By Noa Gutow-Ellis
“We wanted Hannah not as a martyr, not as a hero. We wanted her as our friend whom we loved and admired. We wanted her to grow old with us.”
— Yehuda Rotem, Kibbutz Sedot Yam Member
Hannah Senesh, the daughter of an author and a journalist, lived her life on and off the page. She began keeping a diary at 13 years old and filled its pages up until her death. Her most famous poem, “Eli, Eli,” is still recited and sung internationally as a hymn, anthem, and prayer. At the Museum of Jewish Heritage’s most recent Annual Gathering of Remembrance to mark Yom HaShoah, Miriam Kassow beautifully gave life to “Eli, Eli” when she sang its English translation.
But Hannah wasn’t only a poet – she was a paratrooper, too.
In 1939, Hannah left her home in Budapest for Palestine where she later settled at Kibbutz Sedot Yam. Not long after, in 1943, she joined the British Army and volunteered to parachute into Europe. As National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene put it in the tagline of their brand-new, one-woman show, Hannah Senesh, “On the eve of the Holocaust, many left Europe for Palestine to save themselves. Very few went back to save others.”
Hannah was one of those few. She parachuted into Yugoslavia in March 1944 and spent months on the ground. That June, in the midst of mass deportations of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz, Hannah entered Hungary where she was caught, tortured, and put on trial. By November, she was set to be executed by firing squad.
Through her poetry and her prose, her bravery and her courage, Hannah’s legacy has lived on since her death. An exhibition on her life, Fire In My Heart: The Story of Hannah Senesh, was on display at the Museum from 2010-2011. Today, people can see her story come alive on stage through National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene’s production bearing her name.
The video below, originally on display at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, provides reflection on Hannah’s life from friends and family who knew her well.