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Englewood survivor knew Hannah Senesh, hero and martyr

Growing up in Israel, Hannah Senesh’s nephews David and Eitan Senesh knew their aunt’s life story. But when they inherited the archive containing her diary, correspondence, photos, and personal effects after their father Gyuri’s (Giora) death in 1995, they realized there was much more depth to that story than the daring mission she had been a part of. Says Eitan Senesh, “We knew the stories of my aunt, but it was a surprise to see the richness of the letters.”

The brothers hope to bring the story of Israel’s national heroine to a worldwide audience through both Roberta Grossman’s documentary film and now the first major museum exhibition about her, “Fire in My Heart: The Story of Hannah Senesh,” on view at the Museum of Jewish Heritage–A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in New York City. “My main goal for this exhibition is for Hannah’s story to be known throughout the world — especially the younger generation,” says Eitan Senesh, who is chairman of the Hannah Senesh Foundation.

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Photograph of last meeting of Senesh and her brother Gyuri (Giora), Tel Aviv, Palestine, Feb. 2, 1944. Collection of the Senesh family

Hannah Senesh was born in 1921 in Budapest, Hungary. The daughter of the well-known Hungarian playwright and journalist Bela Senesh and his wife Catherine, Hannah and her brother Gyuri grew up in an affluent household in cosmopolitan Budapest. Although not observant, her family did celebrate Jewish holidays. Hannah’s spiritual journey began after an anti-Semitic incident at a Protestant secondary school where she was a student. Barred from public office after she was elected president of the school’s literary society because she was Jewish, she came to believe that the only way to counter anti-Semitism was the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. At 17, she announced in her diary that she had become a Zionist.

She realized her goal to immigrate to Palestine in September of 1939, just two weeks before Germany’s invasion of Poland and the outbreak of World War II. After a two-year program of study at the Nahalal Agricultural School, she joined the newly formed Kibbutz Sedot Yam. As the war raged in Europe, she grew determined to go back to help Europe’s Jewish community, including her mother, who was still living in Budapest. Chosen for the mission from among hundreds of Palestinian Jewish recruits, she was drafted into the British army and sent for special training. Then she and four Jewish comrades were parachuted into Yugoslavia, where she spent the next three months with partisan units. Attempting to cross into Hungary, she was captured by the Gestapo, interrogated, and tortured before being imprisoned in Budapest, where she revealed her identity as a British officer. Tried by the Hungarian authorities, she was convicted of treason and executed by firing squad on Nov. 7, 1944.

A gifted writer and poet, Hannah kept a diary from the time she was 13 that has been read worldwide. She also left a body of poetry, including her most famous poem, “Blessed Is The Match,” written before she crossed the border into Hungary. The hymn “Walking To Caesarea” known as “Eli, Eli,” which she wrote in 1942, was set to music after her death, and has since become a second national anthem in Israel.

For the museum’s multi-media exhibition, filmmaker Roberta Grossman provided archival film footage and excerpts of interviews with people who had known Senesh. The exhibit attempts to dispel the one-dimensional image of Hannah as a martyr. “The woman who emerges is far more complex — not just a child’s action hero,” says museum curator Louis Levine.

“What a life she had — tragically cut short but lived with conviction and meaning,” says museum director David Marwell. Artifacts donated by the Senesh family add dimension, including Senesh’s letters, photographs, archival British intelligence documents, and personal belongings such as her typewriter and the suitcase she left behind when she set off on the mission. One compelling example is the note Senesh wrote her mother in her cell and which was found in the pocket of her skirt after her execution. It read:

“My dearest Mother,

I don’t know what to say—
Just two things:
A million thanks
Forgive me if possible.
You know well why there is no need for words.
With infinite love,
Your daughter”

After Senesh’s death, her remains were taken to Israel in 1950, where they were interred at Mount Herzl. After the exhibition concludes at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in August, it will go on a nationwide tour and return to Israel, where it will be permanently housed at Kibbutz Sedot Yam, near Haifa.

