Reprinted from Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia with permission of the author and the Jewish Women’s Archive.
One of the more poignant songs included in many Holocaust memorial convocations held in Israel, is a short poem, set to music, known popularly as “Eli, Eli.” The four-line poem, actually entitled “Walking to Caesarea,” was written by one of the more mythological figures in contemporary Jewish and Israeli history, Hannah Senesh (Szenes), whose short life and death have propelled her into the pantheon of Zionist history.
Hannah Senesh was born in Budapest on July 17, 1921, to a wealthy, distinguished, and assimilated Hungarian Jewish family. Her father, Bela Senesh (1874-1929), who died when she was a child, had been a well-known writer and dramatist and her mother, Katharine, an elegant homemaker. Having been given a modern Hungarian education, Senesh was exposed to anti-Semitism during her high school years, propelling her to learn more about her Jewish origins. It was at that time that she discovered the Zionist movement, joining a Zionist youth movement and learning Hebrew in preparation for immigration to Palestine.
In 1939, after finishing her high school studies, Senesh came to Palestine to study at the girls’ agricultural school in Nahalal, continuing the diary that she had begun in Hungary. Having completed a two-year course in agriculture, Senesh joined the Sedot Yam kibbutz at Caesarea. Her choice was motivated by the preference of maintaining an anonymous status, rather than being known as “the daughter of Bela Senesh,” something that would have been likely had she joined one of the kibbutz groups whose members were primarily of Hungarian origin. Senesh worked in the kitchen and in the kibbutz laundry, and the difficulties that she encountered are echoed in her diary.
In 1943 Jewish Agency officials made overtures towards Senesh to join a clandestine military project whose ultimate purpose was to offer aid to beleaguered European Jewry. The young immigrant, who became a member of the Palmah (the pre-State assault companies of the Haganah), first studied in a course for wireless operators, and in January 1944 participated in a course for paratroopers.