ST. PETERSBURG – “Fire in My Heart: The Story of Hannah Senesh,” a special multi-media, private artifact exhibition, is on display through April 27 at the Florida Holocaust Museum, 55 Fifth St. S.
FHM is one of three U.S. cities to host the exhibition. Prior to its arrival in the Tampa Bay area, it visited Chicago and New York. After its run at FHM, the collection will return to Israel.
“Fire in My Heart: The Story of Hannah Senesh” is not a traveling exhibition but a collection of personal items that's likely never to be seen together again. Entrusted to organizers by Senesh's nephews, the exhibition includes a wide-range of personal artifacts including her diary, a newspaper she published with her brother, and a collection of personal notebooks and photographs.
Senesh is widely known as the author of “Walking to Caesarea,” her 1942 poem that was set to music in 1945 and is largely considered the virtual second anthem for the state of Israel. Recently performed by Regina Spektor at a concert in Israel this past August, it was also prominently featured in the movie “Schindler's List.”
Organized by the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City, the 2,500-square-foot exhibition also includes audio/visual displays by Roberta Grossman, the award-winning director of “Blessed is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh.”
“We could not be more thrilled that St. Pete is one of three cities to receive this very important chronicle of one of the Holocaust's most respected heroes," said Elizabeth Gelman, director of the Florida Holocaust Museum. "A strong, resourceful, courageous woman, her story continues to inspire people across the globe. We expect the exhibition to draw visitors from across the state of Florida."
About Hannah Senesh
“There are people whose glorious memory continues to light the world though they are no longer among the living … these lights are particularly bright when the night is dark. They light the way." Senesh wrote these words in a letter to her mother’s family in Dombóvár, Hungary, upon the death of her great-aunt Betti Mama, in September 1940.
Senesh, a young woman who took part in a secret British mission so that she might also help Jews in Europe, was one of those people. She also was the talented poet who wrote those words that would, along with her diary, be read by millions of people around the world. Senesh’s life was short but her memory continues to impact millions.
Senesh was born on July 17, 1921, into a Hungarian-Jewish middle class family. She went to a private Protestant secondary school where she was one of a small number of Jewish students. While she excelled there, she also eventually encountered institutionalized anti-Semitism. Her response was to become an ardent Zionist intent on settling in Palestine. She left Budapest for Palestine in September 1939, two weeks after Germany's invasion of Poland. After completing two years of studies at the Agricultural School for Young Women in Nahalal, she joined the newly organized kibbutz, Sedot Yam. In the summer of 1943, wanting to help in the effort to defeat the Nazis and to do something for the Jewish remnant in Europe, Hannah accepted an invitation to join a unit being trained to parachute into occupied Europe. There, she and the other Palestinian-Jewish volunteers would carry out a double mission. For the British, she would help set up escape routes for downed Allied aircrews who had evaded capture; for the Haganah – the Palestinian Jewish underground army – she would organize Jews and help them to escape.
Senesh and four colleagues parachuted into Yugoslavia in March 1944. She crossed into Hungary in early June, but was immediately captured by the Hungarian authorities. She was imprisoned for six months and was brutally interrogated. While in prison, she taught her fellow prisoners Hebrew and inspired them with stories of life in Palestine. Her mother was arrested in an attempt to extract information from her, but Senesh refused to give her captors the information they sought.
She was tried for treason, and executed by firing squad on Nov. 7, 1944, at the age of 23. Her remains were moved to Israel in 1950, and she is now buried in the section of Israel's national military cemetery dedicated to the parachutists. Her mother and brother survived the war.
Highlights of the exhibition
The exhibit starts in cosmopolitan Budapest of the 1920s and 1930s, exploring Senesh’s home life, education, and religious beliefs as part of a bourgeois Jewish family. It shows how her priorities changed in 1938 and 1939 upon facing anti-Semitism, and how she became a Zionist.
The exhibition follows Senesh to the Agricultural School of Young Women in Nahalal and portrays her physical and spiritual life there and at Kibbutz Sedot Yam through the use of her own words, including the text of her famous 1942 poem "Halikha L'Kesariya" ("A Walk to Caesarea"), known worldwide as "Eli, Eli." This short Hebrew poem was set to music in 1945, and has since become a virtual second anthem in Israel.
Senesh’s mission, imprisonment, trial and execution are narrated through the words of her acquaintances, family, and friends who were witness to these tragic events. The exhibition concludes with a section describing Hannah's legacy.
Items featured in the exhibition include:
• An edition of “Kis Szenesek Lapja” (“Newspaper of the Little Seneshes”), produced in 1929 by Senesh and her brother Giora). Readers paid for the paper with chocolates.
• Senesh’s Hungarian passport with its visa to Palestine.
• The portable typewriter Senesh brought with her to Palestine along with letters she typed to her mother that sometimes included drawings and handwritten messages.
• The suitcase in which Senesh stored her notebooks and other possessions when she departed on the mission. She left a letter stating that she is leaving the suitcase at the kibbutz "containing Daddy's books and other personal items, which I would not like anyone except Gyurka (her brother) or Mother to touch."
• The last photo of Senesh and her brother Giora taken in Tel Aviv the day Hannah departed on her mission. He had arrived in Palestine the previous day. The back of the photo was inscribed by her brother. "How good and pleasant it is for siblings to be together," and sent to her in Egypt. Senesh returned it to him, adding, "How good! Hannah 1944 March 10."
The museum is open daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., with the last admission 30 minutes prior to closing. Admission is $16 for adults, $14 for seniors, $10 for college students and $8 for students 17 and younger. Call 820-0100 or visit www.flholocaustmuseum.org.