Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Not because
I woke up in the middle of the night, the night before last, and wrote two words on a piece of paper, in large, hardly-intelligible handwriting.

Hannah Senesh.

I don’t know why her name came to me in my sleep, or why it was so urgent for me to get the words down so I wouldn’t forget them till morning.

* * * *

About ten years ago, a fictional play was to be aired on Israeli television based on the story of the famous Kasztner trial. The play twisted historic facts by saying that Hannah Senesh (Szenes) had broken under SS interrogation and had turned in her friends, thus bringing about their capture by the Nazis and their eventual execution, and, of course, the failure of their mission. The whole country was up in arms.

If I remember correctly, Hannah Senesh’s family appealed to the High Court of Justice to try and prevent the play from being broadcast, claiming, if I am not mistaken, that it was libelous. They were turned down for reasons of freedom of speech or artistic license or something. The play was broadcast.

I have a guilty little confession. I couldn’t care less if Hannah Senesh ‘talked’ or not. And another: I could never understand what that parachuting mission in Europe was all about.

I should have had a blog back then, because all the time that the stormy public debate about this issue was going on, I wanted to shout out, I wanted to tell Hannah Senesh’s family how I felt. I wanted to say to them:

Don’t worry. It’s okay. It doesn’t change anything. It doesn’t make her anything less.

(We know she didn’t talk, but even if she did, who could blame her? How could we expect her to withstand the sort of treatment the SS interrogators would have had no qualms at meting out to those with secrets. Just look at what they did to those guilty only of belonging to the wrong race. And she was both.)

Even if she did talk she was still a heroine. But she didn’t talk. And now we have this opportunity to look at just what that really means.

But don't you see that she was, and is, far more than how she died?

At least to me.

* * * *

Hannah Senesh was my most important role model when I was growing up. I felt, and still feel, very strongly about her.

She was my role model not because she didn’t break under the SS torture she went through before her execution; and not because she volunteered to parachute into Nazi-occupied Hungary, against all odds, in order to try and save Jews; and not because I loved the poems she wrote; and not because of her diary, in which she shared, with such youthful enthusiasm, her Zionism and her story of leaving her Hungarian home for a new life in Palestine; and not even because of that one particular little poem she wrote, so simple and lovely, expressing in just a few words her wonder at the precious beauty of the world and man's place in it, as she walked on the beach near Caesarea.

She wrote it just two years before she was shipped off to Europe never to return, never to know that it would become one of the best loved Israeli songs of all times, its wistful innocence an everlasting symbol of the devastation of the Holocaust.

These would have been reasons enough for my admiration of her, more than enough. Probably they should have been the reasons for my admiration of her. But I was a child. I had my own agenda. I didn't see her as the perfect heroine adorning the walls of the hall of fame of Zionism. All that stuff didn’t interest me in the least. Perhaps that is why the question of whether she talked or not hardly mattered to me.

In my eyes, she was a real person, an ordinary person, someone I could touch, and identify with. And that was her magic for me.

You’ll probably think I completely missed the point, and maybe I did. But I’m hoping you will be able to understand, for I was only a child - a little immigrant child who feared that she had lost one language without gaining another to take its place, and who felt as if she had become mute, no longer able to express herself in any language.

The thing that gave Hannah Senesh a special place in my heart, the thing that made me identify with her so much, was a seemingly insignificant biographical detail - insignificant perhaps when considering who she was and what she did, but not insignificant for me - that she started writing in Hebrew just six months after she came to live in Palestine, and in such beautiful Hebrew. This was an important lesson for me.

More than anyone or anything else at the time, she gave me hope. Now isn’t that ironic?

Hannah Senesh showed me, showed us all, in the way she lived her life, and, yes, in the way she went to her death, that if we care enough, if we have enough determination and dedication, we can do anything.

(I think Rinat reminds me of her a bit.)

אלי, שלא יגמר לעולם
החול והים
רשרוש של המים
ברק השמיים
תפלת האדם

חנה סנש

Afterthought: Aren't these fine words from this underachiever? Well, there's hope yet.

John sent me these words of Hannah Senesh:

There are stars whose radiance is visible on earth
though they have long been extinct.
There are people whose brilliance continues to light the world
though they are no longer among the living.
These lights are particularly bright when the night is dark.
They light the way for mankind.

Little did she know.

Update: I have just one more thing to say about this subject.