Fallen Angel: Hannah Senesh

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Fallen Angel: Hannah Senesh by Talia Caine- Photo by Liora Meyer

A voice called. I went.
I went, for it called.
I went, lest I fall.
At the crossroads
I blocked both ears with white frost
And cried
For what I had lost.
—Hannah Senesh, “At the Crossroads”

It is 1943. I live on the Sedot Yam Kibbutz in Yerushalayim, my holy land, having left my mother and brother behind in Hungary. It is an idyllic place, one my father may have loved, had he been here. We are all equal and live in harmony. I cook, wash, and write poems; may my father smile upon me, for I follow in his footsteps. No one is better than another, there is only peace, no war.

My hell.

I live surrounded by the beauty of my God, taking and taking and never giving. What is life if one lives only to receive? I cook and I clean with no other purpose, my poems never to come to fruition, to live and to die, trapped under this too gracious star.

They were my deliverance. The men sent by Adonai, my hopes, my dreams, and the angels of my death, all in a few mortal bodies.

“Hannah. I come from the Jewish Agency.”

“And what do you want with me?”

“There is a war going on.”

“I am aware.”

“Hannah, our people, our brothers and sisters, are dying in Europe. They need help.”

“What do you want?”

“We want you.”

No more of this. No more drudgery, no more writing poems to escape the formless sludge of life, to cook and to clean day after day, no end, never doing anything to aid my nameless siblings, caught in the gunfire, millions dying under my worthless hand.

May my father smile upon me. My apa, who wrote forever, as an author and journalist, but not a poet. He loved my poems. I was eight years old when the angels touched his heart, stopped the blood in it, turned his body cold and brought his soul to God.

Does he watch me now, as I leave my friends of the last two years? As I take what little I own and am driven away? As I unpack many hours later in my bunker, and begin my studies as a wireless operator?

May my father smile upon me.

Over now. Months of training, and for what? To sit at a desk, speak into a headset, to feel that one is helping? My peers are thankful for the opportunity, this free pass to obtain all of the feelings of helping, to be able to claim bravery and helpfulness while never risking anything. To warn soldiers of an attack, to sit in a compound and phone a hospital as their brethren are torn limb from limb miles away, to go to sleep at night and feel they helped as commanders write tear-stained letters to new widows, as families cry together and beg for the last bloodied remains of husbands, of sons, of fathers. How could anyone be satisfied with a life like that?

Not I.

I know of the operation that shall be performed, of the people needed. I do not think, I do, for I must.

“Commander.”

“Hannah.”

“I have heard of a mission. Of paratroopers, sent into Europe to aid the efforts of the Jewish people.”

“There is such a mission. What about it?”

“I want to go.”

Let them chuckle. Women, on a mission such as this! Let them laugh, let them point, let them shake their heads. I will not relent. Finally, someone says that women will not be suspected. After all, the Germans will never believe that a woman would be brave enough to be a true soldier. “She could make it,” he says, “Let her go.” I will be sent into Hungary, where my mother still resides.

May my father smile upon me.

I train in Egypt, land of my ancestors, of the Pharaohs, of Moses and of Aaron and of Miriam, and now the land of my rebirth. I train with 32 of my Jewish brethren, nearly all of whom hail from Europe, to become paratroopers—to fall from the sky unharmed, to hide so we can stay that way. In the few moments I am not training, I explore this beautiful place—I see rolling hills of sand, oceans of ground stones, waves of rocky shreds flowing out into the distance, forever rushing toward their God.

The day comes. The airplane, the rushing wind, the tears and the hugs, the promises that we will see each other again all the while knowing that this is likely the last time we will ever look upon each other. And then, we jump.

Falling toward the earth, the winds loud in our ears, watching my brethren pull the strings of their parachutes, be pulled toward the sun like birds taking flight, just for a moment, and their angels of protection pull them up, to pause… and float toward the ground once again. Pulling my own string; a moment of stillness, of being frozen, of life and death colliding, fighting over me in that one second… and the life, for now, winning over, my angel pulling me to her chest a few feet above. And then gravity takes hold of me again, my angel releases me, and I begin to float down, down, down to the open arms of Yugoslavia, so close to my beloved Hungary.
May my father smile upon me.

Blessed is the match consumed
in kindling flame.
Blessed is the flame that burns
in the secret fastness of the heart.
Blessed is the heart with strength to stop
its beating for honor’s sake.
Blessed is the match consumed
in kindling flame.
–Hannah Senesh, “Blessed is the Match”

I spend three months in Yugoslavia, my journey to my birthplace paused by the German invasion. My mother in danger, and me safe and sound with Tito’s partisans, a resistance group in hiding. Trapped again, never to end, always to be held away from my calling. Feels like years.

Finally, we step across the border into Hungary. A few hours of remembrance, triumph, of knowing that I am home again. Then, guns, shouts, the red symbol of the Nazis, once of peace, now of death, burned into my head forever as I am pushed into a truck, driven away.

I am sorry, apa.

Torture. Just have to stay quiet, can’t say anything, won’t say anything, keep quiet.

Blood. On my hands, my face, my torn and tattered clothing. They can’t do this forever, just have to stay quiet, keep quiet, don’t say anything. Pain in my limbs, my face, my head, my chest, my heart, my soul. Just can’t speak, stay quiet, stay quiet, don’t speak, just glare, what else can they do?