 
 

Englewood survivor knew Hannah Senesh, hero and martyr

Recollections included in Museum of Jewish Heritage exhibit

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Above, Susan Beer displays her parents’ etrog box. Friends saved it and other treasured objects for the family during the Holocaust. staff photo Right, Hannah Senesh, Nahalal, Palestine, 1940. Senesh sent a black-and-white version of this photograph to her mother in Budapest in September, 1940. The inscription on the reverse reads: “I and the cow send many kisses, Mom. I don’t think you are interested in the latter.” Collection of the Senesh Family

Special to The Jewish Standard

Susan Beer was 19 when she met the Jewish Hungarian resistance fighter and poet Hannah Senesh in a Budapest prison in 1944. Beer, now 86 and living in Englewood, had been imprisoned there after being caught with her parents, Max and Rose Eisdorfer, trying to flee from the Nazis in Hungary.

Susan Beer was 19 when she met the Jewish Hungarian resistance fighter and poet Hannah Senesh in a Budapest prison in 1944. Beer, now 86 and living in Englewood, had been imprisoned there after being caught with her parents, Max and Rose Eisdorfer, trying to flee from the Nazis in Hungary.

Only 22, Senesh had been imprisoned by the Gestapo after being captured after parachuting into Yugoslavia in an attempt to cross the border into Hungary as part of a secret British military mission to help rescue downed British airmen and save European Jews.

“She was a person you could never forget,” Beer said. “Her memory has stayed with me always — how courageous she was,” she said. Beer’s blue eyes occasionally misted with tears as she recounted her fateful encounter with Senesh and her own saga during the Holocaust in an interview with The Jewish Standard.

Beer’s recollections of Senesh are included in documentary filmmaker Roberta Grossman’s 2009 PBS film, “Blessed Is The Match: The Life And Death of Hannah Senesh,” and in a special exhibition about Senesh on view at The Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial To The Holocaust, “Fire In My Heart: The Story of Hannah Senesh.”

After their capture, Beer and her mother were among a group of women taken to a large cell within the prison. Beer recalled the amazement she felt — dazed, her nose blooded — upon seeing Senesh the next morning. “As they opened the cell door, I saw in the cell across from me a young woman behind bars who was dressed in military fatigues doing vigorous exercises,” she said. “I was beaten the night before, defeated, and to see a woman in the cell alone having the strength to exercise in such a place…. She came to the window and smiled.”

A few days later Beer met Senesh in the prison courtyard, where the female prisoners were allowed half-hour walks. “Walking together she introduced herself and I saw that her front teeth had been knocked out,” Beer recalled, adding that Senesh would not divulge what had happened to her. “I think she didn’t want to scare us,” Beer surmised. Senesh told Beer about the mission, and of how before being taken by the Gestapo for interrogation she would smear coal under her eyes to try to elicit sympathy from the guards.

Believing she would be killed, Senesh was resigned to her fate, Beer recalled, yet she tried to boost the morale of the other prisoners, speaking to them about life in Palestine and giving them Hebrew lessons. “She was as gentle as can be — a tough person, but so gentle,” Beer said. “She never told me how they treated her. A strong person — she knew what she wanted out of life.”

Beer said that while the prisoners were being transferred to Auschwitz by train, the guards told them that if they surrendered their watches and gold jewelry, they would receive better treatment. Thinking of what Senesh would have done, Beer said, she flushed her mother’s gold ring and watch down the toilet.

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Above, Senesh and friend, Palestine, 1940-1941. Collection of the Senesh family

Beer, born Zuzana Eisdorfer in Budapest, was raised in Topolcany, Czechoslovakia. She had a comfortable childhood before the war. Her father, a prominent physician, employed German and French governesses for her. But the family’s lives changed after the German occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1939. The Germans did not physically enter Topolcany, Beer says, but the Slovak government adopted its own version of the German Nuremberg Laws, prohibiting Jews from owning property, businesses, or participating in social and political life.

At the gymnasium (high school) one day, Beer was shocked to see her professor standing in front of the classroom dressed in the black uniform of the Slovakian SS and ranting against the Jews. Soon after, laws forbidding Jewish students to attend school were enacted and the Jewish students were expelled. But that did not stop them from learning, Beer recalled. “We used to gather in someone’s home and whoever was good in a certain subject would be the teacher that day.”

