WWII Jewish Heroine Hannah Szenes in Her Diary: 'What Is Heroic Death? Is Anything More Sacred Than Life?'

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A previously unreleased photo of Hannah Szenes.
A previously unreleased photo of Hannah Szenes.Credit: ארכיון חנה סנש, הס
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

Page 88 of the diary that Hannah Szenes began keeping in 1938 – about a year before she immigrated to pre-state Israel from Hungary – is marked by a major shift. “From today, I will write in my diary only in Hebrew,” the poet, who ultimately met her death as a parachutist in Nazi-occupied Europe, declared. Up to that point in the diary, the handwritten entries were all in Hungarian. But she then began, amid the mistakes in spelling and grammar of someone not yet fluent in Hebrew, to write in the holy tongue.

“I should have started before, and I think now that it will work out,” she wrote reassuringly about her abilities in Hebrew. “I want to read the Bible in Hebrew. I know it will be very difficult, but it’s the language of truth and the most beautiful, and the spirit of our people is in it,” she declared. In somewhat broken Hebrew, she remarked: “I am now writing without a dictionary and certainly with a lot of mistakes, but I’m happy, because I see that I will be able to learn Hebrew quickly.”

From the hindsight of many decades, Szenes’ attempts to write in Hebrew are quite amazing, given the fact that she started to write poetry in Hebrew a short time later and that her poems have become a hallmark of modern Hebrew literature.

Szenes was 17 at the time. If she hadn’t been executed in 1944, she might have been here to celebrate her 100th birthday on July 17. Late last year, her family donated a collection of dozens of items from her short life to the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem. To mark the centennial of her birth, the library has made them accessible on its website. The public can now view pages filled with her handwritten material, including diary entries, notes and drafts of poems.

Hannah Szenes. Her poems and bravery made her a household name in Israel.

Hannah Szenes was born in Budapest in 1921 and immigrated to Palestine in 1939. After attending the agricultural school at Moshav Nahalal, she joined Kibbutz Sdot Yam, south of Haifa on the Mediterranean coast, where she did farm work and wrote poetry. In 1943, she enlisted in the British Army and volunteered to become one of a group of parachutists whose mission – which remains controversial to this day – was to parachute into Nazi-occupied Europe, in part to rescue Jews.

Literary and musical icon 

In March 1944, she and four others parachuted into Yugoslavia, and in June, immediately after crossing the border into Hungary, she was captured by the police and jailed in Budapest. She was interrogated under torture and tried for espionage and, as a Hungarian citizen, for treason as well. She was executed that November, at the age of 23. Her poems, which include “Blessed is the Match” and “A Walk to Caesarea” (more commonly known by its opening words, “Eli, Eli” – “My God, my God”), have since made her a literary and musical icon in Israel.

On page 89 of her diary, the 17-year-old Szenes notes that her brother Giora was also learning Hebrew. She expressed her excitement that in one of his letters to her, he quoted the saying attributed to Joseph Trumpeldor 28 years earlier: “It is good to die for our country.” Szenes commented on the letter and added, “Lately that sentence has become very relevant, because there are difficulties in the Land of Israel.

Netanela singing “A Walk to Caesarea”

On July 17, 1939, 82 years ago this week, she wrote: “Today is my birthday. I’m 18. It’s so hard to imagine that I am already so ‘old.’ But I know that these are the most beautiful years of my life,” she remarked. “I’m happy with my life, with everything around me, I believe in the future. The idea that I have fills me, and I hope I'm able to realize it without being disappointed,” she mused regarding her plans to immigrate to Palestine, which she did later that year.

“I love the possibility in the land to make a unique, excellent, beautiful country," she said in a stilted Hebrew. "I want to do everything, for which I will gather my strength, to bring this dream closer to reality or the reality [closer] to the dream,” she wrote poetically.

A never-before published photo of the young Hannah Szenes in Europe.

I’m filled with joy and happiness

The dream began to take on substance when she received the certificate that she had been so eager for, enabling her to immigrate to Palestine. “I got it. I got it. And I’m filled with joy and happiness. I don’t know what to write.... There's nothing else within me. Just happiness…. There’s only one word that I want to say to everyone who helped me… to my mother, to every person: Thank-you.”

