Independent Lens: Blessed Is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh

Raising money for documentaries is never a picnic, and now it sometimes feels impossible. But then, a story, a problem, an issue that infuriates you comes along and you know you just have to make a film about it — and somehow, you find a way to do it.

Roberta Grossman

“The war is going to come to an end,” Hannah Senesh told the Hungarian court that sentenced her to death in 1944. “And you will be tried for what you are doing to me. You are the enemy of your country, not me.” Captured when she and other Palestinian Jews made their way into Hungary to save Jews from the Nazis, she was imprisoned, tortured, and executed. Now, she is remembered in Roberta Grossman’s 2008 documentary, Blessed Is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh, premiering on 12 April on PBS’ Independent Lens.

“I am asked repeatedly, ‘How did it happen?’,” Catherine Senesh writes in her memoir. “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.” 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 Szenes 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, much 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: and so, as she pursued her dream of belonging, the film attests, 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.

Hannah (Meri Roth) and Catherine (Marcela Nohýnková)

The film follows Hannah’s evolving sense of responsibility. She resolves to attend agricultural school because, she writes her mother, “There are already far too many intellectuals in Palestine. What they need are workers to help build the country.” As World War II expands and Catherine worries back in Budapest, Hannah dedicates 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 does not meet this “one” before she embarks on her 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 is both exacerbated and reduced when Hannah is 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 parachute into Yugoslavia, then make their way across the border, where they are almost immediately captured. The story of Hannah’s imprisonment and torture turns perverse and 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. “She was such a combination of courage and gentleness,” says one. Even as she is abused — her teeth broken, her face and body beaten — she waves from her cell window (at one point, a woman remembers, she draws a Star of David in the dust on the glass), to encourage fellow prisoners and buttress her mother’s resolve to survive too. The ordeal ends badly when she was convicted of treason, but Hannah’s belief in the cause of the Jewish state is 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. It’s not hard to see why — charismatic, self-aware, and determined to change history, she writes herself into it. As she penned 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.”

RATING 6 / 10