Jan/Feb 2011 Travel

Finding Hannah in Budapest

by Loren Stephens

Chana (Hannah) had volunteered to jump first. She groped toward the green light in the forward section of the four-engine Halifax bomber. Her movements were awkward and unsure; she felt like an adolescent again, made self-conscious by the excessive bulk of her flyer's equipment. Her suit had several zipped pockets on the hips and the legs, and each pocket was crammed with tools for survival: revolver, flashlight, compass and maps, a tiny first aid kit. She was also carrying forged documents, money and mail for the partisans [in Hungary]. The parachute itself was stowed in a bulky capsule on her back.
—From Ordinary Heroes: Chana Szenes and the Dream of Zion (1986) by Peter Hay

The customs official rifled through Peter's leather satchel, then asked, "Why are you bringing so many copies of this book into our country?"

In flawless Hungarian, Peter answered, "They are gifts for my relatives." In truth, he was hoping to find a Hungarian or Austrian publisher willing to distribute a translation of his newly minted book.

The official disappeared into the immigration office, leaving us standing in the benchless waiting room; our fellow passengers on our flight from Los Angeles had already left the airport or were continuing on to Bucharest, their gloomy faces foreshadowing the misery of a country under tight Communist rule.

I asked Peter, "How long do you think this is going to take? Lorenzo will be waiting for us at the Gellert."

"It depends on how close we are to the inspector's dinner time. The hungrier he is the quicker he will release us."

"Why should he care about your book?"

He whispered, "He suspects that my book is Zionist propaganda. The Hungarians are running covert operations in the countryside to train members of Hezbollah to fight Israel. Anything about Zionism sends up a red flag here." I had anticipated a different kind of trouble—I had hidden 20 reels of empty film in the bottom of my suitcase, which went undetected.

Two hours later, the inspector said we were free to go. He handed Peter his stack of books. "Ach, no one will be interested in a book about this Hannah Senesh. She is just another forgotten Jewish victim of World War Two. We here in Hungary have more important matters to attend to—the rebuilding of our country."

He stamped our passports. "Now get out of here."

Peter warned me, "Be careful what you say to me in the cab and on the telephone. I am sure he has put us on a watch list."

That's all I needed to hear. I felt queasy, imagining the business end of a rifle staring me in the face. How ironic that I was in Budapest to make a documentary about the life of a courageous young woman who lost her life trying to save Jews, and I was already losing my nerve.

Peter and I checked into separate rooms at the Gellert, a stately art nouveau hotel situated along the banks of the Danube River. I shut the floor-to-ceiling windows and turned on the air conditioning to block out the grinding noise of the trolley car, which stopped directly beneath my window on its journey up Gellert Hill toward the palace overlooking the Buda side of the city.

Lorenzo, dressed in Turkish pasha pants, had staked out a table on the veranda and was already drinking. A Gypsy orchestra strolled among the diners, and waiters in tuxedos rushed among the tables.

Lorenzo lifted his glass, greeting Peter and me. "Cold Hungarian beer—it's much better than the damn piss crap we get in Romania." He was based in Istanbul but had spent the last three years in Romania, where he had just finished filming The Last Jews of Radiutz, Romania. His film was a stark exploration of the religious burial rites of this nearly extinct group of Jews who somehow had survived the Holocaust and the Communist takeover of their country.

Lorenzo was ready to turn his camera on Hannah Senesh's inspirational story. He also appreciated its commercial potential—Hannah was known as "the Joan of Arc" of Israel, and her poetry and songs were recited by Jewish children the world over. Peter and I agreed that Lorenzo was an asset to our production because he had worked with Hungarian film crews and could call in favors to get good labor at cheap prices.

Lorenzo looked out over the Danube. The Liberty Bridge stretched elegantly from Buda to Pest. "Beautiful isn't it? That street corner right below us is where the Nazis pushed Jews into the river. The square in the distance by the Avenue of the Martyrs—that is where Hannah was imprisoned next to her mother and executed by a firing squad. The authorities recently allowed the synagogue to erect a plaque in her memory."

The sun was setting, turning the river water blood red. I buttoned my sweater against the twilight dampness. Lorenzo panned his camera across the bridge. "Good background footage."

