Monday, January 25, 2010

New Scholarship on Hannah Szenes Provides Complex Look at National Heroine


It is always difficult to hear the human side of a person we wish to make greater than human.

In this new translation of the writings of Hannah Szenes, Dr. Ruti Glick has not only uncovered a more complex understanding of Szenes, but she has provided us with a much greater understanding about why a young woman like Szenes would have accepted the dangerous mission to paratroop behind enemy lines to fight against the Nazis.

I hope that Glick’s work is only the beginning of the further study of this amazing young woman, her dreams, her aspirations, and her sacrifice to Israel.

I would love to see this translated further—into an English edition, and, perhaps, made into a movie. What a glorious movie it would be! No happy ending, of course, but, as Jews, we have learned that happy endings are not always the point.


The other Hannah
By Tsafi Saar

"In the meantime, I've been working in the dairy barn, but I'm pretty bored with it because I don't really feel like only cleaning the cows and the barn. I'd like to learn to do the milking... Last week I secretly milked a cow... It's incredible that after two years of studying agriculture a person doesn't know how to milk."

These sentences, which Hannah Szenes wrote to her mother about her work at Nahalal, encapsulate the experience of the young Hungarian girl who immigrated to Palestine imbued with ideals: The frustration at not being allowed to do real agricultural work, only various housekeeping tasks, alongside her daring and initiative, her rejection of what she was supposed to do.

Szenes, who became a national symbol of heroism - and ironically also a symbol of equality between the sexes - was a disappointed and lonely immigrant during her few years here, full of criticism of the society of which she so much longed to be a part. This is what emerges from the research compiled by Ruti Glick, which will be presented today at a conference titled "Unforgettable Hebrew Women" at Bar-Ilan University. The conference is marks the retirement of Professor Margalit Shilo, a pioneer in the field of gender studies in Israel.

Szenes, says Glick, experienced many personal, vocational and social difficulties here, which peaked toward the end of her stay at Kibbutz Sdot Yam. The paratrooping mission in Europe appealed to her, in part, because it served as an escape from a disappointing immigration story. The distance between this and the figure engraved in the collective Israeli consciousness is nearly unfathomable.

Szenes was born in 1921 in Budapest, the daughter of successful author and playwright Bela Szenes. Hannah arrived in Palestine in 1939, studied for two years at the agricultural school for girls in Nahalal and was a founder of Kibbutz Sdot Yam.

After enlisting in the pre-state Palmach militia, in 1943 she volunteered for the British Army and joined a group of paratroopers slated to parachute onto European soil as part of the fight against Nazi Germany. The group parachuted into Croatia near the Hungarian border and joined a band of local partisans. In June 1944, Szenes crossed the border into Hungary and was captured. She was tortured in a prison in Budapest and executed in November 1944.

Szenes became a myth. In 1946, two years after her death, a book containing her diary, poems she had written, two plays and 20 letters was published in Hebrew. The book has been reprinted over the years, becoming part of the education of many generations of Israelis. To this day, Israeli schoolchildren are taught about Szenes as a symbol of heroism and sacrifice.

However, Glick notes that Szenes' diary as published in Hebrew was partial and censored. To date the complete diary has been published only in Hungary, in 1991, edited by Anna Szalai. Published alongside the diary are about 200 letters Szenes sent, mostly to her mother in Budapest and her brother in France, which paint a far more complex picture of the young pioneer-poet.

The abbreviated Hebrew version was translated and edited by Szenes' friends in Israel, at her mother's request. Apparently the omissions, along with substitutions like "the land of Israel" for "Palestine," or the transformation of hesitant sentences into unambiguous statements express the young society's need to shape Szenes as a role model, heroine and symbol.

What, for example, was left out? Though Szenes, daughter of an intellectual, assimilated and bourgeois family, wanted to become a farmer, after only a month at Nahalal she wrote: "To tell the truth I can't imagine myself being able to be a worker in the full sense of the word... I can imagine myself only working in something to do with teaching... In moments of courage I dare to think about the school in Nahalal, but without its faults."

This paragraph appeared in the diary in Hebrew, but what came next was omitted. There she details the faults of an important educational institution in the pre-state Jewish community in Palestine: "They don't teach how to work out of joy and desire, and the directors do not evince understanding. Apart from work, they do not invest any thought in life itself, and in the course of the daily work all the agriculture gets lost, especially the "land," the idea of building the land."

Toward the end of her time on Nahalal she wrote: "I already really hate the school and I am waiting impatiently to get out of here." In the laundered Hebrew version this appears as: "I have already had enough of studies and I will wait impatiently for the exams to end."

Next - which also does not appear in the Hebrew version - Szenes wrote: "I want to escape from here already... There is something fundamentally distorting here and an institution like this should not be allowed to exist and sow the seeds of bitterness, lack of faith and a feeling of inferiority in young people's hearts... In recent days I have been in a very bad mood... I don't feel like getting dressed, like living or like dying."

Szenes moved from Nahalal to Kibbutz Sdot Yam, hoping for new challenges. However, she quickly found herself working in the kitchen and the laundry room. "I have great doubts the whole time at work," she wrote. "Every day I stand for hours and launder and ask myself whether this is really my role. I am prepared to do the work, but I feel I have in me unutilized power, and this is so distressing... In a little while it will be three years, the most productive years for learning, for advanced studies - those too were years of learning, important and crucial in my life, but I feel that in my development I have not achieved what I could have and should have."

