One of the Jewish parachutists from Eretz Yisrael sent by the Yishuv leadership on rescue missions into Nazi-occupied Europe, Hannah Senesh (or Szenes) became one of the more mythological contemporary Jewish figures, as her idealism and self-sacrifice led to her broad recognition as one of the great heroes of Zionist history.
In the amazing Holocaust rarity pictured here, she writes to “Gusta” on March 5, 1944: “Gusta! I must thank you for everything, regards to all, from Hagar.” (Senesh used the code name “Hagar” during her missions to Yugoslavia and Hungary.) Also displayed here is the original envelope in which the correspondence was found, which bears the inscription “Last letter from Hannah Senesh, keep!”
The addressee, Gusta Strumpf-Rechav (1891-1982), was one of the first pioneers to make aliyah from Germany following World War I. She was a member of Kvutzat Kineret during the early 1920s; worked with David Remez in Solel Boneh management; edited the Davar newspaper in German; established and managed the first Beit Hachalutzot in Haifa; and managed Nachson, a maritime and fishing company, for many decades.
Born in Budapest in 1921 to an assimilated Jewish family of writers, musicians, and poets, Senesh too became a poet at a very young age, writing first in Hungarian and later in Hebrew. Hungarian anti-Semitism led her to involvement in Zionist activities, and she left Hungary for Eretz Yisrael in 1939, where she first studied at a girls’ agricultural school in Nahalal before settling at Kibbutz Sdot Yam, where she wrote poetry and a play about kibbutz life.
In 1943, Jewish Agency officials recruited her to join a clandestine military project whose ultimate purpose was to offer aid to beleaguered European Jewry. The young immigrant became a member of the Palmach; enlisted in the British Army in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force; began her training in Egypt as a paratrooper and took courses for wireless operators; and ultimately became one of thirty-three selectees chosen to parachute behind enemy lines.
With the goal of ultimately reaching her native Budapest, Senesh was parachuted into Yugoslavia on March 14, 1944 but, after landing, she and her two fellow-parachutists learned that the Germans had already occupied Hungary; as such, the mission to Hungary was canceled. Yet Senesh refused to quit and, on June 7, 1944 – at the height of the deportation of Hungarian Jews – she crossed the border with a radio transmitter into Hungary, where she was caught almost immediately.
Although she was tortured repeatedly over the course of several months, she refused to divulge any information, even when the Nazis arrested her mother and threatened her mother’s life. At her trial for treason in October 1944, she staunchly defended her activities and refused to request clemency. When she was executed by a firing squad on November 7, 1944, she refused the blindfold, staring squarely at her killers and her fate.
Senesh’s remains, which had been buried by unknown persons in the Jewish graveyard at Budapest, were brought to Israel and re-interred in the military cemetery on Mount Herzl (1950), and her tombstone was later also brought to Israel and placed in Sdot Yam (November 2007). Her widely published poems and writings are still often read and sung when memorializing the Holocaust; of particular note, Eli, Eli, a song frequently played at Holocaust memorial assemblies, is actually a work by Senesh originally entitled Walking to Caesarea.