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Female Stars of the Zionist Stage

Israel is Beautiful celebrates the vital role of women in the Jewish State

March 8th is International Women's Day and in America the entire month of March is devoted to women's achievements. Here at Israel is Beautiful, we are also celebrating women throughout the month of March; recognizing and applauding the vital role women have played in the birth and development of the Jewish State.

Over the next four weeks, we will profile four different women with four unique stories. None of these women knew each other and most of them were not even alive at the same time. Some were born in Israel, while others sacrificed friends and family to actively participate in the Zionist enterprise. Some were famous throughout the world, while some are barely known outside the borders of Israel. But all have created, built, and even sacrificed for the State in ways we hope will inspire you as much as they inspire us.

Introducing Hannah Senesh

Just over 100 years ago on July 17, 1921 a baby girl was born in a small town in Hungary, to an assimilated Jewish family. Her father, a journalist and playwright, died when she was just six years old. Still, she and her brother, Gyorgy, continued to live in their home with their mother. Her name was Hannah Senesh (Szenes). Hannah's mother recognized her daughter's aptitude and enrolled her in a private Protestant school for girls that also accepted Catholics and Jews. Accepted, but for a price: Catholic and Jewish students were required to pay a tuition bill sometimes three times more than their Protestant classmates, but as Hannah's academic abilities were so impressive, her mother only had to pay "only" twice the annual fee.

Credit: Jewish National Fund photo archive

Like her father, Hannah was a gifted writer, but for her, it was the poetic genre that allowed her to express herself. She wrote prolifically over the years of her short life and her poems have been translated into many languages. Sadly and tragically, it was not her poems that would bring her fame.

From Hungary to Israel in 1939

Hannah graduated in 1939, just a few months before Germany would invade Poland. Life for Hungarian Jews was becoming increasingly precarious. Hannah saw the growing danger of remaining in her native land and became more and more attracted to the Zionist idea. So, just after graduation, she packed her bags and sailed to what was then the British Mandate of Palestine.

Credit: Hannah Senesh with members of Kibbutz Sdot Yam - 4th from left. Palmach archive

Hannah was ready to get her ‘hands dirty’ literally and figuratively from the day her ship docked in Haifa. She immediately travelled to the agricultural school in the Jezreel Valley moshav called Nahalal and later moved to Kibbutz Sdot Yam, on the Mediterranean Sea near Caesarea. Quickly she understood that working the land would not be enough to achieve the Zionist ideal; especially in 1939. And it was at this time that Hannah joined the Haganah, the Jewish paramilitary force that was the precursor to the Israel Defense Force (IDF). She also enlisted in the British Women's Auxiliary Air Force. Hannah committed herself to the Jewish community of the British Mandate of Palestine while continuing to worry about her family and friends back in Hungary.

Parachuting into occupied Europe

Beginning in 1943 and continuing into 1944, the Jews of Palestine began parachuting members of the Haganah into occupied Europe to aid the allies and the Jewish community in any way they could. This Jewish commando unit was created with the support of Jews living in Palestine and the British Army. Out of the 250 Jewish candidates who applied, only 32 were selected for this dangerous mission. Hannah was one of these 32 and was sent to Egypt for parachute training.

On March 14, 1944, Hannah and her comrades were parachuted into Yugoslavia. Soon after landing, the unit discovered that the Nazis had conquered Hungary. The men decided that the mission was too dangerous, and they decided not to continue. Hannah would not be dissuaded from her mission and advanced to the Hungarian border where she was discovered.

Sad ending to an heroic life

Hannah was arrested and her British transmitter was confiscated, she was moved to a Budapest prison where she was mercilessly interrogated and tortured. Her captors wanted information on the partisans but she would not break. Hannah knew her days were numbered, but even while imprisoned, she transmitted messages to cell mates with a mirror that, surprisingly, had not been confiscated.

Realizing that Hannah would not compromise, she was brought before a court in Hungary and ultimately sentenced to death by firing squad on November 7, 1944. In a final act of courage, she refused a blindfold when the guns were raised against her. She was 23 when she was murdered. Her courage proved that there were still people who were fighting on behalf of European Jewry.

Hannah Senesh’s short life will never be forgotten

In 1950, her remains were brought to the national military cemetery on Mount Herzl, an honor reserved only for the bravest of Jewish fighters.

While Hannah made the ultimate sacrifice, it wasn't her death that made her a hero - she was a woman who gave up her home and her family to serve the Jewish people. Before joining the Jewish commando unit, she continued writing while engaged in physical labor because she embraced Zionism with every fiber of her being! She joined a kibbutz and actively worked to defend the yishuv, the Jewish community living under the British Mandate of Palestine. And when her comrades feared the futility of their mission, Hannah continued on; her commitment to the Jewish people outweighed all other risks.

Hannah Senesh's most famous poem: "A Walk to Caesarea"

I’ll end this blog with one of Hannah Senesh's most famous poems, "A Walk to Caesarea" which is commonly known as "Eli, Eli" (My G-d, My G-d). It's often sung during Tisha B'Av (the memorial for the destruction of both the First and Second Temples).

My God, my God,

may it never end –

the sand and the sea,

the rustle of the water,

the brilliance of the sky,

the prayer of man.

(Translation HaAretz 24 February 2015)

May her memory be a blessing to us all.

Next week, Israel is Beautiful will offer an inspirational story of a modern day Israeli hero.


Israel is Beautiful was developed by Onnie Schiffmiller and Dr. Peter Abelow, both licensed tour guides, with a shared love of the Land of Israel, sharing nearly thirty years of professional tour guiding experience.  The premise is simple, Israel is Beautiful brings Israel, in all its beauty, into the comfort of your home via weekly you-are-there video tours, along with Meet the Tour Guide video chats. Join us in this adventure, subscribe today and begin your own personal journey of the Holy land with Israel is Beautiful.

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