"In Szenes' writings," says Glick, "a very ambitious personage emerges, who saw Zionism as a way of self-realization. Only very few women came here by themselves at that time. Her mother didn't want her to immigrate and was very worried about her - so almost certainly what is set forth in the letters is just the tip of the iceberg of what was happening in the life and soul of the young Szenes."

This is what Szenes wrote to her mother about her work in the Nahalal warehouse: "I have introduced a number of pretty good inventions to make the work more efficient, complete the equipment in the warehouse and more. I very much like the technical jobs. In this area, they say, I work more like a fellow. And how do I understand the nature of feminine and masculine work? First of all, feminine work is more repetitive, which means maintaining what there is; meanwhile a man's work is more productive and aimed at development. From this it organically derives that feminine work emphasizes the details while masculine work has vision... But in my own work, so I notice, there are more masculine characteristics and other people have pointed this out as well. I am glad about this."

These comments indicate Szenes held a conservative, stereotypical view of the division of labor between the sexes, which apparently derived from her bourgeois background and the times. She didn't consider herself as subjected to discrimination as a woman, viewing domestic service tasks as unprofessional manual labor and nothing more. Her mother did not perform such tasks in Budapest either. The servants did them.

"Her bourgeois class identity was much stronger than her identity as a woman," says Glick. "She did not connect the housework she was given to do to the fact that she was a woman, and at the same time she wanted to be like a man."

If Szenes herself did not feel oppressed as a woman, isn't it problematic to examine her life in terms of gender?

"It's clear she internalized [societal] values, including the division between the private arena for women and the public arena for men," replies Glick. "However, there is a kind of feminism here different from what we know. Not radical, and not socialist like the feminism of the women from the first [waves of] immigration, but one that does empower women in its own way."

True, agrees Glick, among pioneer men there were also many disappointments and failures, but Szenes' difficulty was redoubled because she was a woman: "She very much wanted to adopt the ideology of the new Jew, but the ethos of the pioneer and the fighter was basically masculine. Most of the women did not work in the fields or bear arms. Even when they wanted to take an active part in public life, they often came up against opposition, criticism and ridicule."

Glick points out "the huge gap between Szenes' ambition, her vitality and her desire to contribute to the collective and to herself - and the fact that in the end she found herself doing laundry, day after day, year after year. In this context, the possibility of getting to Hungary, of doing something of great importance and also of seeing her mother was a tremendous escape. This is the story of a woman who sought meaning. Sought, but did not find."

Szenes was disappointed not only by her work life. Neither in Nahalal nor Sdot Yam did she find society to her liking. She was lonely and missed her family very much. At Nahalal she wrote in her diary: "I feel like an empty vessel. Or more precisely - like a vessel with holes in it, so that everything poured into it spills out. There is nothing to savor in anything I'm doing. I need people, not just any people, not just a piece of meat, but people who are close to me in thought, in feeling."

A woman who knew Szenes at that time told Glick in an interview: "I remember she was very smart. With pretty legs, very attractive to intelligent men. She was a personality."

"She had doubts about the social level of the kibbutz members," recalled Rotem, the secretary of Sdot Yam. "She found people meager at the personal level. She was critical. She was head and shoulders above the rest at the beginning - as someone caring, an idealist, a leader. She passed through the skies of Sdot Yam like a comet - she appeared, she blazed and she was extinguished."

"One of the reasons Szenes set out on the mission in Europe - and in my opinion this strengthens the mission, not the other way around, as might be interpreted - was that she felt so frustrated, empty, lost, disappointed, and she saw it as a possibility for fulfilling herself and contributing," says Glick. "This was a mission ... which combined the personal with the collective."

Glick stresses that she does not address the question of whether the paratroops' mission was the right thing to do, a controversy of considerable interest to historians, nor with the idea of heroism: "I want to reveal how the story of her life was tragic, not the story of her death. The story of immigration, not heroism."

In fact, according Glick, the commemoration of Szenes as a symbol and a myth has been to her detriment: "She is a figure who attracted a lot of attention, in part thanks to her writing. How can it be that she left such a large legacy and no one has bothered to translate, publish and research it? There's a dissonance here between the exalted heroine who shaped the nation's main educational ethos and the lack of real interest in her."

"It's possible to understand why Szenes has become larger than life," says Glick. "If we already have an exalted heroine, why do we need a frustrated immigrant? I don't want to say she wasn't a heroine, but the time has come to tell another story as well."

Glick, an editor and translator, grew up in Moshav Kerem Maharal, whose founders were Hungarian speakers. For her research, which she carried out at Bar-Ilan University under the supervision of Shilo and is slated to appear as a book, Glick translated parts of the Hungarian book "Hannah Szenes." She describes enchanting writing with humorous parts.

More than anything else, Glick wants to draw a portrait of Szenes the person, the creative young woman, the immigrant who found herself in a personal-political vortex, whose character and memory were expropriated for national purposes and have become fossilized since then. This charming and complex woman deserves much more.

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