World War II, which erupted in September of that year, is also mentioned in the diary. “The war that we had feared has arrived. If they had wanted, there was still a possibility of saving the peace. They didn’t want to, so there’s a war between Germany and Poland.”

Once in Palestine, she resumed writing in Hebrew, albeit still stilted and with mistakes. “I’m working in the laundry. Very simple work, and very frankly, I need to say that it does not have much value from the point of view of learning. I’ve learned to launder and iron a little…. I could have imagined something more important and interesting,” she wrote from Nahalal. But she then switched to another, more satisfying job. “Today I am already working in the dairy. I was very glad to enter there, because I want that as a profession.”

“I am often asked whether I miss my home,” she wrote on another occasion. “I always say no, and that’s the truth. I don’t want to miss [it],” she wrote, but added that she did miss her mother and her brother. “I love this land, or more correctly, I want to love [it], because I don’t yet know it well enough to testify about the impression that it has made on me,” she remarked. “I feel very good. I love the quiet, simple life here – my friends, my studies – and I am looking at everything around me with much interest.”

Her diary also includes her impressions from outings around the country. “Two pleasant days. There were all kinds of parties, I danced and sang a lot,” she wrote after going out in Haifa. “I lived the life of a city, and I again saw that it won’t be difficult for me to forgo that life. I feel very good here in the village at Nahalal.”

Naturally, as a young woman, Szenes’ interests were not confined to Zionism and professional development. She also listed the names of young men who had taken an interest in her or in whom she has shown an interest – or not. “They don’t interest me,” she wrote in reference to two young men from Hungary who wrote to her. “Here, in the Land of Israel, I already also have acquaintances. At Nahalal, there have also been guys who have sometimes come in the evening to walk, to talk a little… There is someone I know from Jerusalem. They say he liked me very much. One time he sent me chocolate, another time, he came to visit me, sent chocolate again,” she wrote, remarking what a nice gesture it was.

A never-before-seen photo of Hannah Szenes in Palestine.Credit: Hannah Szenes archive

On a trip throughout the north of the country, she met a young man named Shlomo. “He liked me and I also liked him a bit,” she wrote in her diary. After going out together, they went into her room. “He sits down next to me, starts to talk that he loves me and wants to kiss me,” she tells her diary. When she turned him down, he left. But later, she had a tinge of regret. “But still, I couldn’t. I’m saving the first kiss for someone else, real. Will he come?”

Occasionally she received letters from friends and family who remained behind in Hungary. “I looked at a postcard from Budapest that Eva sent from a girlfriend’s party, and by chance, without realizing it, I glanced at my hands, which are bruised and ruined from work,” she writes. The disparities between what was still the comfortable life in Budapest that she had left behind and the physical difficulties that she faced in Palestine left her contemplative.

“For a moment, I asked whether it wasn’t silly romanticism, against the natural instinct, to leave the easy life, to choose a life of hard work,” she wrote, but then quickly added: “But a moment later, I felt reassured…. The only question is whether I chose a good path here. I think so. I have the desire to look for possibilities to be of benefit.”

Hannah Szenes wearing the British Army uniform. Credit: Hannah Szenes archive

At times, she admitted to being frustrated about not having a sufficient Hebrew vocabulary to express herself. "In writing of all these things, the words are still lacking, the facility with the language is lacking, and besides, time is lacking," she wrote. “I am writing less in Hebrew than in Hungarian, but a little Hebrew is better than a lot of Hungarian. Maybe in a few months I'll be writing with less difficulty," she noted elsewhere in the diary.

Knowing as we do of her bitter fate, several lines at the end of the diary – which ends in 1941 – stand out. “I am dreaming and making plans as though there were nothing in the world. As if there were no war and destruction, thousands dying every day. Only our little Land of Israel is not in danger, but quiet, peaceful, and I am sitting in it and thinking about the future.”

And elsewhere in the diary: “I want to believe that the disaster won't come, and if it does, that we will stand up to it honorably. And if we don't stand up to it, that we at least fall honorably. What is a heroic death, martyrdom? Is there anything more sacred than life?”

She even referred to her own possible death: “I don’t think at all that I will die. It’s true that objectively that possibility could be very close, but I feel as if I still have a great deal to do in life. Without a doubt, that's how everyone feels, every young person who has already gone to their deaths and will [in the future] in this horrible war. And that's how this entire young country feels, filled with desire, a love for the future.”

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