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Zionist Heroine Hannah Senesh’s Archives Get Home in Israel’s National Library
Hannah Senesh in a Hungarian army uniform as a Purim costume. (Wikimedia Commons)

Zionist Heroine Hannah Senesh’s Archives Get Home in Israel’s National Library

Only 23 when executed in German-occupied Hungary, anti-Nazi partisan is a national icon

The full archival collection of Hannah Senesh, the iconic Jewish, Israeli war heroine and poet slain after parachuting into Nazi-occupied Europe near the end of World War II, has come to its final home at the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem.

Senesh, who was 23 years old when executed by a firing squad in a Budapest prison, left behind a rich collection including diaries, family correspondence, photographs, notebooks and two notes found in her dress following her execution.

Senesh’s short, active life including moving from Hungary to Israel in 1939, participating in the founding of Kibbutz Sdot Yam, adjacent to Caesearia, and joining the Hagana Jewish defense force in 1941, and volunteering to parachute into Europe as a British spy while concurrently seeking to save Jews from the Holocaust, have made her an Israeli and Zionist symbol of heroism and courage, especially in the state’s early days when the country sought modern heroes.

“Locating the Senesh archives in the National Library is big because context matters and lots of scholars will have access to her archives,” Dr. Rachel Greenblatt, Judaica librarian at Brandeis University, told The Media Line.

Senesh’s story and making it accessible to the public is amazing. What she did is definitely part of a global story, the story of freedom and liberty

“Being located in Jerusalem makes her part of the Israeli story and is exactly where she and her family wanted to be. It is 100% clear,” Greenblatt, an expert on European Jewry, said.

“Senesh’s story and making it accessible to the public is amazing. What she did is definitely part of a global story, the story of freedom and liberty,” Greenblatt said.

Perhaps her most iconic poem is “A Walk to Caesarea,” known popularly as “Eli, Eli” / “O Lord, My God.” Put to a melancholy, arresting and delicate tune by Israeli musician David Zehavi in 1945, the song is sung in Jewish educational institutions around the world and is a highlight during Israel’s annual state Holocaust Remembrance Day Ceremony.

Senesh’s iconic poem “Eli Eli”‘ -“‘Oh Lord, My God” [“A Walk to Caesarea”] in her notebook. (Hannah Senesh Archival Collection, National Library of Israel)

Until now, members of the Szenes family (Senesh is the anglicized spelling) held the collection in a Haifa apartment, though they lent out portions over the years to museums and institutions around the world. Only researchers and archivists had access to the collection.

The library is now in the process of digitizing the complete archives for scholarly and public access.

Now in 2020, 76 years after Senesh’s execution and 99 years after her birth, the family and the National Library of Israel have agreed to permanently house the full archival collection in Jerusalem.

Ori Eisen, founder and CEO of the cybersecurity firm Trusona, and his wife, Mirit, purchased the archive and loaned it to the library, “so that it can be preserved under the best possible conditions, digitized and made openly accessible to the global public,” a National Library spokesman told The Media Line.

According to Dr. Hezi Amiur, curator of the Israel Collection at the Israel National Library, “Thousands of pages only just arrived last week at the library alongside Senesh’s camera and a Hungarian typewriter.”

The archive includes other family materials brought to Israel by Senesh’s mother, Katherine, and her older brother, Georges [Giora], who both survived the war.

Senesh’s mother discovered her last note when she went to the prison only to find that Hannah had been executed.

Senesh’s last note to her mother, found in her dress after her execution. (Hannah Senesh Archival Collection, National Library of Israel)

The note, nestled in a pocket in the dress that Senesh wore prior to her execution, now digitized, says:

“Dearest beloved mother, I have no words. All I can say is: a million thanks. Forgive me if you can. You’ll understand by yourself why there is no need for words. With endless love, Your daughter.”

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