Peter ordered dinner for us: jokai bean soup, chicken paprikas, and dobostorta, a delicate sponge cake layered with rich chocolate cream and crunchy caramel. Biting into the dobostorta, I remembered sitting on a raft in Lake Velden when I was ten years old. My father looked at the Austrians eating and drinking lakeside and said, "Ah, Austria and Hungary. Life mit schlag—life with whipped cream." It was my first trip to Europe; my father was the jovial tour guide, whereas my mother gave my sister and me The Diary of Anne Frank and told us, "What you are reading is all true. Don't ever forget what the Germans, the Austrians, the Hungarians did to the Jews."

Lorenzo offered Peter a Cuban cigar, one of the many luxuries available on the gray market. "Thank you, my man. This is quite a treat. In the United States a Monte Cristo is as hard to get as hen's teeth." A waiter rushed over to our table and struck a match, lighting their cigars. As the light faded, the embers looked like a pair of searching eyes enshrouded in fine smoke.

Lorenzo touched my hand. "Loren, be sure and give him a generous tip. He makes next to nothing." I bristled at being told what to do. Although we were equal partners, I was responsible for making sure we did not go over budget.

Peter intervened. "Listen, Loren has partners and she's going to have to account for every penny we spend. Let's not go overboard." I smiled at Peter and silently thanked him for helping me avoid a confrontation.

Lorenzo ran his hand through his tangled hair and poured himself another beer. The foam gushed over the top of the glass and onto the table cloth. He didn't bother to wipe it up.

I reviewed our shooting schedule: "Tomorrow we'll be with Judith Schanda, Hannah's English teacher; Tuesday, a trip to the Jewish cemetery; and Wednesday, an interview with Pal Sas, Hannah's first cousin. On Thursday, Peter, you and Lorenzo will fly to Tel Aviv to interview Hannah's mother, and I will go back to the states to raise the rest of the money." I was not at all sure I could find another "angel" for the film, but if the footage from this trip was solid, my chances were a lot better. And waiting until we had all the money was out of the question. Mrs. Schanda was in her late eighties, and Mrs. Senesh had just celebrated her ninetieth birthday.

After we finished dinner, Peter bought us a round of melon liqueur. I felt light-headed, so I excused myself. My bed was turned down, and the pillows were piled up against the wooden headboard. As I was undressing, my telephone rang. I slowly picked up the receiver. Static. "Hello, hello." I heard a click and then silence. I called the front desk. "Did you just place a call to my room?"
"No, madam. There have been no calls for you today."

I thought, Then it must be someone inside the hotel who knows my room number. I bolted my door and drew the curtains, blocking out the light beneath my window. I expected to see a man with a fedora pushed down over his forehead, leaning against the lamp post and smoking a cigarette.


At six-thirty, a waiter brought my breakfast tray and the English edition of the Herald Tribune—I looked at the date—August 7, 1987. Had Hannah survived, she would be 66 years old, perhaps living in Israel.

I wondered why I was so drawn to Hannah's story. I took being Jewish for granted and did not have to work very hard to claim myself a Jew. My parents had left Manhattan to live a more assimilated life in suburbia, avoiding the strong arm of my Orthodox grandparents, who demanded my mother keep kosher, something she eagerly abandoned (like so many other escapees) once she set up camp in Harrison, New York. I was confirmed—an invention of the most liberal and lenient arm of Judaism—at the Rye Reformed Synagogue rather than being put through the rigors of a bat mitzvah.

Nor did I have any particular love for the land of Zion. When I was 19, I went with my grandmother Sylvia to Israel. She was very proud that her family had given to the Hadassah Hospital and helped establish the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. At the time, I wasn't sure what all this had to do with me, and I was offended by the young kibbutzniks who told me, "You cannot truly be a Jew unless you live here."

I answered, "If it were not for American Jews like my family, there would be no Israeli hospitals, universities, museums, hotels. It is our money that is helping to build your country."

Had Hannah Senesh been among those kibbutzniks, she would have said, "There is but one place on earth in which we are not refugees, not immigrants, but where we are returning home—Eretz Israel."


The trolley car bell clanged loudly. I grabbed my pocketbook and locked the door. The caged elevator was several flights above me, filled with tourists, so I ran down the two flights to the lobby. Peter and Lorenzo were already waiting in the taxicab they had ordered the night before. I was surprised that everything seemed to be running so efficiently.

