Hannah Senesh (1921-1944) was a poet and playwright who wrote in both Hungarian and Hebrew. She experienced antisemitism in High School. Because of that she discovered Zionism. At the age of 18, she made aliyah (moved from Hungary to Eretz Yisrael, then Palestine). Her dedication to serving the Jewish people motivated her to join the Hagganah, the beginnings of the Israeli Defense Forces. After enlisting in the British Army and becoming a paratrooper for the Special Operations Executive, she parachuted into Yugoslavia in March 1944 on a daring mission: to save the Jews of Hungary from deportation to Auschwitz. She was caught at the border with Hungary, but even under torture, she refused to betray her fellow parachutists. She was executed by firing squad on November 7, 1944—70 years ago. She refused to wear a blindfold. We marked this anniversary at NCJHS about 5 weeks ago, and we wish to promote her legacy by remembering her this Hanukkah.
Senesh is a Hanukkah hero because:
§ She was a modern Maccabee—a brave fighter on behalf of the Jewish people, who
acted on her belief in defending and strengthening Jewish identity and culture
§ She was a talented young poet whose words continue to inspire us today.
Her poem for Hanukkah was written when Senesh was 12 years old, even before her alignment with Zionism. We present it to you here, with questions for family discussion or personal reflection following.
It is Hanukkah, and the candle flames flare,
And all the Jewish hearts beat, throb, bare.
We recall the image of heroes
The disappeared ancient peoples.
The period of Pharaohs, the Greek oppression
Neither could break our will for expression.
We took the Torah, took it with us
We drew faith from it into all of us.
We walked through the plains hungry and thirsty,
But God was with us, so we were never lonely.
And we who stem from such ancestry
Should not despair, but continue to fight
As we are reassured by the candle light;
Do not quail Israel, there is still hope.
Questions to discuss or for personal reflection:
1. In the very first stanza, Senesh speaks of the flames of the Hanukkah candles as affecting us. In what ways do you feel moved as you watch the Hanukkah candles flicker?
2. What is the Jewish “will for expression” (stanza 3)?
3. How do you allow for the Torah (however understood and using whatever definition) to bring you faith?
4. Senesh concludes by suggestion that the Hanukkah candles reassure against despair and to continue to fight, because hope remains.
A. For what should we “continue to fight”?
B. What do the light of the Hanukkah candles mean to you?
5 The Hanukkah candles, and the Hanukkah story, seem to have instilled courage within Senesh (ometz lev), a courage that enabled her to take on Israel, and a courage that propelled her to take on a dangerous mission.
A. What kind of courage are you needing this Hanukkah?
B. How will you use your newfound courage?
C. What tremendous mission might you undertake in the light of Hanukkah?
– Dr. J.B. Sacks, Co-Director of Jewish Life