Growing up in a household of Holocaust survivors with a frail mother and a devout grandmother, I was taught obedience, encouraged to be ambitious, and admonished by fear. Stultified by the recitation of their nightmarish horrors and overcome by feelings of suffocating anxiety, I yearned for freedom and light through music, literature, film, and theatre. Books proved to be my escape and though I adored authors and the characters brought to life by their imagination, I yearned for a heroine who not only embodied an artistic ideal but was also fearless. Ironically, I discovered her in the Hebrew Sunday school that I deplored with its sallow, bearded instructors who hated teaching and hated us and constantly scolded us for daydreaming and doodling. But in one of the books that exonerated Jewish heroes, I discovered a singular Jewish heroine, and she was amazing. Her name was Hannah Tzenesh and she was not only a renowned poet and playwright, but a paratrooper.
Born in Hungary in 1921 to an assimilated Jewish family, she graduated from a Protestant private school in 1939, and emigrated to Palestine, inspired by the idea of the creation of a Jewish state after suffering the slights, humiliations, and threats of violent anti-Semitism. She enrolled in an agricultural school and lived in a cooperative farm, Kibbutz Sdot Yam, before joining the secret Israeli Defense Forces and enlisting in the British Army in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force where she began her training as a paratrooper for British Special Operations. With two male colleagues, she was parachuted into Yugoslavia in order to infiltrate occupied Hungary. Once on the ground, her superiors told her to turn back because the planned operation was deemed too risky. Nonetheless, she refused and was captured by the Nazis. Though she was tortured, she refused to reveal any secrets even after her captors threatened to execute her beloved mother. She was eventually murdered at the age of 23. Because of her bravery, her mother survived.
As a girl, I admired not only her courage, but the beauty she left behind in the form of poetry which had been set to music and became a song of inspiration intoned around campfires throughout the Jewish world. Hannah Tzenesh seemed to embody all the qualities that I adored — artistry, inspiration, bravery, and love of family, her people, and the word.
-Cheryl Pearl S.