The front seat was filled with camera equipment. I squeezed into the back seat between Peter and Lorenzo. It was hot and humid, but the driver did not want to run the air conditioning. Sweat trickled down Lorenzo's cheeks, catching in the thicket of his beard. Peter intermittently wiped his forehead with his handkerchief.

The taxi veered sharply uphill away from the Danube toward Mrs. Schanda's house, where Hannah had spent her afternoons learning English with her brother, George. Peter leaned forward and tapped the driver on the shoulder, "Here—number eighteen."

Peter rang the doorbell to the small house hidden behind a privet; Mrs. Schanda looked through the lace curtains. Recognizing Peter, she opened the door. "Come in quickly. The police chief lives across the street. If his wife sees you with that camera equipment, we will be surrounded in no time."

Peter kissed Mrs. Schanda's hand."Judith, my mother sends her warmest regards to you. Thank you for allowing us to visit you today."

Mrs. Schanda led us into her dark library. Lorenzo loaded film into his camera and focused an adjustable light. One of the shelves had a gauzy black curtain shielding the books; she drew back the curtain. "Here is where I keep Hannah's books."

I asked Mrs. Schanda, "May I look?"

She nodded.

I took one of Hannah's notebooks off the shelf and stared at the neat, round handwriting. "I have won my school's literary prize, but they will not give it to me because I am Jewish." I had heard this story many times, but to see it recorded in Hannah's own writing made it real. It was no longer just another "what they did to the Jews." It was this affront that motivated Hannah to leave her bourgeois surroundings and emigrate to a kibbutz in Palestine, working the desert land to turn it into a paradise for Jews the world over.

Mrs. Schanda opened the back door to her garden; the perfume from the roses smelled so sweet in contrast to the mustiness of the closed rooms. I admired Mrs. Schanda's shiny auburn hair. She hardly looked 88 years old.

Peter asked her, "You and Mrs. Senesh were best friends; when the Nazis started rounding up the Jews, where did Mrs. Senesh hide?"

Peter knew the answer, but I had instructed him to ask her the question. I wanted the film to inform its audience that not all Hungarians had collaborated with the Germans. There were good Hungarians who took care of their neighbors. By showing Righteous Gentiles, I had a better chance of securing a wider distribution for the film in countries formerly occupied by the Nazis.

Lorenzo interrupted, "Before you answer, Mrs. Schanda, I have to change the film; these reels only hold 20 minutes of footage."

Mrs. Schanda sat down on a bench. "In 1943, I contacted the Convent of the Sisters of St. Mary. The nuns agreed to take Mrs. Senesh in. Before she left, I taught her how to kneel, cross, and recite the catechism. When the Gestapo broke into the convent looking for Jews, they left her alone." Mrs. Schanda made the sign of the cross.

Peter asked, "And what happened to Hannah?"

"By the time the war broke out, she volunteered to join a paratrooper unit in Palestine trained by the British. Her plane left from Egypt and dropped its precious cargo in the dead of night. The paratroopers were separated. Hannah had a personal mission; she hoped to find her mother and save her from the Nazis. Crossing the Yugoslav border into the Hungarian forest, she was captured. She refused to divulge the secret radio code and was thrown into prison. Then the Hungarian collaborators dragged her mother to prison. She was in a cell just a few feet from Hannah."

Taking a rosary out of her pocket, Mrs. Schanda struggled for words, "The guards threatened to torture her mother if Hannah did not divulge the radio code. For five days they beat Hannah and kept her in a windowless cell. At night Hannah tried to communicate with the other inmates through signals. She sang one of the songs she wrote in Hebrew while in Palestine, "Eli, Eli—My God, My God." In prison, this is the last poem she wrote:

Twenty three next July I might have been...
I gambled on what mattered most.
The dice are cast—and I lost.

Hannah was tried and found guilty of treason. The soldiers who gunned her down reported she never flinched. She looked them straight in the eye. No one wanted to approach her crumpled body as it lay on its bed of snow. She was executed on November 7, 1944.

I thought, And where was I when Hannah died? Safely wrapped in a pink knitted blanket in my pram being wheeled through Central Park by my Czechoslovakian nanny.

When the war ended, Mrs. Senesh recovered her daughter's bullet-riddled body, which had been thrown into a pauper's grave, and buried her in the Jewish cemetery outside Budapest.

Lorenzo took a photograph of Mrs. Schanda holding a picture of Hannah and her brother George. The light in the garden was beginning to fade, and Mrs. Schanda looked tired. I signaled to Peter and Lorenzo that it was time to leave. Lorenzo turned off his camera and packed his bags.

