Hanna’s letters

The extraordinarily ordinary missives of Hanna Szenes, courageous paratrooper but first, a newly minted kibbutznik.

Hanna Szenes encounter with her brother on the Tel Aviv promenade marked their final meeting. (photo credit: MIRI TZACHI)
Hanna Szenes encounter with her brother on the Tel Aviv promenade marked their final meeting.
(photo credit: MIRI TZACHI)
While Hanna Szenes is undoubtedly a hero – celebrated for her poetry and her bravery as a paratrooper – she was also a young girl, excited by the work that kibbutz life demanded, interested in her culture, contemplative about men and dedicated to her family.
Seventy years after her execution on November 7, 1944, letters she wrote to her friends and family have been compiled into a new book, Hanna Szenes: Letters 1935-1944 (in Hebrew, At Livadech Tavini, or “You Alone Will Understand”). Compiled and edited by Dr. Anna Szalai, Dr. Gideon Tikotsky and Szenes’s nephew Eitan Szenes, the letters provide exclusive insight into the woman behind the famous persona.
In this correspondence, she describes extraordinarily ordinary events: the uniform she wears working on the farm, her observations about village life, whether she’s dating. This vulnerability makes her all the more intriguing and relatable.
The missives begin and end in Hungary, her birthplace, but the majority of them are from the two years she spent at the Nahalal agricultural school, where she became a real Israeli.
The first letter in the book is from June 18, 1935.
Szenes – who had lost her father, writer Bela Szenes, at the age of six – was writing to her mother from a holiday village on the shores of Lake Balaton.
“The beauty of Lake Balaton is stunning,” she wrote. “The water is very pleasant... you can bathe in it every day. I’ve gotten tan, and just above my neck I was burned a little because on that first day, it was cloudy and there was a little wind, so I did not put on sunscreen.”
Three years later, from another resort, she wrote, “Here, I had a chance to see how people still remember Daddy’s name. Every time I say his name, people ask, ‘Are you the daughter of Bela Szenes?’ And when I reply in the affirmative, they immediately begin to identify names of his plays and say they saw them all.”
And from a different resort two weeks after that: “We have gym classes. We do excellent exercises for about 20 minutes, taking blankets out to the lawn and exercising in shorts. After we finish, we are hungry as wolves, running to have breakfast and finishing it all to the last drop.”
While Szenes’s letters to her mother might give the impression of a frivolous young girl, her Zionist spirit was starting to take root. It began in a letter Szenes wrote on March 24, 1939, to Mihai “Michael” Fekete, a family friend from Budapest who became a professor of mathematics at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
“I am getting ready for the matriculation exams, and then I’d love to come to Israel,” she wrote to the man she referred to as her adoptive father. “I want to choose a suitable profession for myself.
Therefore, I have decided in favor of agriculture, even though my dear mother would be happier if I had chosen a more intellectual profession.”
She reported to him that “the Hebrew studying is going pretty well. I am very happy about it,” signing the letter “Aniko Szenes.”
Later, she applied to the Nahalal agricultural school for young ladies, requesting – in Hebrew – acceptance to the program: “My soul desires to live in Israel, and I’ve decided to learn a trade that will allow me to take an active part in the building of the country.... Getting into your school will be the first step in fulfilling my purpose in life. With warm Zionist greetings, Anna Szenes.”
The Hanna Szenes signature, which became a historic trademark, first appeared in a letter from July 21 of that year, in which she reported to Fekete that she had received certification to go to Israel.
“I have no words to say how happy I am,” she told him. “I’m grateful to you, my teacher, for your effort and kindness.”
She arrived in Carmel two months later.
“The city is wonderful,” she wrote with enthusiasm following her arrival. “The sea, mountains, nice houses and happy people, these are the first things one notices here.... The Bat-Galim immigrant center is big and nice, but obviously not the most comfortable. It’s not a hotel, but a home where all the newcomers can get free shelter and food for a few days.”
On the way to the Nahalal school, she wrote: “We went through a part of the valley. It is beautiful and illustrates what can be done in the country with hard work. First we saw the miserable houses and farms owned by the Arabs. Then came the Jewish colonies, beautiful and neat, where everything is green, the houses are clean, and I hope the residents are also happy.”
In a letter to her grandmother, Rosa, she said, “We are about 170 students at the school. In my class there are 40. In addition to my work clothes, I wear dresses, sweaters and shirts. On Saturday I’m a little more particular [about dressing nicely], but mostly we wear just simple, sporty attire.”
She also wrote to her brother, Juri, about this casual approach to fashion, adding, “I hardly see powdered women here.”
