The Paradoxical Heroism of Chana Senesh
Chana Senesh was born in 1921 in Budapest to Bela and Catherine Senesh, assimilated Jews who nonetheless imbued her with a deep sense of cultural Judaism. Ghana aspired to follow in her celebrated playwright father’s footsteps, and began keeping a diary and writing poems before the age of ten.
As Hitler’s rise brought a resurgence of overt anti-Semitism to Budapest, Chana became involved in the Zionist movement. She decided to move to Palestine and enrolled in a kibbutz-based agricultural school. Her mother and many of her friends could not understand her decision; they believed that she was too intellectual to be happy as a farmer. Chana immigrated to Palestine in 1939; her brother George and her mother remained behind in Europe. (Her father had died when she was six.)
In Palestine, Chana found kibbutz life very difficult. Although she was infused with a sense of idealism and optimism, she missed her family and was often torn between her devotion to the land and her intellectual passions. When news of the horrors of World War II filtered back to Palestine, Chana joined the Palmach, an underground unit of the Jewish army, and began training for an ill-conceived British directed parachute mission into occupied Yugoslavia to rescue downed airmen. The Jewish members of the mission had the additional goal of saving Jewish lives.
In March 1944, just as Hungary was being invaded, Chana joined several male Palestinian Jews who parachuted into Yugoslavia near the Hungarian border Shortly after crossing that border, Chana was captured. Although she was imprisoned in her native Budapest and tortured by the Hungarian SS, Chana would not reveal the nature of her mission. In fact, according to those who saw her in prison, she stood up to her captors, who actually seemed in awe of her.
In November 1944, shortly before she was to be officially sentenced and just weeks before Budapest fell to the Soviets, Chana was executed by a firing squad. Although her mission was a failure in a military sense, it was tremendously successful in bringing hope to the Jews of Eastern Europe.
Lori Wilner starred in and collaborated on the writing of David Schechter’s play Hannah Senesh. She has performed the one-woman play around the world, including a special performance in Israel for Chana’s mother and brother.
Sometimes one writes letters one does not intend sending. Letters one must write without asking oneself, ‘I wonder whether this will ever reach its destination!’
Day after tomorrow I am starting something new. Perhaps it’s madness. Perhaps it’s fantastic. Perhaps it is dangerous. Perhaps one in a hundred — or one in a thousand — pays with his life. Perhaps with less than his life, perhaps with more. Don’t ask questions. You’ll eventually know what it’s about.
George, I must explain something to you. I must exonerate myself I must prepare myself for that moment when you arrive inside the frontiers of the Land, waiting for that moment when, after six years, we will meet again, and you will ask, ‘Where is she?’ and they’ll abruptly answer, ‘She’s not here.’
I wonder, will you understand? I wonder, will you believe that it is more than a childish wish for adventure, more than youthful romanticism that attracted me? I wonder, will you feel that I could not do otherwise, that this was something I had to do?
There are events without which one’s life becomes unimportant, a worthless toy; and there are times when one is commanded to do something, even at the price of one’s life.
I’m afraid, George, that feelings turn into empty phrases even though they are so impassioned before they turn into words. I don’t know whether you’ll sense the doubts, the conflicts, and after every struggle the renewed decision.
It is difficult because I am alone. If I had someone with whom I could talk freely, uninhibitedly — if only the entire burden were not mine, if only I could talk to you. If there is anyone who would understand me, I think you would be that one. But who knows… six years is a long time.
But enough about myself. Perhaps I have already said too much. I would like to tell you a few things about the new life, the new home, as I see them. I don’t want to influence you. You’ll see for yourself what the country is. But I want to tell you how I see it.
First of all — I love it. I love its hundred faces, its hundred climates, its many faceted life. I love the old and the new in it; I love it because it is ours. No, not ours, but because we can make ourselves believe it is ours.
And I respect it. Not everything. I respect the people who believe in something, respect their idealistic struggle with the daily realities. I respect those who don’t live just for the moment, or for money. And I think there are more such people here than anywhere else on earth. And finally, I think that this is the only solution for us, and for this reason I don’t doubt its future, though I think it will be very difficult and combative.
As far as the kibbutz is concerned, I don’t think it is perfect, and it will probably pass through many phases. But in today’s circumstances it best suits our aims, and is the closest to our concept of a way of life — about this I have absolutely no doubt.
We have need of one thing: people who are brave and without prejudices, who are not robots, who want to think for themselves and not accept outmoded ideas. It is easy to place laws in the hands of man, to tell him to live by them,. It is more difficult to follow those laws. But most difficult of all is to impose laws upon oneself, while being constantly self-analytical and self-vigilant. I think this is the highest form of law enforcement, and at the same time the only just form. And this form of law can only build a new, contented life.
I often ask myself what the fate of the kibbutz will be when the magic and novelty of construction and creation wear off, when the struggle for existence assumes reality and — according to plan — becomes an organized, abundant communal life. What will the incentive of the people be, what will fill their lives? I don’t know the answer But that day is so far in the future that it is best to think of existing matters.
Don’t think I see everything through rose-coloured glasses. My faith is a subjective matter, and not the result of outer conditions. I see the difficulties clearly, both inside and out. But I see the good side, and above all, as I said before, I think this is the only way.
I did not write about something that constantly preoccupies my thoughts: Mother I can’t.
Enough of this letter I hope you will never receive it But if you do, only after we have met.
And if it should be otherwise, George dear, I embrace you with everlasting love.
PS. I wrote the letter at the beginning of the parachute training course.