Hannah Senesh was born on July 17, 1921 into a Hungarian-Jewish middle class family. She went to a private Protestant secondary school where she was one of a small number of Jewish students. While she excelled there, she also eventually encountered institutionalized anti-Semitism. Her response was to become an ardent Zionist intent on settling in Palestine. She left Budapest for Palestine in September 1939, two weeks after Germany’s invasion of Poland. After completing two years of studies at the Agricultural School for Young Women in Nahalal, she joined the newly organized kibbutz, Sedot Yam. In the summer of 1943, wanting to help in the effort to defeat the Nazis and to do something for the Jewish remnant in Europe, Hannah accepted an invitation to join a unit being trained to parachute into occupied Europe. There, she and the other Palestinian-Jewish volunteers would carry out a double mission. For the British, they would help set up escape routes for downed Allied air-crews; for the Haganah — the Palestinian Jewish underground army — they would organize Jews and, if possible, help them to escape.
Hannah and a number of her colleagues parachuted into Yugoslavia in March 1944. She crossed into Hungary in early June, but was immediately captured by the Hungarian authorities and interrogated. Her mother was arrested in an attempt to extract information from Hannah, but Hannah refused to give her captors the information they sought. While in prison, she remained resolute and calm. She was tried for treason by the Hungarian authorities, and executed by firing squad on November 7, 1944 at the age of 23. Her remains were moved to Israel in 1950, and she is now buried in the section of Israel’s national military cemetery dedicated to the seven parachutists who fell. Hannah’s mother and brother survived the war.
The first major museum exhibition about Hannah’s life, a life that has inspired books, plays, and films, occupies 3,500 square feet. The story told in the exhibition begins in the cosmopolitan Budapest of the 1920s and 1930s, exploring Hannah’s home life, education, and religious beliefs as part of a bourgeois Jewish family; it shows how her priorities changed after 1937 upon encountering anti-Semitism, and how she became a Zionist. The exhibition follows Hannah to the Agricultural School of Young Women in Nahalal and uses her own words to portray her physical and spiritual life there and at Kibbutz Sedot Yam. Hannah’s mission, imprisonment, trial and execution are narrated through the words of her acquaintances, family, and friends who were witness to these tragic events. The exhibition concludes with a section describing Hannah’s legacy.
Hannah’s nephews, Eitan and David Senesh, helped make the exhibit possible by entrusting the Museum with many artifacts and documents never before seen in public. Eitan says, “As an Israeli who was born, educated and raised in the sovereign state of Israel, I believe that Hannah's life story, the values she embodied, and her way of life should be brought to the attention of young people throughout the world. I believe that by presenting the materials she created and left for us through an exhibition at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, we can achieve this goal.”
The exhibition also includes multi-media displays and films produced for the Museum by Roberta Grossman, director of Blessed is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh. An award-winning filmmaker with a passion for history and social justice, Ms. Grossman has written and produced more than forty hours of documentary television. Her work has been shown on A&E, PBS, and AMC.
Museum of Jewish Heritage Deputy Director Ivy Barsky says, “We feel privileged to have this opportunity to tell Hannah’s story. Her life and idealism will resonate with younger audiences who will be inspired by her courage and her will to change the world. Hannah’s eloquent poetry and prose will move visitors of all ages. Finally, Hannah’s story serves as an example of Jewish response to the Holocaust—bold initiative and action against all odds.
This exhibition is made possible by leadership gifts in loving memory of Anne Ratner from her children and grandchildren, and from the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany. Additional support provided by the David Berg Foundation and The Laszlo N. Tauber Family Foundation, Inc.
We are grateful to the Senesh Family for making the exhibition possible by providing material from their collection.