Describing her first Yom Kippur in the Jewish homeland, she wrote, “Yesterday, we fasted. Not everyone did, only those who wanted to. I cannot describe the experience of Yom Kippur here in the Jewish colony in Israel. The Hebrew words around me are continually charged with meaning. There is complete silence throughout the country.
And even though some children play soccer and shout in the woods next to the synagogue, there is a festive atmosphere, just like in the quietest synagogue in Hungary.”
She wrote that her studies would last two years. “I hope to specialize in dairy and barn work. The room is large enough. It’s good that it does not have flies, so I sleep great. Relatives come to visit my roommates, and I feel lonely. I hurry to remind myself that this won’t necessarily be the case much longer.”
THE FIRST echo of World War II appeared in a letter she wrote to her brother, who was studying textile engineering in Lyon, France.
“Do not plan on enlisting in the army; I will not have a moment’s peace if you do,” she pleaded. “The situation here is completely relaxed, you do not have to worry about me. Nahalal is the center of a completely Jewish area, and besides, there is a guard here at all times. Everything is calm, although there were a few shots from the Arab side.”
In another letter two months later, in December 1939, she described a dance in Haifa: “We danced the Hora, modern dance, and the Czardas [a traditional Hungarian folk dance]. There was a lot of singing both in Hebrew and Hungarian.
The curfew, meaning the prohibition on moving vehicles in the evening, and the blackout order, left over from the period when we were attacked constantly, have been eliminated.”
In a letter from February 1940, she wrote, “[There was] the Haifa Technion [Israel Institute of Technology] ball, but it was too elegant for me to attend, not suitable for a working woman like me.”
Another missive described Nahalal: “The land is divided among 70 or 80 families. I do not believe that more than 1,000 people (maybe a little more now that many immigrants work for families of farmers) live here... the circle around which all the houses are built is like the main street. There are fruit orchards, gardens and the earth is great; it is one of the country’s most fertile areas.”
Szenes did not miss an opportunity to wax poetic.
“I’ve never seen such a beautiful sunset,” she gushed. “Clouds of orange over the mountains covered in dark blue and with it, the palm trees, the orchards of citrus fruits, a Land-of-Israel picture so genuine you need to see it to believe it’s real.”
In January 1940, she told her mother that “my work is a real treat. I wash the cows, wearing pants, boots or a rubber apron. (I’m not afraid for a moment; I’m not like you in this matter, Mommy.) My Budapest classmates would turn up their noses if they were forced to do these jobs that seem perfectly natural to me. If a cow is not willing to lift its foot [so I can milk it], I take advantage of the fact that there are no Hungarian speakers around and curse it.”
Issues with the opposite sex stand out in her writing. In a letter to her brother, she confided: “The only thing that you definitely won’t be pleased about is that I have no boyfriends worth mentioning. I know that for all the known reasons, you’d prefer to read the news of my marriage. But instead, I don’t even look at boys.
“Actually, that’s not true,” she continued, “because I do look at first. Then I smile gracefully. It makes the men’s hearts melt, and in the evenings, they start to relay messages through the girls for me to go for a short walk with them. At first I usually go willingly, but when it turns out it’s a waste of time, I get cold as ice, make faces and shut myself in the house like a snail.”
In a later letter to her mother, she wrote that “in terms of men, there is not much going on here. I do not know where they pop up from, as if all at once the season has started. There is no one who is even close to being serious – that is, no one I find interesting – so there’s nothing to write about. I do not like such instant friendships, after a date or two.... Don’t panic, Mommy, I don’t play the cruel castle mistress who walks all over trampled young hearts.”
Her letters also speak about her family.
Among other things, she wrote about her efforts to get Hebrew translations of her father’s books. Indeed, poet Avigdor Hameiri translated the most famous one, Csibi, at her request.
Writing to her mother, she recounted that “yesterday, [actors from] Habimah Theater were here. They performed The Mother by [Karel] Capek. I really liked it.
It is a timely subject, and I found myself identifying with it. I thought about you a lot. There were, in the play, several situations similar to ours.”
In a later dispatch, she said, “We had dinner in Tel Aviv and went to a theater called Hamatateh [The Broom]. They put on political parodies that are witty and full of humor; they are amusing, yet tend toward serious matters. I enjoyed it very much.”
Writing to her friend Eva Sashe, she declared herself “happy with my progress in the Hebrew language. I’m starting to get to know Hebrew poetry, reading the poems of Rahel, [Shaul] Tchernichovsky, [David] Shimonovitz (Shimoni), [Haim Nahman] Bialik, [Zalman] Shneur. I didn’t know we had such rich literature. The most important is the Bible; it is a great pleasure to read it in the original language.”