Forbidden to practice medicine or write prescriptions, his medical equipment confiscated, Beer’s father continued practicing medicine in secret for his Jewish patients. She became his messenger, memorizing prescriptions before making clandestine trips to the pharmacy for him. One night a Christian woman rang the doorbell, imploring Beer’s father to see her mother, who had a heart condition. Their devoted cook, fearful of the consequences if Beer’s father was caught, turned her away. The woman’s mother died, and her daughter then accused the cook of killing her. “This sent her into a total depression and a couple of months later she died,” Beers said. “She was like a second mother to me.”

Warned that Jewish girls were to be deported, her father accompanied her to Budapest, then returned to Topolcany. Once there, however, he saw an announcement on the town’s synagogue door instructing the Jews to meet at the train station and understood that all the Jews were to be deported. He and his wife fled, meeting up with Beer two days later in Budapest.

After the Nazis invaded Hungary in April 1944, Beer got a job as a maid for a German officer, donning a peasant’s babushka and thick stockings as a disguise. One day while ironing, she heard familiar classical music on the radio. “I started humming the melody ahead of the radio,” she recalled. “How could a maid know this music, [the employer] wondered? He suspected I was a spy for the Hungarian military.”

Within a month of meeting Senesh, Beer and her parents were transported from the prison in Budapest to Auschwitz. “Men marched one way, women a different way. We arrived at the main gate with the slogan ‘Arbeit Macht Frei,’” she recalled. “I saw a spectacle there, and thought I must have died and woke up in hell.” She recounts a surreal scene: chimneys belching red smoke — the crematoria, electrified wires, vicious guard dogs, young women with shaved heads, haggard and looking half-dead. When she asked about someone, other inmates pointed to the chimneys: “Everyone ends up there,” they told her.

In Auschwitz, the prisoners were made to stand at attention to be counted twice a day — often for hours at a time. If anybody was deemed to be weak or ill, he or she was sent to the crematoria, Beer recalled. On one occasion, Beer said, her mother was near collapse. A guard came by and saw her, but then went to check on another prisoner. Recalling how Senesh had smeared coal under her eye to elicit sympathy from the Gestapo guards, Beer saw either red lipstick or paint — she doesn’t remember which — and quickly smeared it on her mother’s cheeks to make her look well. She believes this probably saved her mother’s life.

She and her mother survived Auschwitz and the Jan. 18, 1945, death march from Auschwitz to the Ravensbruck concentration camp. They were liberated at the Neustadt-Glewe concentration camp on May 2, 1945. After the war, they reunited with Beer’s father — who had been a doctor for the Jewish prisoners in Auschwitz — in Budapest.

Beer met her husband Adam Beer — who was also a survivor — while in medical school in Bratislava. Neither she nor her husband finished medical school, although Adam Beer became a podiatrist. They married and immigrated to the United States in 1948, settling in Cleveland, Ohio, where they raised two children, David and Ruthann. Widowed in 1998, Beer moved to Englewood, where her daughter lives, 12 years ago. Beer has three grandchildren.

In 1966, Beer visited Senesh’s mother Catherine in Israel, who lived there with her son Gyuri. “She loved to talk about Hannah — she didn’t call her that, she called her Anyko,” Beer recalled. Catherine Senesh died in the 1980s, but the families kept in touch and her nephew and his wife visited the Beers in Cleveland.

Beer’s memory of Senesh is still vivid after more than 60 years. “We Jews were never portrayed as courageous, and to see someone like her is inspiring,” she said. “She tried to give hope to everyone — even though she didn’t have any for herself.”

Since the 1960s, Beer has spoken about her experiences during the Holocaust at synagogues, churches, public schools, universities, museums, and community centers. She says, “People should know — especially young people. I do it in memory of the people who died — it is my responsibility.”

For Beer, the memory of what she endured remains deeply ingrained. “I always keep a loaf of bread in the freezer,” she noted, remembering how “when you’re starving all you want is a piece of bread.”

 
 

Kaplen JCC collection will tell survivors’ stories

JCC director shares his father’s prison jacket

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Mordecai Paldiel

As director of Yad Vashem’s Department of the Righteous for some 24 years, Mordecai Paldiel learned firsthand that many survivors have not yet told their stories.

Now a professor of Holocaust and modern European history at Stern College in New York, Paldiel says he still encounters such people every day.

“When the rabbi [at Chabad of Fort Lee] said we have among us someone from Yad Vashem, people approached me with their stories,” said the Bergen County resident. Many had never before shared their wartime experiences.

