A short, extraordinary life

In the spring of 1944, Hannah Senesh parachuted into Yugoslavia with seven Palestinian Jewish volunteers for the British army. She was the only woman. Her mission was to penetrate her native Hungary to bring downed Allied fliers to safety.

Her intention was to help save the Jews of her native country.

She was captured by the Nazis, tortured and executed. In her native Budapest, she was in the same prison as her mother, who Hannah had wanted so badly to rescue.

Neither woman gave into Nazi threats or torture. Hannah Senesh was killed by a firing squad. She was 23 years old.

A new book called “Hannah Senesh: Her Life and Diary” will allow a new generation of readers worldwide to learn about this remarkable woman.

Hannah was a poet, fighter, leader, loving sister, devoted daughter and true hero of the Jewish people.

Raised in affluence, the daughter of a prominent playwright who died in his early 30s of a heart attack, Hannah from a very early age understood pain and loss. And she responded to tragedy, beginning in her early childhood, with clear-headedness and rare courage and insight.

Her diary is both personal and historical. Born July 17, 1921 — Hannah’s teenage years coincided with the rise of Nazism in Germany and the rise of anti-Semitism in her native Hungary. Her high school years culminated with her decision to become a Zionist and immigrate to Eretz Israel.

The strength of Hannah’s diary lies in its honesty. She was an idealist who was also a realist, a person of hope who knew great despair. She was a young woman who always thought for herself, whose rejection of Orthodox Judaism was not a rejection of Judaism itself.

“Before I was familiar with the point of view of the prophets, and what, in general, the Jewish religion was about, I instinctively objected to empty religious forms and searched for its true content and morality as expressed in deeds …”

A strong woman and honest woman, Hannah attracted many young men, a number of whom proposed marriage. She was aware of her own feelings and of the huge gulf between infatuation and love. Passages in her diary express her yearning for one she could love; yet she could not fool herself and pretend a love that was not true. In Palestine, her physical distance from her beloved brother and mother became nearly unbearable as she strove to bring her mother and brother to what she calls “The Land.”

The book includes Hannah’s diary and letters — followed by first-person accounts by others about the mission that would end with Hannah’s death — including accounts from her comrades Yoel Palgi and Rueven Dafne, witnesses to Hannah’s absolute courage when leading her fellow Jewish volunteers.

Her beatings at the hands of the Nazis and her imprisonment did not defeat Hannah. And other prisoners, including young children, gained courage by her example.

As Deborah Lipstadt has written: “She had much to teach the world when she lived. She has even more to teach it now.”

She has lessons to teach that are still difficult for many of us to appreciate: The world is a tragic place and perfection does not exist on earth; anti-Semitism is real and cannot simply be wished away; Israel must live as a haven for the Jewish people.

What words are there to mourn Hannah Senesh and other young Jewish heroes — of the Warsaw ghetto uprising, of the Jewish Brigade — those young men and women who died so that the Jewish people might live?

“Hannah Senesh: Her Life and Diary, the First Complete Edition” by Marge Piercy (315 pages, Jewish Lights Publishing, $24.99).