“I pray every night to be talented,” 15-year-old Hannah Szenes wrote in her diary; she could never have guessed that one day she would be a national hero of Israel. We are commemorating the poet killed at such a young age on the anniversary of her 100th birthday.
In March 1944, just a week before the Germans invaded Hungary, a young girl, a soldier in the English army, parachuted into Yugoslavia. Three months later, she crossed the Hungarian border, where she was immediately caught and imprisoned. This girl, called Hannah Szenes, just five years earlier had been reciting everything she knew about Babits [ed. note: famous Hungary poet] at her matriculation exams and then enjoying a “summer of merriment.” Only 22 years old at the time of her arrest, Hannah did not share the details of her mission despite being tortured. Hannah was a person who when called upon could put aside her fears and be brave.
She was born Anikó Szenes on July 17, 1921, in Budapest. Her father, Béla Szenes, was an excellent writer; Anikó lost him at the age of six. This tragedy made the relationship between the mother and her two children, Anikó and Gyuri, even closer. Anikó, or as the family called her, Anny, was an excellent student who, like her father, longed for a career as a writer. Her earliest surviving poems were written by her at the age of 15.
The little girl started keeping a diary when she was 13, which was published by the Szépirodalmi Publishing House 20 years ago. The teenage Anikó filled the pages of her diary explaining her ambitions as a writer and „weaving innocent dreams” about love. She read, danced, and studied English; she even went on a trip to Italy. The only tragedy in her life for a long time was the loss of her father, the man in whose footsteps she wanted to follow, to be like him.
If she had been born in a different age, she may have become a teacher or a writer; however, that was not her destiny.
The girl attended a Protestant high school in Buda, where Lajos Áprily was the principal. Anikó absolutely adored Hungarian literature and read any books she could.
At first, she viewed antisemitism as something that would make her even stronger, as she had to overcome greater difficulties than most. At the age of 15, even though she was the most suitable candidate, her own schoolmates did not allow her to be the secretary of the „önképzőkor” [ed. note: a group where students focused on literature, art and science] because she was Jewish and not Protestant. After the incident, she wrote the following in her diary:
“By no means would I ever be able to give up my faith, not only for myself, but for the sake of my children. (…) I think religion means a lot in life and I find today’s perception that faith is only a crutch for the weak ridiculous. It is faith that makes a person strong, thus they do not need other support in life.”
Portrait of Hannah Szenes, 1939, Source: Public Domain
Over time, Anikó devoted more and more space in her diary to the situation in Europe. There were exciting conversations about the annexation of Austria, and with childish naivety, having no idea of the terrible future, she called Hitler a clever, albeit repulsive, politician in her diary. Contemporary records testify to how rarely a person of a given age correctly perceives the time they’re living in. Anikó wrote in her diary about the impending war; she was worried about it but did not want to believe it was really coming.
Feeling that the country in which she was born was becoming increasingly hostile to her, she began to open up to the idea of Zionism.
In October 1938, she wrote in her diary, “I became a Zionist. There is a lot behind this word. For me, it means in short: I feel consciously, strongly that I am a Jew, I am proud of this, and my goal is to go to Palestine, to fight for my religion.”
She writes that she was preoccupied with this for years, but tried to suppress it. The 17-year-old felt that she had finally found her purpose. She began to study Hebrew, went to the Maccabean Zionist Association, and deliberately concealed literature related to Judaism. Deciding to set aside her previous goals and work instead, she submitted her application to the Nahalal Girls‘ Agricultural Training School. After graduating, she consciously began writing in Hebrew in her diary and began using the Hebrew version of her name, Hannah.
Eighteen-year-old Hannah arrived in Palestine in the September of 1939. “I’m in the land of Israel. I’m at home” – she wrote in her diary in Hungarian because she felt she couldn’t yet express what she was feeling in Hebrew. It constantly frustrated her that she inadvertently expressed things in Hungarian.
Laundry and dairy work was a serious challenge for a girl who grew up in a city. She tried to view the work in an idealistic way, but at the same time, she was constantly frustrated. Life in the British Mandate was not easy, and meanwhile, war broke out in Europe, constantly threatening people back home. She was lonely without her brother, mother and friends, but she was still pleased because she felt that there was a purpose to her work, that she was finally part of something. She was both hopeful and hopeless about the future, frustrated by the situation in Palestine, which she could not really assess, but what she saw often frustrated her. She felt Palestinian Jewry was disorganized and, as she described it, longed for „Judaism to be not just a people, but a strong nation.”