Szenes described to her mother the view she had seen on a trip to the Galilee, writing that “everything is as beautiful as a fairytale.” Regarding life in the village, she continued, “I like the quiet, the unchanging rhythm, but I still miss the company... I don’t miss the city at all. As you can see, I did not spend my vacation in the city, even though all my acquaintances are there. I continue to think that agriculture is the most important profession here.”
Nonetheless, her letters are not free of criticism. Although she asserted in a letter to her brother that “there is no job that I’d refuse to perform (I’ve tried everything, from mopping floors to picking up the trash, with no negative consequences),” she later expressed impatience about her advancement.
“It’s time my work arrangements led me to a profession, and it annoys me that this has not happened yet,” she wrote. “In general, the school curriculum ignores many important things.
This place is like a farm of old maids.
They want to educate us this way, too, but it’s not going so easily for them.”
DESPITE THE heightening tensions of World War II, Szenes’s letters rarely touched on the war, save for a few instances.
“In the near future I might not be able to write you, and to know you will worry about me pains me,” she told her brother.
“We are prepared for this war, which might come near us, but if we had to be born in the generation of this war, I’m glad I could be in a country where I feel at home, my country.”
Meanwhile, she had settled in Kibbutz Sdot Yam.
“I decided to go to a young kibbutz, because that’s where I hope to find a home,” she explained to her mother in a letter dated December 23, 1942. “Our kibbutz is located on the beach. A lovely place, young people, and I feel fine.
Don’t worry, it’s not too hard... after work I read, write, study, sometimes we have a fun evening, singing, dancing, playing games, and sometimes we have group meetings. Regarding the guy situation, I have no news. Although I’ve met a lot of them, I still haven’t met ‘the one.’ So don’t you worry, I won’t be getting married in the very near future....”
But there was someone in the picture.
She poured her heart out in a May 1943 letter in Hebrew to her friend Mary Isaac, discussing her “romance” with a Palmah man.
“One friend came with a guy who looked like the guy you [set me up with] for my birthday two years ago – a good head on his shoulders, dancing feet and laughing eyes. I liked him at once... and two days later, we were already walking together in the evening, on the beach or in the hills until late at night. We’re not afraid of kissing, either, but nothing more than that. The question I now ask myself is: Should I keep these boundaries up, or let things flow?” Her focus takes a completely different course in a missive from late December 1943 to her brother, who had fled from France to Spain.
“The day after tomorrow, I’m starting something new,” she wrote. “Maybe crazy, maybe fantastic, possibly dangerous.
Maybe one out of 100, one out of 1,000 pays with his life... I must tell you, I must apologize, I have to prepare for the moment you will stand within the boundaries of this country, [expecting to] see me, and ask: ‘Where is she?’ And they will answer you tersely: ‘She’s not here.’ “Will you understand me? Will you believe that what attracted me was more than a childlike desire for adventure, more than a youthful romance? Will you understand that I had to do this? There are events in life that next to them, a human being’s existence is nothing, a worthless toy, [and there is] a requirement to do something, even at the cost of life itself.”
At the end of this heartbreaking letter, she added: “I want you to know about the life insurance [policy] of 2,000 forints for Mommy....”
THIS WAS only the beginning of the drama. When her brother was finally able to come to Israel, with difficulty and in the midst of the war, he had a chance encounter with his sister, who was wearing a British army uniform and heading off on a mission – one from which she did not return.
A casual photographer immortalized the two walking on the Tel Aviv promenade.
When he asked where he should send the photo, they told him, “To Ma’agan, a Hungarian kibbutz.”
On her way to parachute behind enemy lines into Nazi Europe, Szenes continued to write letters. In March 1944, using the name “Hagar” as an alias, she wrote with brutal honesty to Yehuda Braginsky, a Second Aliya Mossad man: “I’m going happily, of my own free will and with a clear understanding of the difficulties ahead. I see this mission as a right and a duty. And the knowledge that you’ll be standing behind us will help, everywhere and in any situation.”
To her mother, who was still in Budapest, she wrote that same month: “My dear mother, in a few days I’ll be close to you – yet so far. Forgive me, try to understand me. Sending you a million hugs....”
That same day, March 13, 1944, she penned a letter from Bari, Italy, to her friends at the kibbutz: “Members of Kibbutz Caesarea, dear friends! By sea, land and air, in war and peace, we are all going for one purpose. Each of us will stand our ground. There is no difference between one job and another. I will think of you often, because that is what will give me strength. Wishing you, my friends, warm regards, Hanna.”
The last dispatch from Szenes was a note her mother found in the pocket of her shirt, which she was given in the prison after her daughter’s execution by German firing squad that day in early November 1944.
“My dear and beloved mother, I have no words. I can tell you only this: A million thanks. Forgive me if you can. You alone will understand why there is no need for words. Love you forever. Your daughter....” 
Translated by Maya Pelleg.