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Meet Israel’s “Joan of Arc”

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Hannah Senesh was many things in her brief life: a poet, a farmer, and a legendary soldier. Decades after her death at the hands of the Nazis, her story lives on – not just in the military tales but in her writings. Her poetry and written words have been transformed into timeless songs.


Now, a new exhibit at New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage, entitled “Fire in My Heart: The Story of Hannah Senesh,” sheds light on the person behind the legend, examining the young girl who became Israel’s “Joan of Arc.” Her home life in Budapest, education, and transformation into a heroic leader are all uncovered in this moving tribute thanks to the general donations of her personal belongings from her descendants.


Senesh’s biography sounds almost unreal. Born in Hungary, the young poet moved to Israel in 1939, just as Hitler ushered the world into the most brutal and tragic conflict in human history. In 1943, she embarked on a secret mission for the British Special Operations Executive behind enemy lines, parachuting into Hungary in early 1944 in an attempt to save its Jewish population before they would be deported to Auschwitz in the coming months. She was captured by enemy forces and executed, dying at only 23 years old.


British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, in a letter to his foreign secretary dated July 11, 1944, said, “There is no doubt that this persecution of Jews in Hungary and their expulsion from enemy territory is probably the greatest and most horrible crime ever committed in the whole history of the world.” This is what Hannah Senesh died trying to prevent.


Featured objects and artifacts at the exhibit include:

  • A poetry notebook of Hannah’s written in Hungarian that includes a tribute to Hanukkah, one of the more than 30 poems she wrote between 1928 and 1936.
  • The portable typewriter Hannah brought with her to Palestine along with letters she typed to her mother that sometimes included drawings and handwritten messages.
  • The original copy of her famous 1942 poem “Halikha L’Kesariya” (“A Walk to Caesarea”), known worldwide as “Eli, Eli.” This short Hebrew poem was set to music in 1945, and has since become a virtual second national anthem in Israel.
  • The last known poem by Hannah: “Egg-kettö–három” (“One, Two, Three”), written in prison in Budapest, Hungary, June 20, 1944, and found after her execution. It ends with the following lines: I could have been twenty three next July. I gambled on what mattered most. The dice were cast. I lost.
  • Hannah’s last note to her mother, also written in her Budapest cell, undated. The note says:


My dear beloved mother,

I have no words. Only this I can tell you: millions of thanks. Forgive me if possible. You alone understand why there is no need for words. With unending love,

Your daughter


A wonderful way for Americans to explore Jewish culture, the exhibit will run until August 7, 2011, at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City. To read more about the exhibit, as well as their operating hours, click here.


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