Hannah Szenes: A Hero of the Hebrew Language

The collected letters of Hannah Szenes, who was parachuted into Europe in 1944 and killed by the Nazis, is a self-portrait of an enchanting woman.

Sharon Geva
Sharon Geva
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Szenes at Kibbutz Sdot Yam.
Szenes at Kibbutz Sdot Yam.Credit: GPO
Sharon Geva
Sharon Geva

“At Levadekh Tavini: Mikhtavei Hannah Szenes, 1935-1944” (Hannah Szenes: Letters, 1935-1944), edited and annotated by Anna Szalai; Hakibbutz Hameuchad Publishing House (Hebrew), 471 pages, 79 shekels

The last letter written by Hannah Szenes in her short life was a note, which her mother, Katharine Szenes, found in the pocket of a piece of clothing that was given to her after her daughter’s execution. “Dearest beloved mother, I have no words. All I can say is: a million thanks. Forgive me if you can. You’ll understand by yourself why there is no need for words. With endless love, Your daughter.”

This is the last in a long series of letters, most of them personal, that Szenes sent to her close friends and family, mainly her mother, from June 1935, when she was 14, to November 7, 1944, when she was executed in Budapest by the Nazis, at age 23. All the letters have now been published for the first time in Hebrew, to coincide with the 70th anniversary of her death.

The note to her mother became one of the texts that contributed to the process by which Scenes became an iconic national heroine in Israel. As the introduction to a 1946 collection of writings by and about her noted, she was “sui generis, mantled with the splendor of supreme Hebrew heroism,” and “her spirits always soared high."

Her life story was overshadowed by her brave activity, near the end of World War II, “when the idea of [undertaking such] a mission to the Diaspora, which had flickered deep with her during all her years in the Land of Israel, burst into flame.” As she wrote after being parachuted into Yugoslavia, she became the “fortunate match that burned and kindled flames."

It’s not by chance that the words “You’ll understand by yourself” were chosen as the book’s title in Hebrew. This phrase encapsulates the spirit that emanates from the letters. Though they partake of Zionist ideology, they are not steeped in it; they contain barely any pathos, certainly no glorification of heroism.

As Ruti Glick noted in a study of Szenes called "Captive in a New Land" (2003, in Hebrew), which concludes at the point of her departure on that mission, this is the story of a young woman who immigrated to Palestine from Hungary in 1939, and encountered an unknown climate, an unfamiliar language and a new culture, and never stopped longing for the two souls who were most precious to her: her mother, who remained in Budapest, and her brother, Gyorgy (Hebrew name: Giora), who was then in France. (Her father died when she was six).

“I am ashamed to tell you that I cried here next to the typewriter, although I don’t know why,” she wrote to her brother on November 7, 1939, exactly five years before her death. “I love it here, I am well and I have not been disappointed in anything, but I think you will get my drift and know what it is that I miss: Mama and you.” Almost two years later (August 1941, now from Kibbutz Sdot Yam), she wrote to her mother: “I miss nothing that I left behind – only you and Gyori."

Mastery of Hebrew

Most of the 194 letters were written during Szenes’ years in Palestine, particularly during the period she attended the agricultural school in Nahalal, the Palestine Jewish community’s first moshav, or cooperative village. Her mother survived the war and immigrated to Israel, bringing with her her daughter’s letters, along with various certificates and photographs that she’d kept in a large box.

Following her death, in 1992, the box passed to Hannah’s brother, Giora, who also made his home in Israel. His son, Eitan, inherited the box and opened it after his father’s death in 1995. His aunt’s image as a quintessential heroine and as the author of a verse, “Walk to Caesarea,” that no memorial ceremony can be without (“God, may there be no end / To sea, to sand...”) became ever more firmly entrenched.

