Hannah Senesh

How this Hungarian Jew became a national heroine of Israel.

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In mid-March 1944 she and several other Palestinian-Jewish volunteers (most of whom were also of European origin) were dropped into Yugoslavia in order to aid the anti-Nazi forces until they would be able to commence their true mission and enter Hungary. The German invasion of Hungary in March 1944 postponed their plans, and Senesh crossed the border to her former motherland only in June of that year.

Imprisoned in Hungary

Captured within hours of having stepped on to Hungarian soil, she was sent to prison in Budapest where she was tortured by Hungarian authorities in the hope of receiving information regarding Allied wireless codes. Within days of entering Hungary, her two co-parachutists were also captured, unaware of Senesh's whereabouts. Only one of them--Yoel Palgi--was to survive the war.

When the Hungarian authorities realized that Senesh would not be broken, they arrested her mother and the two women came face to face with each other for the first time in almost five years. Katharine Senesh had no idea that her daughter had left Palestine--not to speak of the fact that she was now in Hungary. Initially shocked as they brought in the young woman with bruised eyes and who had lost a front tooth in the torture process, she rapidly regained her composure, and both mother and daughter refused to give the authorities the performance that would lead to the information they had sought.

For three months the two women were near yet far, sharing the same prison walls but unable to catch more than short glimpses of each other. In September 1944, after Katharine Senesh was suddenly released, she spent most of her waking hours seeking legal assistance for her daughter, who--being a Hungarian national--was to be tried as a spy.

In November 1944 Hannah Senesh came up before a tribunal and eloquently pleaded her own cause, warning the judges that as the end of the war was nearing, that their own fate would soon hang in the balance. Convicted as a spy, Senesh was sentenced to death, although the court had decided not to carry out the sentence with alacrity.

Put to Death

However, her poignant speech during the trial was taken as a personal affront by the officer in charge, Colonel Simon, who came into her cell on the morning of November 7th and presented her with two options: to beg for a pardon, or to face death by a firing squad.

Grave of Hanna SzenesRefusing to beg clemency from her captors, whom she did not consider legally permitted to try her case, Senesh penned short notes to her mother and her comrades and went to her death at age twenty-three in a snow-covered Budapest courtyard, refusing a blindfold in order to face her murderers in the moments before her death. Her body was buried by unknown persons in the Jewish graveyard at Budapest.

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Judith  Tydor Baumel

Judith Tydor Baumel chairs the Graduate Program in Contemporary Jewry at Bar-Ilan University where she is a professor of modern Jewish history. She has published extensively on the Holocaust, the State of Israel, gender and memory.