Walking through the house, Mrs. Schanda stopped at the curtained shelf. "I have a poem that Hannah wrote while she was in prison: 'Life is a fleeting question mark.' You must be sure that your film answers the questions that Hannah's brief life asked all of us, please. What does our life mean and what do we stand for?

I embraced Mrs. Schanda. "Thank you for sharing your memories with us."

"No, it is I who should thank you for making this film. The more that people know who Hannah is, the more they will appreciate her courage, her heart, and her talent."

The taxi was waiting at the curb.

Lorenzo grumbled, "Damn, that was the best part of the interview, and my camera wasn't running."


The Jewish cemetery was about an hour's drive from the Hotel Gellert. The morning air was thick with humidity; it felt like it was about to rain. Foolishly, I was wearing stockings and a dress and jacket. I should have worn something more comfortable, but I felt compelled to cover up.

Peter ordered the driver to wait for us. A funeral procession blocked our way to the cemetery office.

An old woman, her hair tied in a faded kerchief, sat at a desk with one file separated from the pile on the floor. "You have come to visit the Senesh graves?"

Peter glanced at Lorenzo and me, signaling us not to look surprised that she knew of our mission.

"Yes, madam, we would greatly appreciate a map with the numbers of Hannah Senesh's grave and that of her father, Bela Senesh. We understand that Hannah's body has been transported to Israel, but we are still interested in seeing her gravesite."

She handed over a map with two plots circled in red. "No pictures—leave camera here." Peter smiled and handed her an envelope with the equivalent of 20 dollars in Hungarian money. She unlocked her desk drawer, put the money inside, and turned her back as we left.

The first few rows of the cemetery were well-maintained, but as we proceeded further from the iron gate, the graves were untended, and weeds and bushes overran the plots. My stockings caught on the thick vines. The sun had come out, and beams of light cut their way through the gnarled trees illuminating the moss-covered tombstones. Many of the names were partially worn away: COHE, ITZKO, WIEN... apparently there was no one left to care for these graves.

I thought of my father's grave, neatly tended at the Beth Olom Cemetery in Queens, New York, where my grandparents, Sylvia and Isidor Rubin, and my great grandparents, Bella and Israel, were also laid to rest. There, caretakers made their weekly rounds, pulling up offending weeds, and loving relatives placed rocks to signal their visitation.

Peter and Lorenzo kept moving ahead further into the darkening terrain, relying on instinct to find Hannah's gravesite. I followed them, swatting the dragonflies and bees that flitted past my head.

Lorenzo yelled, "There is an opening. I can see something up ahead."

In the clearing, there was a granite stile with "CZENES, CHANA" chiseled into the base. A sculptor had carved the figure of a young girl, her back facing the viewer, with her left arm raised high in defiance against her enemies.

Peter spoke into the camera. "Here is where Hannah was laid to rest until her body was rightfully claimed by Israel for all the world to see." I wiped the stone with my handkerchief. I did not know the words to Kaddish, the Jewish mourner's prayer, so I bowed my head and silently thanked the universe for giving me the freedom to be a Jew, in any way I chose. I asked Lorenzo to take a photograph of me standing next to Hannah's grave.

Peter, Lorenzo, and I retraced our steps. Swarthy gravediggers sat on tombstones playing cards, laughing and drinking beer. Near the entrance to the cemetery was a large, black granite monument with row upon row of Jewish names carved into the stone. On the top were words in Hungarian, which Peter translated for me: "Hate killed them; but love keeps their memory alive."


Our film was never completed. I was not able to raise the finishing funds, and our team dispersed. Lorenzo moved back to the United States and made a film with his daughter in Philadelphia. Peter moved to Vancouver with his wife and served as a consultant to a well-known television producer who made the film, Blessed Is the Match, the title of Hannah Senesh's best known poem. The producers had enough money to pay Hannah's heirs for the use of her diaries, letters and poems, which were an essential part of Hannah's story. I have no regrets. I found the Hannah I was seeking, the Hannah who helped me identify the most important questions that every human being must ask: what does your life stand for, what do you believe in, and, if necessary, what price are you willing to pay to follow your beliefs? I am still searching for the answers—thrashing through shadowy brambles and vines—but the pursuit is everything.


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