Hannah Szenes: Just a Jewish Girl, Parachuting into Occupied Yugoslavia

One – two – three… eight feet long/Two strides across, the rest is dark/Life is a fleeting question mark/One – two – three… maybe another week/Or the next month may still find me here/But death, I feel is very near/I could have been 23 next July/I gambled on what mattered most, the dice were cast. I lost.

Hannah Szenes (1921-1944) was born into an assimilated, secular Hungarian Jewish family in 1921. Like many of her secular peers at the time, she responded to the ever-growing anti-Semitism surrounding her by fully embracing her Jewish identity; where Judaism had once been something she was persecuted for, it became something from which she derived strength, hope, and the conviction to fight back. After finishing high school, she spent some time in the British Mandate of Palestine where she furthered her education, and in 1943, she relocated to Egypt to train as a paratrooper for the British Special Operations Executive and put her conviction to fight back into action.

In March of 1944, she and two other parachutists entered Yugoslavia on a mission to rescue Jewish prisoners who were soon to be deported to Auschwitz, and to aid the Yugoslav Partisans, a Communist anti-Fascist resistance movement. However, upon learning that Hitler had taken Hungary, her two male colleagues decided that their mission had become too dangerous, and called it off. Hannah, however, refused to turn back and continued on to the Hungarian border. Unfortunately, she was detained and arrested by Hungarian police forces shortly after her arrival.

And this is where things rapidly took a downhill turn for Hannah. The Hungarian police found the transmitter she used to keep in contact with her colleagues and the Partisans. She refused to tell them the transmitter code, so they took her to prison and tortured her for three days. She remained firm, and refused to give them the code, even when they bought her mother into the prison and threatened to torture her as well.

Even at this bleak point, Hannah did not stop resisting. Instead of acting the part of an injured, doomed prisoner, she remained cheerful and defiant. She used mirrors to communicate with her fellow prisoners—Jewish and otherwise—in other cells, and communicated with other Jewish prisoners by placing large cut-out Hebrew letters in the window of her cell. She did her best to keep everyone’s spirits high through song, and remained full of hope until the last day of her life.

On October 28, 1944, she was put in trial for treason. On November 7, 1944 she was executed by a German firing squad. After the Cold War, she was officially exonerated in a Hungarian military court.

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