It is for these people, and the history they represent, that Paldiel and the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly are launching a project to collect Holocaust memorabilia and record the stories that surround them.

“I know Rabbi [Steve] Golden [JCC Judaic director] because I gave a few presentations on the Holocaust at the JCC and spoke there on Yom HaShoah,” said Paldiel, describing the genesis of the Holocaust collection initiative.

“I told him I knew of people with all kinds of memorabilia — photos, documents, anything having to do with that sad period — that they are keeping to themselves and don’t know how to dispense with. Each of these items has a story behind it.”

Paldiel suggested to Golden that they invite Holocaust survivors and their families to “bring whatever they have in some shoebox.” Noting that many of these survivors have not spoken with their own families about their experiences during the Shoah, Paldiel said he will sit down for an hour or so with all who come in.

“We’ll look at their items and talk about what they mean to them, tell their story,” he said. “Then maybe we can have an exhibit of some of these items and have these people talk about them.”

After that, the artifacts will either be returned to their owners or, perhaps, dispatched to places like the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Manhattan or the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. The items might also be used for educational purposes in schools and colleges.

“One of the Judaic Department’s goals is to engender more opportunities for Holocaust education,” said Golden. “Eliciting previously untold stories of survival via these artifacts is a creative way to hear the voices of Shoah survivors.”

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The father of Avi Lewinson, JCC executive director, wore this jacket in Dachau.

Announcing the project, the JCC issued a statement suggesting that items might include documents such as passports, visas, work permits, travel permits, as well as authentic and false identification cards; photos of survivors or lost loved ones; religious artifacts such as siddurim, mezuzot, tefillin, and prayer shawls; and various personal items, such as clothing, books, diaries, utensils, “or other objects linked to this terrible time in history.”

One object comes from JCC Executive Director Avi Lewinson himself: the prison jacket worn in Dachau by his father, Yakov Chaim Lewinson.

“If you see how light it is and think how cold the winters were and know that it was basically all he had on his body, it speaks to the brutality of the cold,” said Lewinson.

Lewinson said his father spoke of the hunger as being even worse than the cold, and that too is manifest in the jacket. “Look at the size of the shirt. It looks like it was for a 10-year-old. My father was in his early 20s as this was going on. I just can’t picture my dad that emaciated,” he said.

Paldiel cited the green sweater worn by a retired New York dentist, Krystyna Chiger, who had not spoken with her family about her wartime experiences. In 2008 she wrote a book, “The Girl in the Green Sweater,” chronicling the year and a half she spent hiding from the Nazis in the sewers of Lvov, Poland, wearing a green sweater to keep her warm.

“She held on to that sweater, which is now dilapidated,” said Paldiel. “It was the most precious item she kept. Now her family knows about it. Maybe we can encourage other people to come forward and show their artifacts, and maybe there are extraordinary stories they will tell.”

Recounting Holocaust experiences is very difficult for some, said Paldiel.

“There was a girl who was on a train to Auschwitz with her family, and she was sent on a labor detail and the rest of the family went to the gas chamber. How does she speak with her children about that? People would rather tell nice things, not horror stories, to their children and grandchildren. They see enough of that on TV.”

As a result, he said, survivors “hint” at their stories, so that children may know that their parents or grandparents are survivors, but they don’t know any further details.

Still, he said, if survivors are hesitant to speak in front of their families, “maybe they will do it in front of others with a similar background.”

His plan is to meet individually with survivors at the JCC.

“We’ll say bring in what you have and we’ll see if it’s worthwhile,” he said. The hope is that survivors will tell their stories and Paldiel will write them down.

The project is important because “time is passing,” he said. “The memory is fizzling but [survivors] still remember some of the important details. If we wait too long, it will be too late.”

Paldiel believes that for those who now tell their stories, “it will be like a release. What they fear is that once they pass, their stories will be buried and no one will know. It concerns them, but they don’t know how to present it. Now they know that their stories will be on the record.”

For others, “It’s a great tool to learn about these people in their community who passed through that horrible experience, started a new life, raised families, and got over it. It’s very encouraging,” he said. “To be able to cope is a very optimistic thing.”

To schedule a meeting with Paldiel, call Golden at (201) 408-1426.

Larry Yudelson contributed to this report.

 
 
 
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