Woman of Valor

A production about the life of Holocaust heroine and Zionist poet Hannah Senesh comes to the AACI

AVITAL MACALES (left) and Rivka Deray in the J-Town Playhouse production of ‘Hannah Senesh.’ (photo credit: ITA ARBIT)
AVITAL MACALES (left) and Rivka Deray in the J-Town Playhouse production of ‘Hannah Senesh.’
(photo credit: ITA ARBIT)
Hannah Senesh’s life story is the stuff of true Zionist heroism. The Hungarian poet is lovingly treasured for her short but meaningful life; parachuting into Yugoslavia during World War II in an attempt to rescue Hungarian Jews about to be deported to Auschwitz, only to be captured, tortured and subsequently executed. Her refusal to disclose anything while tortured demonstrated a rare and exquisite bravery. On the other hand, her poetry is gentle and moving, to the point of being almost haunting.
These two sides and more are brought to life on stage in the new production of Hannah Senesh. The play opens at the AACI’s J-Town Playhouse theater today with a special Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony and production. It then runs for another nine performances until May 11. The play’s director, Devorah Levine, sat down with The Jerusalem Post to discuss Hungarian ancestry, directing for the first time, and Senesh’s lesser- known literary pedigree.
How did you get involved with this play? I was in last year’s Holocaust production that the AACI put on, Number the Stars. The director, Rafael Poch, was watching my work and when this year came around, he was looking for someone new to direct and asked me.
So this is your first time directing? Yes, it is. It’s been a very interesting process: exciting, nerve-wracking and all sorts of things. It’s been a great process. The cast is amazing. It’s been such a pleasure working with such a fantastic group of people. Everything was new to me being on this side of the stage.
I’ve been on stage acting, singing and dancing, but I’ve never been on this side before.
Do you feel like the cast is ready for opening night? Yeah, just some final pushes now and we are ready.
After this experience, will you want to direct again? I’m going to wait until the end of this process to make that decision [laughs]. I will say that it has been very gratifying, even more than I anticipated.
Is your family excited about your directing? Yes, very. My younger sister has actually been a really big help. She was with me during the casting. She was there during some rehearsals and gave feedback. She also has a drama background.
What have been the highlights for you as a director? I’ve loved pushing the actors to their fullest potential.
To keep pushing and see what comes out has been a real highlight, and to see where they are now as opposed to where they started off has been amazing.
When was the play developed for the stage? The play was originally written in Hebrew in the 1950s. The writer is Aharon Megged, who is a wellknown Israeli playwright. He knew Hannah Senesh and they were quite close. She would approach him for advice on writing. After she was killed, he decided to write this play. A lot of it is based on him actually knowing her. Then he incorporates historical information and things we know from her letters and her poetry. It was translated into English by Michael Taub. It’s been put on before in Israel. The first time was in Hebrew at Habima Theater in Tel Aviv. I believe it was in 1958.
What does Hannah Senesh mean to you? My connection to her is from her being Hungarian actually. That was a really strong aspect for me because my mother is Hungarian, as well as my grandparents.
My mother was born right after the war. My grandmother was pregnant with her during the war. So I grew up with this very strong heritage of what it was to be a Jew in Hungary with the war going on and how that impacted my grandparents’ lives. They were very strong Zionists, so that legacy and those morals are written throughout the play through her. That was my draw to the play as well, that aspect.
What do you think the impact will be on people coming to watch this play? I can tell you what I’ve tried to convey through directing. She is such a historical figure in Israel, who is remembered for her bravery. She was tortured after being captured and wouldn’t give over any information.
She gave up her life in order not to risk giving up the plan or anybody else’s life for the nation’s common good. I’m assuming that most people coming to the play will already know that.
What I want to show is that she was human as well. She was not some untouchable figure. She had a mother, who was the most important person in her life. Giving up her own life meant hurting her mother terribly and she knew that. She formed relationships and friendships wherever she went. She was a person who impacted people. I wanted to show those sides of her and hopefully people will identify with her. It gives a message that each one of us has that bravery. Because when someone has done something that we consider so great, we put them on a pedestal and we are hardpressed to believe that we could reach a level like that.
Do you think there is anything that will be surprising to audience members who feel like they know Hannah Senesh as a historical figure? Part of me wants to say that it depends how well you know the story. I definitely know a lot more at this point than I did from my education growing up. Anyone who really knows her story will know about her relationship with her mother as well. But anyone who just knows her as the Hungarian Zionist who parachuted into Europe to save Jews, probably won’t. Something that was new for me was learning that her father was also a writer. He was a famous journalist and author. She was very influenced by him. When he died when she was young, that’s what pushed her to become a writer. She was expected to become Hungary’s next great writer. Her moving to Israel was a disappointment for a lot of her Hungarian peers.
For more info on dates and tickets visit www.aaci.org.il SUNDAY, A P R I L 2 3 , 2017