannah’s mother was arrested and threatened in front of her, but Hannah didn’t break. They were kept in isolated cells and only allowed to see each other for a few minutes a day. Hannah performed small acts of resistance inside the prison to keep up her spirits and inspire the other prisoners. She famously drew a Star of David in the dust on her window so that prisoners could see it from the courtyard.
Hannah appeared before a Hungarian court and was sentenced to death as a traitor —- since, as a citizen of Hungary, she had, the court said, betrayed her country. On November 7 she was given one hour to prepare any farewell letters, and at 10am was led out to the prison courtyard and executed by firing squad. Her mother was informed after the fact, and given Hannah’s last note, which read, “Dearest Mother, I don’t know what to say — only this: a million thanks, and forgive me if you can. You know so well why words aren’t necessary. With love forever, your daughter.”
Hannah Senesh: Hungarian Jewish immigrant to Palestine in the late 1930s, she was a writer and poet determined to live out her Zionist identity through agricultural work. She lived in various kibbutzim — including Nahalal and Sdot Yam — before joining the Palmach to infiltrate behind enemy lines in Yugoslavia and Hungary. Captured, tortured, and executed in 1944, she became an enduring symbol of Jewish courage, Zionist strength, and Israeli national sacrifice.
Catherine Senesh: Hannah’s mother who remained in Budapest when Hannah went to Palestine. She did not see Hannah for five years, until she was dragged to the prison where Hannah was held — until that point, she had no idea that Hannah had snuck into Hungary. Freed before her daughter was executed, she kept Hannah’s memory alive for the remaining decades of her life.
Haviva Reik: a Slovakian Jew who, like Hannah, came to Palestine in pursuit of agricultural work and the Zionist dream. She, too, joined the volunteer paratroopers and was sent to Europe to help the Allied resistance, organize Jewish self-defense, and smuggle Jews out to Palestine. Surrounded in a forest in Slovakia, Haviva was captured, imprisoned and, 13 days after Hannah was killed, herself executed.
Yoel Palgi: paratrooper companion of Hannah who was on the same mission in Yugoslavia. Yoel, too, was captured and imprisoned at the same place as Hannah. He also received, the night before her fateful mission to Hungary, a crumpled up note from Hannah that contained the words to one of her most famous poems, “Blessed Is the Match.” He survived the war.
Rafael Reiss: fellow fighter with Haviva, Rafael was parachuted into Slovakia on the same mission. Captured with Haviva, he was executed with her on the same day.
THE BIG IDEAS
In accordance with Ben Gurion’s admonition to “fight Hitler as if the White Paper didn’t exist”, the Yishuv’s underground militias worked with the British to train a group of fighters — including Hannah and Haviva — to support the Allies behind enemy lines in Europe. Although the Yishuv was rescuing Jews through the Aliyah Bet campaign of illegal immigration, the 37 paratroopers were the only military rescue mission sent to Europe.
Hannah and Haviva symbolized the impact of Zionist identity on young European Jews determined to live out the Jewish nationalist dream in Palestine. As Hannah wrote in her diary, Zionism was justice, and the antidote to the anti-Semitism she saw rising around her. She wrote in October 1938, “One needs something to believe in, something for which one can have whole-hearted enthusiasm. One needs to feel that one’s life has meaning, that one is needed in this world. Zionism fulfills all this for me.”
Hannah, Haviva, and their comrades exemplified the highest ideals of Zionism, Israel, and Judaism, and that explains in part why they (especially Hannah) are iconic Jewish heroes. In particularly Jewish and Zionistic ways — a passion for The Land of Israel, self-defense, and strong Jewish identity — they inspired generations of Jews. But there was also a more universal value at play, as Hannah’s nephew later wrote, in her “virtue of taking personal responsibility for general suffering. She never hesitated to sacrifice her own needs and comforts to serve others.”
Palestinian Jews of European descent made for ideal clandestine operators. Hailing from all over Europe, they knew the individual countries, the languages, geography and customs, and could move around invisibly as full natives with local family and community connections. The 32 Jewish parachutists were sent behind enemy lines in Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, Yugoslavia, Italy, and Bulgaria.
Israel’s most famous folk song — “Eili Eili" — comes from Hannah Senesh’s 1942 poem, “Walk to Caesarea,” which she wrote at the age of 21: “God — may there be no end, to sea, to sand, water’s splash, lightning’s flash, the prayer of man.”
Although Budapest’s Jewish cemetery was no longer functioning, someone managed to smuggle Hannah’s body into the Martyr’s Section to ensure she had a Jewish grave. Whoever did so never came forward and remains unknown to this day.
Haviva’s and Hannah’s remains were brought to Israel in the 1950s, and they were buried next to each other — and with the other executed parachutists — on Mt. Herzl.
© Jason Harris 2019