Seventy years after the tragic events in Hungary, the book’s editor, Dr. Anna Szalai, and Hannah’s nephew Eitan have written forewords that seek to blur the heroic dimension and play up Hannah Szenes as “a human being and a creative person, a young woman, multifaceted and special.” In short: Let us remember her for the way she lived, not the way she died.

Szalai, who supplements the letters with excerpts from Szenes’ diary and with letters to her from other people (which Szenes kept), points out the book’s importance for researchers of that era: Personal letters, certainly in the Palestine-Europe context of the 1930s and 1940s, are an important historical source for understanding events of the time and their impact on everyday life. Szenes’ long, detailed letters, both heart-wrenching and jocular, are a veritable treasure. Even if she fell mute on the brink of death, in life she always found words, and surely would have written more if she could.

The letters show that she had a gift for languages. Most of them were written in Hungarian, though she chose to write a few in English, because letters sent from Palestine to Europe were subject to military censorship, and the British Mandate censorship unit had a hard time finding people who could translate from Hungarian. She spoke French with people she met on the ship that brought her to Palestine and with a girlfriend at school in Nahalal, but the main language of record was Hebrew.

“Naturally people here speak other languages as well – one often hears German, Yiddish and Hungarian – but those who live here for a longer period do not like to speak other languages,” she wrote in her first letter from Nahalal to her mother and brother, adding, “If you should speak to someone who wants to come, please tell him he must learn Hebrew."

The rules of the language dictated the culture, she observed: “The whole language is structured so that the other person is addressed in the masculine or the feminine, so the approach is far more personal, but because of that there is also less respect.” Her signature on this letter reflects her social integration: “Ani,” her original name, had metamorphosed into “Hannah."

In June 1940, she sent her mother a poem she’d written, expressing regret that she was unable to write it in Hebrew. But a few months later, she related happily that she had managed to write a poem in that language. On November 29, 1939, she reported that she had finished reading her first book in Hebrew the previous day. She accomplished the feat in part thanks to long waits in the dentist’s reception room. She went on to read poetry by icons of modern Hebrew literature such as Rachel, and afterward by Saul Tchernichovsky and Haim Nahman Bialik.

Szenes’ letters paint a portrait of life in the Yishuv, the pre-1948 Jewish community in Palestine. They’re accompanied by photographs that she sent her mother, some that she herself took. She did her best to allay her mother’s concerns, answering questions like: Is there enough time to bathe? Isn’t it too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter? What’s the food like?

Not surprisingly, that last subject occupies an important place. Szenes arrived at the agricultural school in Nahalal on Yom Kippur in 1939, and received a modest meal of tea, eggs, tomatoes, bread and butter. Subsequently, she wrote that the menu was adequate – vegetables, eggs, milk and cheese were all available, even during the war. Occasionally she discovered a new food, such as olives or grapefruit, and at Hanukkah she enjoyed the potato pancakes. In a letter to a close girlfriend she asked her to tell her mother that “she shouldn’t think we live on water and bread."

In fact, thanks to the food, Szenes put on weight, which didn’t especially bother her, though she knew a woman should have a good figure. “I think I’ve gained a little weight,” she wrote in April 1941. “It wouldn’t be surprising if it were so, because I’m eating huge amounts of food; but there’s no real danger: My clothes still fit. As for my looks, oh God, I don’t think they’ve been hurt much, and anyway there’s really no one here worth looking good for."

High 'moral bar'

Matters of the heart also find their way into the letters. “I have to say that when it comes to boys,” she wrote in November 1939, “there’s nothing, I mean no one serious.” In April 1940, she wrote to her brother, “I know that for all the usual reasons you would like to read an announcement of my marriage, but in this place I don’t even look at boys. Alright, that’s not true, because I look first, on top of which I smile very prettily. That melts the boys’ heart, and in the evening they start to send messages via the girls that I should come and walk with them a little.

“At first I usually respond willingly, but when it turns out that it’s a pity to waste time on this I become cold as ice, I make faces and close myself off like a snail. If they want to go for a walk, I [say I] have to write an urgent letter, or I want to go to sleep, or I’m cold."