Hannah and her brother at the beginning of 1944 in Palestine. Source: Beit Hannah Senesh
Copyright: Public Domain Provenance: Miriam Neeman
Museum of Jewish Heritage/Center for Holocaust Studies
While working, her writing ambitions did not die and she started writing poems again. In 1941, in Ramat Gan, she met Avigdor Haméiri, a Transcarpathian-born poet who also knew her father. Hannah showed her his poems, and the poet found the girl talented.
Hannah started working in a kibbutz in 1941. She became increasingly worried about the war and also feared that the Nazis would reach the Middle East. At first, she did not want to join the fight because she was horrified by the war, but in 1942 she entered Palmah, which was an elite formation of the Haganah. During these years, foreign letters arrived less and less, and she also wrote less and less in her diary.
The oppressed feelings swirling inside her finally erupted in January 1943, when she wrote, “I had a shocking week. I was suddenly struck with the thought that I to travel to Hungary, to be there at this time to help organize aliyah for youth and bring my mom as well.”
From then on, she tried to move toward this goal and was frustrated that she was forced to work in a warehouse. She wanted to act, she felt more and more lonely, she felt more and more unable to write in Hebrew (her Hebrew poems suggest otherwise). In early 1944, she recorded that she had enlisted in the English army and was traveling to Egypt for training to finally complete the mission she had already formulated in 1943.
“I want to believe that what I did and will do is right. As to the rest, time will tell,” are the last sentences of Hannah Szenes’ diary.
Hannah Szenes in uniform. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Hannah parachuted into Yugoslavia in March of 1944, where she spent three months. When she crossed the Hungarian border, she was immediately captured. The British army probably suspected that it was a suicide mission to send Jews into the German-occupied territory, but the mission was not called off. Hannah fell into the hands of the Gestapo.
Her mother, Béláné Szenes, recalled the months of Hannah’s captivity in her book Ami ma bűn, holnap érdem című („What is a sin today, is honorable tomorrow”), which was published in 1991 by the Szépirodalmi Publishing House, along with Hannah’s diaries and other writings. The mother had no idea that her daughter had enlisted as a soldier; she only found out when a state police detective knocked on her door on June 17, 1944. She was taken to meet her daughter at the Hadik Barracks. According to her, Anikó (because her mother still called her by that name) was in poor condition; several of her teeth were missing, and her face was covered with green spots. Eventually, police also imprisoned Bélané Szenes, but she was released in September per a decree by the Ministry of the Interior.
Bélané Szenes hired a lawyer for her daughter, Dr. Szelecsényi. Hannah was then detained in the Conti Street Detention Center and transferred to the Margaret Boulevard Prison. Despite the Arrow Cross Party’s takeover, Hannah’s trial was held, and a non-Jewish lawyer defended the young girl accused of treason. No verdict was pronounced at the trial. Completely unexpectedly, refusing Hannah’s request to see her mother one last time, the Arrow Cross Party executed her on November 7. She was only 23 years old. She was allowed to write farewell letters, but the family never received them.
However, a poem was found in the pocket of her dress, as well as a letter that said, “Dear Mother, I don’t know what to say, just two words: „Millió köszönet” (A million thanks). Forgive me if you can. You know very well why words are not needed . With infinite love. Your daughter.”
Hannah Szenes became one of the most celebrated icons and heroes of the newly formed Israel. In 1950, her ashes were transported to Israel and buried in Jerusalem. Her poems are part of the Israeli canon. To this day, few people in Hungary know her name; she did not become a well-known historical hero, perhaps because she was not struck down by a German hand but was executed by Hungarian „nyilasok” (members of the Arrow Cross Party) just three months before the liberation of Budapest.
You can read Szenes Hannah’s poems here.
The quotes in the article are from the book: Szenes Hannah: Napló-Levelek-Versek-Szépirodalmi kísérletek-rövidebb írások. Editor: Anna Szalai, Szépirodalmi Publishing House, 1991. Translators: Ágnes Gergely et al.
Bookcover: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Beit Hannah Senesh/Public Domain