70 Hungarian postcards to the 70-year-old Israel

A national hero. A national song.

Hanna Szenes

By Krisztina Politzer Maymon - 2018-02-10

Translated from the Hungarian original: Bea Sara Goll

Hanna Szenes was born in Budapest to a wealthy, intellectual, assimilated Jewish family. She was 13 years old when she began writing her diary which she continued from her childhood until her death. Despite her outstanding scholastic achievements as the first Jewish student of the Calvinist Baar-Madas Secondary School, because of the numerus clausus, which was the first in Hungary to limit the university entrance of Jews, she could not continue her studies.

At the age of 18, as a dedicated Zionist, she immigrated to Palestine fuelled by nation-building sentiments. She studied for two years at the agricultural school Nahalal, and joined a young Zionist association that founded the Sdot Yam kibbutz and the Working and Studying Youth an Israeli youth movement.

Szenes, with 36 Palestinian Jewish associates voluntarily joined the British army as paratrooper in the fight against the Nazi occupation in 1943. In 1944 she was dropped at the Yugoslavian border, from where she and her associates entered Hungary.

Shortly after her deployment she was captured and tortured to give out the secret code, the names of her comrades, the details of the mission, but she did not betray anyone; they could not break her. On November 7, 1944, she was sentenced to death by bullets by the Hungarian Arrow Cross Court. She was 23 years old.

Her ashes were transported to Israel in 1950 and were given a National Hero’s Burial in the Israeli National Cemetery, on the mountain that bears the name of Theodor Herzl, the visionary of the modern Jewish state, also born in Budapest. In recognition of her courage, she received the title of Hero of the State of Israel. In 1993, a Hungarian military court dismissed the
charges of treason against her.

The Szenes Hanna park in Budapest’s seventh district was named in her memory. In Israel there are streets named after her, and her memory is also kept at her kibbutz, in a small museum built in her former home.

Her poems discovered after her death were published in Israel, and several of them were set to music. This poem, "Walking to Caesarea” written 1942 in hebrew, became famous.

"Eli, Eli" (Israel's unofficial hymn)

“Oh my God, Oh my God,
Let there never be an end
To the land, to the sea,
To the murmur of the water,
To the radiance of the sky,
To the whisper of prayer.
To the land, to the sea,
To the murmur of the water,
To the radiance of the sky,
To the whisper of prayer.”

[Walking to Caesarea - based on Andrea Szenes’ translation from Ivrit]

The poem most likely depicts the poet's walk between
the Sdot Yam kibbutz and the shore near Caesaria.
Over the years, however, the poem became so famous
in Israel that it was known only as "My God, my God"
("Eli Eli") as a kind of folk song, a communal prayer
separated from the poetic legacy of Szenes.

Fishermen at Sdot Yam Kibbutz - photo: Sdot Yam kibutz archive / pikiwiki

The theme of the poem is not the war, the persecution, or the attacks on the Jewish community of the then Palestine; not even the death or remembrance - and that is what makes it so fascinating. It is not about the shared destiny, or the collective; it is rather a personal reflection of a woman about her relationship with the surrounding landscape, with God. However, in light of Szenes’ life, her unsuccessful mission and her heroic stance, which remained so strong in Israeli and Zionist collective memory - that is, the Israeli hero who died a heroic death for trying to save the Hungarian Jews – turned it into a cultic verse, a communal prayer. This poem has become a mandatory song for almost every remembrance of the Shoa and at the celebration of Independence Day in Israel.

Sdot Yam kibbutz and Hanna Szenes – photos: Wikipedia

At a first glance the short poem is a prayer followed by an idealized narrative description. The poet combines the opposite forces of nature: the prayer of a person between the sea and the land, the water and the sky. The sand and sea, the tide and the ebb with their eternal return are the characters of a never-ending play. The sky, the sea and the sand, as natural forces, are meant to emphasize the smallness of humans who can only turn to their God asking that the world's order never cease, but continue in this endless cycle.

This is also the feeling that is expressed in the melody to the poem which consists of two parts. In the first part of the song, the melody rises upward, indicating that the prayer of humans rises from the earth to God. Then the music descends downwards, and then gradually rises again – with the lines “the land“, “the sea“, “the sky“, as a musical request. The answer comes in the second part of this song, where we hear the same lines again, but this time with another melody, which gives a final, reassuring, musical answer to the musical question. [David Perec - ILTarbut 2016.9.11]

The poem was set to music by David Zahavi in ​​1945, after he found the poem of Szenes in a book of verses published in that year. Zahavi himself popularized the song in the kibbutzim and scout meets which eventually has spread from mouth to mouth and became one of the most popular songs in Israel.

Fishermen between Sdot Yam Kibbutz and the Ancient Caesaria - photo: Sdot Yam kibbutz archive / pikiwiki

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