supplements 10.16.09
supplements 10.16.09

American spotlight belatedly shines on Blessed heroine

For generations of American Jews, an innocent, unformed Dutch teenager personified the victims of the Holocaust. What might have been the repercussions had the story of a courageous young woman named Hannah Senesh been widely circulated instead of Anne Frank’s saga?

That’s one of the fascinating questions implicitly raised by Roberta Grossman’s beautifully made “Blessed is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh.”

The documentary won audience awards at numerous Jewish film festivals and a spot on the shortlist for the Academy Award for best documentary feature (though it ultimately didn’t receive a nomination). It also is slated to air next April on PBS.

“Blessed is the Match” screens Wednesday, Oct. 21, and Oct. 25 in the Silicon Valley Jewish Film Festival, and Nov. 10 and 12 in the Sonoma County Jewish Film Festival. Grossman will be present at the Oct. 25 screening in San Jose and the evening show in Santa Rosa on Nov. 12.

Born in Budapest in 1921, Senesh was a promising poet and playwright. Enamored of Zionism and constrained by anti-Semitism, she immigrated to pre-state Israel when World War II broke out, leaving behind her mother, Catherine.

Senesh thrived in her adopted land, and it seems probable she would have emerged as a leading cultural figure in the new Jewish state.

But when the news broke that the Nazis had commenced deportations in Hungary, Senesh volunteered to return to rescue Jews. She trained as a paratrooper, parachuted into Eastern Europe in March 1944 — and several months later was executed by firing squad at age 23.

Senesh has been considered a national icon in Israel since that ill-fated mission, although her exploits are less well known here.

Marcela Nohynková (left) and Meri Roth recreate a scene as Catherine Senesh and her daughter, Hannah, in the documentary “Blessed is the Match.” photos/courtesy of the svjff

“I think the reason she was so embraced was because she was not an Anne Frank — a victim character,” Grossman said in a 2008 interview for the screening of her film in the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. “That kind of a character was completely unacceptable in Israel. Many of the Holocaust survivors had a hard time in Israel because there was somewhat of a blaming-the-victim mentality. So I think Hannah Senesh was purposefully raised up because she was an active heroine.”

If there’s anything one learns from reading history, it’s that very little is black and white. Whether the subject is Menachem Begin, Moshe Dayan or Hannah Senesh, the facts are inevitably more complicated than the legend.

 “Some people in Israel really are kind of annoyed that she was manipulated by the powers that be to become a heroine rather than just seen as a person, as a young girl,” Grossman said. “What I wanted my movie to do was to look at her as a person, and to look at her relationship with her mother, and why she made the choices that she did.”

The veteran Los Angeles filmmaker, whose credits include “Heroines of the Hebrew Bible” for A&E’s “Mysteries of the Bible” series, drew extensively on Senesh’s journals and poems as well as other materials that have been preserved over the decades.

In the absence of archival footage, however, Grossman took the daunting step of recreating pivotal events — notably Senesh’s interrogation and imprisonment in the same building where her mother was also imprisoned, used as leverage in her daughter’s interrogation. These segments are beautifully done, bearing no resemblance to the cheesiness of most nonfiction cable television reenactments.

Grossman was the rare American girl who read Senesh’s diary in junior high school. She was inspired to join Hashomer Hatzair, the Socialist Zionist youth movement, and to live in Israel for a time. The book also sparked an obsession to make a film about Senesh, which didn’t happen until 2008.

You might think she’d be frustrated that it took all these years, but Grossman said it was necessary for her to realize that it was a story of two women — Hannah and her mother, Catherine — not one.

“I’m so thrilled that [the film] didn’t happen until this point in my life because what happened in the interim was I became a mother, and I’m much closer in age to [Hannah’s mother] Catherine Senesh than to Hannah,” Grossman explained in the 2008 interview.

She identified for the first time with Catherine’s memoir, which details the mother’s and daughter’s incarcerations and reflects on Hannah’s life and character. “Hopefully it takes it beyond just a story of heroism, beyond a Jewish story, to a universal story of a love between a mother and a daughter,” Grossman said.

While Hannah’s dedication and bravery will always resonate with certain  people, others might have a different view of her unbridled idealism.

“Did Hannah give her life for a noble  cause, or did she give her life foolishly for nothing?” Grossman said. “I think she ended up saving her mother.”

Grossman was stumped for a second when asked to name the Bible heroine whom Senesh most closely resembles. “Maybe Deborah,” she mused. “But I really don’t see Hannah as a military figure. They were armed, but they weren’t

going in to do battle with the German army. Maybe Ruth, in a way, because of her loyalty and placing the love between her and her mother as a priority. She might fit that.”

As the first feature-length documentary about Senesh, “Blessed Is the Match” will make a powerful imprint on current and future generations of young Jews — especially girls. It begs the question if we would have had a different experience of being Jewish had we heard Senesh’s story as children.

 “I think maybe we would have been less sad,” Grossman said. “I grew up reading Anne Frank and every other piece of Holocaust literature that I could get my hands on, and I think it’s left an indelible mark on my spirit in not necessarily the most positive way.”

It’s difficult to find a lot in Anne Frank’s too-short life we could call uplifting. But Hannah Senesh had the challenges, the opportunity, the talent and the character to distinguish herself — and inspire us.

 “That’s one of the reasons I wanted to make the movie,” Grossman said, “not because I want young girls to parachute behind enemy lines, but [because Hannah is] a model of standing up for what you believe is right, and for believing that moral choices are important and do make a difference.

“One of my goals, in a grandiose sort of fantasy, was to make Hannah Senesh as well known outside of Israel as Anne Frank. Not to denigrate Anne Frank, whom I love, but I think there’s a lot of room for other models and other stories.”

“Blessed is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh”
screens at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 21, at the Camera 7 in Campbell and 3 p.m. Oct. 25 at the Camera 12 in San Jose. Information and tickets: The film also plays Nov. 10 and Nov. 12 in the Sonoma County Jewish Film Festival. Information:

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.