And that summer: “I would finally like to have a boyfriend without ‘but.’ Too bad it’s not something you can order. I would like a good friend, but I don’t want to compromise."

Her brother asked about the local women, too. Her impression, Szenes wrote back, was that “they are a great deal more honest and simple, a lot less pressured about getting married, for example, but you can’t say they are frivolous. On the contrary: In the kibbutzim, for example, the moral bar is actually very high."

What did a young woman in the Jezreel Valley in the early 1940s wear? Shorts and blouses in the summer, while in the winter, women and men alike wore boots, long pants and a leather jacket. Szenes’ mother apparently took great interest in this aspect of Yishuv life, and was not satisfied even by the considerable information and pictures her daughter sent (including, on one occasion, a painting.)

Informed by her mother that a young Hungarian woman was planning to immigrate to Palestine and had asked her what to take with her, Szenes recommended simple and washable summer apparel, a skirt, a light blouse, shorts, warm underclothing, wool clothes, flannel shirts and wool socks, a hat, sunglasses and – most crucial – plenty of footwear of all kinds: high shoes and half-shoes, flat sandals and boots. Boots were an essential – and expensive – item in Nahalal, and she repeatedly asked her mother to send her a suitable pair.

What did Hannah Szenes plan to do in her life? The question arose after she’d adjusted to the schedule and the work in Nahalal, and also in letters from her mother: She wondered, for example, whether it hadn’t been a mistake for her daughter to forgo university studies. At the outset, Szenes aspired to work in the cowshed and the dairy, and afterward in the chicken coop. In the meantime, her work assignments included the laundry, the bakery, the kitchen and dining room.

The latter provided her with material for a very amusing letter. Wearing an apron and a kerchief, “I harness myself to the food cart,” she wrote, in order to clear the tables, afterward washing the floor “amid groans.” Within three days she has become an expert, familiar with “all the thrills latent in the labor of floor-washing.” Her conclusion: “Despite its many good points, I will not choose floor-washing as my chief profession."

Her description of how she cleared the tables after lunch has the makings of a fine satire. “Again I wipe the tables and launch into a series of murders: I spray Flit [insecticide] all over the dining room. When I see that all the fatigued flies are lying under the windows (they don’t have antiaircraft training and don’t know how to behave in an air attack), I lay down the murder weapon and make myself ignore the fact that within half an hour all the flies will be climbing the windows vigorously again and watching me scornfully as I wash the floor once more."

Her aim was kibbutz life. “I think I am on the most important journey of my life,” she wrote to her mother and brother in September 1939. “I am certain I made the right decision.” Later letters conveyed the same message. Her mother alone understood her. “I know that you always understand me,” she wrote in June 1937 from Milan, where she was visiting cousins; in March 1944 she conveyed similar sentiments from Bari, in Italy, on the way to her fateful mission.

She and her mother think alike, Szenes wrote from Nahalal in February 1944, and even if they were far apart geographically, “our thoughts cross somewhere at the midway point, maybe over the sea. I feel how strong and flexible the invisible thread that binds us is, and I know it’s completely superfluous to write about it – after all, you know everything."

Perhaps it was the existence of this implicit bond that made it possible for the daughter to devote all her energy to describing the sights, sounds, smells and tastes around her, and to free herself of the need to explain things – her mother would understand by herself. In this sense, the last note, and the book’s Hebrew title, too, afford the book an interpretation founded on life, not death.

This wonderful collection of letters does not crack or shatter any legend, nor does it shed new light on Hanna Szenes’ character. What it does is make available, however belatedly, the original writings of a gifted and delightful young woman. We can only imagine what her contribution to Hebrew culture would have been if she had returned from that mission.

Those who seek symbolism will find it in the timing of the book’s publication, exactly when the copyright period expires under the law. From now on, then, all her writings, even the most personal, belong to us all.



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