Blessed Is The Match


Movie Review by Willard Manus

Hannah Senesh was a modern-day Joan of Arc, a young woman who fought and died for her ideals, becoming not just a martyr but a symbol of all which is brave and noble about the human race.

Senesh's short but remarkable life is remembered in BLESSED IS THE MATCH, a documentary film by Roberta Grossman based on material from the Senesh family archives. Produced by Lisa Thomas and Marta Kaufman, the 86-minute film is narrated by Joan Allen and was shot by Dyanna Taylor.

Hannah Senesh was born and raised in Budapest where she enjoyed a comfortable middle-class life. Her father was a successful playwright (and bon vivant), her mother an educated and arts-loving hausfrau. Darkness clouded the sunny family picture when her father died of a heart attack in 1927, at the age of thirty-three. Seven-year-old Hannah was profoundly shaken by his death and made a pact with herself to live a life that would be worthy of him.

She began to write poetry, study photography and become a disciplined diarist. Her creative gifts helped her gain admittance into an exclusive girl's school, only to be thwarted by the institution's endemic anti-semitism. By 1938, anti-semitism began to infect the whole of Hungarian society. Hitler had taken over in Germany and large numbers of rich, influential Hungarians supported his noxious, demented ideas about race and religion.

Hannah's younger brother Giora was sent to France to study; Hannah herself became a Zionist and decided to emigrate to Palestine. She begged her mother to leave Hungary with her, pointing to the anti-Jewish feeling in the air, the dangerous threat of a fascist takeover. Mrs Senesh, however, decided in the end to remain in Budapest. Like many other European Jews, she could not believe that a Holocaust was in store for her. Yes, there was anti-semitism, but the Hungarian government, right-wing as it was, had steadfastly refused to hand over its Jews to the Germans.

So Hannah said goodby to her beloved mother and set off for Palestine (now Israel). Director Grossman has unearthed some choice historical footage showing Hannah as a kibbutznik, a farmer, planting crops, raising pigs, living in a tent, dancing the hora with the other pioneers. Hard as life was, Hannah still wrote every day in her diary, jotting down her thoughts, hopes and dreams. And always there was poetry, such as this entry from 1942 when, as the world descended into madness, she wrote, "God, may there be no end to sea, to sand, water's splash, lightning's flash. The prayer of man."

Momentarily buoyed when her brother arrived safely in Palestine from France, Hannah was jolted when news came that Germany had invaded Hungary and intended to implement the brutal doctrines of the Final Solution. Hannah again begged her mother to flee, but it was too late; the country's borders were closed to her.

Being a farmer, safe from the Nazis, no longer suited Hannah. She had to do something to save, not just her mother, but the Jews of Europe ("and the good and beautiful in the world"). Slender, youthful and feminine as she was, she volunteered to join a dangerous mission organized by the British army aimed at aiding the resistance movement in occupied Europe. Hannah wanted the brigade to go one step further: parachute into Hungary, make contact with the Jews and help smuggle some of them out of the country.

It was a risky, even foolhardy scheme, one which was opposed by many of her fellow volunteers (two of whom were interviewed for the film). Hannah persisted in her support of the rescue mission (the only one of its kind in the history of the Holocaust). In the end, she and a few other brave souls (including a few other women) made the jump and tried to pull off a near-miracle, only to be captured and eventually executed by the Gestapo.

Hannah's life came to a dark, tragic end, yet she refused to give up hope, emphasizing in one of her last poems that "blessed is the match consumed in kindling flame. Blessed is the flame that burns in the secret fastness of the heart."