Florida Holocaust Museum exhibit honors life of spy, martyr Hannah Senesh

ST. PETERSBURG

At the Florida Holocaust Museum, Hannah Senesh's brief but heroic life is disseminated against a background of symbolic color — autumn gold, pale avocado, dark olive and highland breeze.

There's her early life in a middle-class Jewish family in Budapest, Hungary. Next is a newly discovered Zionist fervor that led her to Palestine. That is followed by a volunteer mission as a parachutist into war-torn Europe and her capture, interrogation and death by firing squad. All is encapsulated in a look at Senesh's ongoing legacy as a pioneer and martyr. It's a story told in film, books and with her poetry, one set to music and embraced as "a virtual second anthem" in Israel and sung by people around the world.

A copy of that poem, A Walk to Caesarea, popularly known as Eli, Eli, is among the artifacts now on display at the Florida Holocaust Museum in an exhibition that will run through April 27. The St. Petersburg museum is one of three nationally to host what is said to be the first major exhibition about Senesh's life. St. Petersburg is its last stop before the collection returns to Israel.

"Fire In My Heart, the Story of Hannah Senesh" includes originals and copies of photographs, letters and documents, some on loan from Senesh's Israeli nephews, Eitan and David Senesh.

Eitan Senesh will speak Saturday evening at an opening reception at the Florida Holocaust Museum. The Tampa Oratorio Singers will perform some of his aunt's poetry that has been set to music.

Senesh was only 23 when she was executed as a spy while on a mission to aid the Allies and fellow Jews in Europe.

Elizabeth Gelman, executive director of the Florida Holocaust Museum, said she is an important figure.

"Not because she was a martyr, or died so young, but because she was a woman of action and courage at a time when that was not encouraged," Gelman said.

"Like most heroes during the Holocaust, she was not born a hero. She was a regular person who rose to great heights of valor when it was needed. Hannah is a reminder that all of us have the capacity to be extraordinary when we are called to act."

She was born in 1921, the daughter of a well-known playwright and journalist. Her father died when she was 6, and she and her older brother, Giora, were brought up by their mother, Katherina. Senesh attended Baar Madas Calvinist High School in Budapest — a prestigious Protestant school — where Catholic students were charged twice the standard tuition and Jewish students paid three times the cost. In an incident of anti-Semitism documented in her diary, Senesh was denied the role of president of a self-improvement group because of her heritage. She had begun keeping a diary at age 13, and many entries have been incorporated into the current exhibit.

Senesh moved to Palestine in 1939 and attended the Agricultural School for Young Women. She later joined Sedot Yam, a new kibbutz, and was assigned to kitchen duty. It wasn't a job she liked.

"It's a pity that I will waste more years doing something I dislike and will prevent my development in other directions," she told her diary.

In 1943, she joined the women's auxiliary of the British Royal Air Force and began training for a mission to parachute behind enemy lines to help rescue members of the Allied forces and fellow Jews facing annihilation by the Nazis.

She parachuted into Yugoslavia in 1944, but was captured shortly after crossing into Hungary. She was imprisoned and brutally interrogated. The authorities arrested her mother to try to force information from Senesh. She continued to refuse and was executed on Nov. 7, 1944.

Gelman said there's a universal lesson in Senesh's life.

"I think that anyone who is young, whose life is cut short while performing some heroic act captures our attention and touches our soul, because these people are the best of humanity. Whether it is someone who has gone to fight to protect our country, whether it's this young woman," she said.

"There are so many stories of heroism and courage and kindness that happened during the Holocaust. We hear so much about the evil that when there's a story like this that shows heroism and courage in the middle of evil, I think it resonates with all of us, because all of us would like to think we would have done the same thing."

At the exhibition this week, Florida Holocaust Museum registrar Elena Sanderlin spoke about the five crates of artifacts that were transported to St. Petersburg in a specially secured, temperature-controlled truck.

The approximately 60 artifacts include Senesh's birth certificate, a report card and an immigration certificate to Palestine. The exhibition, curated by the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York, includes an edition of Kis Szenesek Lapja (the Newspaper of the Little Seneshes) that Senesh and her brother Giora produced in 1929. Readers paid for it with chocolates.

Also on display is the Klein-Adler typewriter Senesh took to Palestine and a brown suitcase in which she stored her notebooks and other valued possessions. There's also a last photo with her brother taken in Tel Aviv the day she left.

Senesh's mother and brother survived the war. To her mother, there was a final note, discovered in a pocket after her execution.

"My Dearest Mother, I don't know what to say — just two things: A million thanks. Forgive me if possible. You know well why there is no need for words. With infinite love, Your daughter."

Senesh's body was buried in the Jewish graveyard in Budapest, but reinterred in Israel, where it was buried in the national cemetery.

Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wmoore@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2283.

if you go

Fire In My Heart

Opening reception 6:30

to 8:30 p.m. Saturday,

Florida Holocaust Museum,

55 Fifth St. S, St. Petersburg.

Museum members, free;

general admission, $9.

RSVP is required.

Florida Holocaust Museum exhibit honors life of spy, martyr Hannah Senesh 01/14/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 14, 2014 5:52pm]

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