“I am asked repeatedly, ‘How did it happen?’ How can it be that I am alive despite the profound suffering, the terrible pain, the danger of death that hovered over me? Those who ask know, of course, that I am the mother of Hannah Senesh.” As she writes in her memoir, Catherine Senesh is ever reminded of her daughter. While most mothers might feel the same way about their daughters, for Catherine, the context for remembering is enlarged, the reminders more acute and frequent, because Hannah is renowned as the “Joan d’Arc” of Israel.
Born in 1921, Hannah Senesz’s route to such historical celebrity was hardly ordained. As recounted in Roberta Grossman’s documentary, Blessed Is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh, she and her brother Giora grew up in a typical upper middle-class Jewish household in Budapest. Professor Judy Baumel-Schwartz attests that she was an excellent student and dutiful daughter, a child of privilege: she has her clothes laid out for her each morning, and “was most definitely used to having things done for her.” When she was six, her playwright father died suddenly, a trauma Hannah turned into her own sort of art, in poems she dictated to her grandmother and, as she grew older, diary entries (these are, perhaps inevitably, compared to Anne Frank’s in the film). Photos suggest she was a serious 13-year-old, as she describes herself: “I don’t think I’m a particularly pretty girl, but I hope to improve,” she wrote. “I guess I was born to be a philosopher because in all things, I see life in miniature… I’m always thinking of life and death.”
This preternaturally sober turn of mind, the documentary submits, led Hannah to seek order in a series of social structures. As an adolescent in the mid 1930s, she was elected to a post in her school’s literary society, only to have the position revoked because Jewish students were not allowed to serve. With this, Hannah learned abruptly “what it really means to be a Jew in Christian society,” specifically a society increasingly inclined to anti-Semitism. Here the film includes the usual images of Hitler and fervent crowds yelling his name: as she pursued her dream of belonging, Hannah faced the rise of fascism in Europe and Hungary’s anti-Semitic party, the Arrow Cross, as well. With her brother off to university in France, she moved to Palestine, where she determined to work toward a Jewish state.
The film follows Hannah’s evolving sense of responsibility, her resolve to attend agricultural school because, she wrote her mother at the time, “There are already far too many intellectuals in Palestine. What they need are workers to help build the country.” While World War II expanded and Catherine worried back in Budapest, Hannah dedicated herself to Zionism. Her letters home indicate her desire for another sort of romance, hoping to meet a “boy” with whom she might share her future (her poems at age 21, such as “Loneliness,” are full of longing: “Could I meet one who understood all without word, without search, confession or lie?”) The fact that she did not meet this “one” before she embarked on her most dangerous adventure only enhances the legend of Hannah Seneh, the virgin warrior. As Dina Schechman, another member of the Kibbutz Sdot-Yam, recalls, “We were all idealists, but she was exceptionally idealistic. It created a distance between us and made her almost like a statue.”
The distance was both exacerbated and reduced when Hannah was one of three women to go on a mission to Hungary, in hopes of rescuing local Jews from the Nazi incursion (which came late in the war). The 30-some volunteers parachuted into Yugoslavia, then made their way across the border, where they were almost immediately captured. The story of Hannah’s imprisonment and torture is made more extraordinary when her interrogators (seeking a radio code she has memorized) discover that her mother lives nearby. They haul Catherine into prison as well. Though she was surprised to learn what her daughter was up to, Catherine refused to help the fascists. “If there was something Hannah did not want to reveal,” she writes in the memoir read here by Joan Allen, “She had good reason and under no circumstances would I influence her otherwise.”
Various cellmates and fellow parachutists recall Hannah’s courage and resilience, but offer little insight into her own understanding of her evolving role as an emblem of resistance. Even as she was abused—her teeth broken, her face and body beaten—she would wave from her cell window (at one point, a woman remembers, she drew a Star of David in the dust on the glass), encourage fellow prisoners, and buttress her mother’s resolve to survive too. The ordeal ended badly, but Hannah’s belief in the cause of the Jewish state was unshakable.
As the film makes clear in readings from her diaries and poems (most discovered in a suitcase she left in Palestine), as well as some slow-motiony, melodramatic reenactments of her time in prison (in which Meri Roth plays Hannah and Marcela Nohynkova her mother), this belief has shaped Hannah’s legacy. Though she never imagined herself as a symbol of that state, after her death, Hannah was revered, her body laying in state for three days in addition to serving as the focus for a grand funeral procession. Blessed is the Match doesn’t look at the various contexts for this reverence, or even attend too closely to Hannah’s sense of self. Instead, it celebrates her own florid metaphors. As she wrote in the poem that gives the film its name, “Consumed in kindling flame, blessed is the flame that burns in the secret vastness of the heart.”