Another day. It’s been months, one more day. I lost my front tooth a little while ago. Led to a new room. What will be waiting? I don’t care anymore. Pushed through a new door. What else could they possibly throw at me?

Wasn’t expecting this. My mother, my anya, here. Love courses through my blood like a drug, until I see her fear and realize why she is here. Hatred, then, replaces every blood cell, coursing through me, bringing the hate from my heart to my core, my brain, my fingers, until every muscle in my body craves to strangle the men around me, to hear their necks snap, to tear their bodies apart and leave this place with my mother.

Her eyes drag me back. I have no weapon. A fight would kill us both.

We stand still, merely staring at each other. Just stay quiet. Can’t say anything. We will give these men no performance, no expression, no satisfaction. We are unbeatable, hope and love and pride and confidence flowing between us, joined by an understanding without ever speaking or touching. We are brought to separate cells. Made stronger.

May my father smile upon me.

We wander like ghosts around the compound for three months. A glimpse, a smile, a tear, and then we are torn from each other once again. Her presence, her spirit, keeps me strong through the continued pain. I will not be broken. When will they see that?

Finally, they do. I am given a trial, one that could have only ever have had one outcome, and sentenced. Death. I always knew that this would be the end, though I pled my case. Perhaps they may someday see that I have only ever done God’s work. But more likely, they will never allow themselves to understand. Like the wireless operators, they wish never to be in danger, but these men are much, much worse in that girls want no harm to come to their bodies, and these men want no harm to come to their egos, their pride, their souls. Hopeless.

That night in my cell, I am at peace. But there is one more attack left.

A creak and proud footsteps—the steps of a man who knows he has won the war, but just has one more battle to win. Colonel Simon steps into the cell, scoffs at my broken and bloodied body, hunched in the corner. He thinks that loss is equivalent to defeat. He is a fool.

“Hannah.”

I say nothing.

“You had a trial today. You lost.”

He crosses to my cot and sits, his weight crushing it.

“I am here to offer you a way out.”

I chuckle.

“You find this funny, Hannah?”

I could tell him that I know I offended him with my speech in the courtroom, and that he is annoyed that my testimony almost changed the minds of his comrades. I could tell him that I know how irritated he is that I spoke with such fearless elegance. I could tell him that I know what he is trying to do. But I won’t.

“I am giving you two options, Hannah. Either you can beg for a pardon, or you will die. Firing squad.”

I have lived as a woman all my life. I know what is expected of me. To grovel at the feet of men, to beg and plead for them to save me, to sit idly by as they fight the wars, to wait for one of them to come rescue me. To sit behind a desk and have a calming voice over the radio. To cook and clean for a community. To spend a childhood writing poems that shall be left between the pages of a journal, to be found and burned years later to warm the feet of a husband in front of a fire.

I have never done any of those things. Now is not the time to start.

I spit at his feet. “I beg nothing from devils.”

He slaps me. Hard. My head snaps back against stone walls, sending the lights dancing before my fevered eyes.

“You had your chance. You will die tomorrow at dawn.”

He starts to leave, then stops and turns.

“You will die forgotten, Hannah Senesh. You will die a coward.”

He leaves, and I chuckle again. Then I laugh. And then all of the pain of the last 15 years of my life, ever since the day my father left us, explodes from my chest and pours into the cell via a torrent of lung-rupturing laughter. Me, a coward! To parachute onto enemy soil, to survive months of torture without giving up a shred of information, to plead a case before an enemy court, is that cowardice?

No.

Cowardice is to force others to grovel at your feet, to attempt to break those who refuse to be broken. To hurt the vulnerable, to hide from the strong, to insert an artificial meaning behind your actions when there is no sense in the very words you speak. The laughter continues to rip through me, and I cough blood onto the floor.

A guard yells for me to be quiet, but I cannot. Something has broken in me, has led to a fit that I am powerless to end. I wait until the footsteps fade, and the laughter dies, dissolving into tears that rush down my face onto the thin jacket I am wearing. Hands shaking, I reach into my coat and discover my salvation. A few sheets of paper. A pen. Were they there this morning?

Thank you, Hashem.

I write a note to my mother, a few for my comrades. On the last paper, I pen one more poem, a last cry, a last reach for love and compassion in this world which has been so cruel to me. I hide it in a crack in the wall. Who knows who will find it now.

Tomorrow I will die. They will all shoot at me, 12 of them. They will offer me a blindfold, to hide them from my sight, let me see only darkness in my last moments. I will refuse it.

Morning. A man comes to my door, bangs three times, rips it open.

“It’s time, Hannah.”

May my father smile upon me.

One–Two–Three . . .
eight feet long
Two strides across, the rest is dark . . .
Life hangs over me like a question mark.
One–Two–Three
maybe another week.
Or next month may still find me here,
But death, I feel, is very near.
I could have been
Twenty-three next July;
I gambled on what mattered most,
The dice were cast. I lost.
—Hannah Senesh, “One–Two–Three”

Works Cited: העמותה להנצחת שליחותה ומורשתה של חנה סנש, The Hannah Senesh Legacy Foundation, www.hannahsenesh.org.il/Sc.asp?ID=1958.
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