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April 19, 2010

"Blessed is the Match:" The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh on PBS

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Hannah sanesh

I'd never heard of Hannah Senesh before recently watching the documentary, Blessed is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh. After learning her story, I can't help but be reminded how ordinary individuals can do extraordinary things when prompted by extreme circumstances.

Released in 2008, Blessed is the Match tells the story of Hungarian Jew Hannah Senesh, who volunteered in 1944, with a small band of Palestinian Jews, to parachute into Nazi-occupied Europe on a mission to make contact with resistance fighters and attempt to rescue Jews.

The film, which is narrated by actress Joan Allen, was released on DVD on April 13th and airs on PBS's series "Independent Lens" this week (check your local listings for dates).

Born to a wealthy Hungarian family, Senesh lived a privileged life as the daughter of a well-known playwright until he died of a heart attack at 33. As a teenager, Senesh experienced anti-Semitism firsthand, and dreamed of moving to Palestine and helping to build an independent Jewish state.

She'd accomplished that goal when WWII broke out, and at the age of 22, decided she needed to be part of the fight.

The documentary is worthwhile as an educational experience, but as a film, it has its flaws. The first half especially is somewhat of a paint-by-numbers affair: This is what Hannah did as a child, this is what Hannah did as a student, this is what Hannah did as a teenager.

And though much of the documentary includes readings from Hannah's diary, it's the recitation of some of her poems that give the most insight into Hannah's character.

Photographs and interviews with historians, cellmates, Hannah's nephew and one of her comrades on that ill-fated mission in Europe, are supplemented by dramatizations with actors and actresses. Though the dramatizations are well integrated into the narrative, I found myself missing the tension I should have felt during some of the crucial scenes of Hannah's captivity.

Having said that, the film's shortcomings can't diminish the power of what Hannah Senesh tried to do: not wanting her people to wait for rescue from others but wanting Jews to help save other Jews.

"Blessed is the Match" is the title of a poem Senesh wrote and left with one of her comrades right before crossing the Hungarian border from Yugoslavia and eventually being captured. It reads:

Blessed is the match consumed in kindling flame
Blessed is the flame that burns in the secret fastness of the heart
Blessed if the heart with strength to stop its beating for honour's sake
Blessed is the match consumed in kindling flame.

Nancy at Growing Up in Faith appreciates Hannah Senesh's poetry, and her themes about making a difference in the world:

Hannah Senesh was right: We need to work and pray for the things that are important, those things we want to last, and in doing that perhaps we will become one of those people who do make a difference and light the way for others.

Sir Martin Gilbert, a historian interviewed in the documentary got it right when he said:

"It's very difficult when talking about any wartime mission to talk about success or failure. It clearly failed in that Hannah Senesh and her people were captured and they were unable to carry out their task but in the wider sense, of course it succeeded. It succeeded because it took place. The might of the German army was overwhelmed. Hundreds of millions of Europeans were captive peoples. And here was this little group of a Palestinian Jews who said, "We're going to try to do something.

And Tiferet explains on her blog that she found the documentary incredibly moving. She also has a special connection to the poem, "Blessed is the Match:"

Many years ago I put together 7 photo albums commemorating the arrival of my mother, her brother and 5 sisters from Germany where they went into hiding to save their lives. My grandmother who died in Auschwitz and for whom I always think of this time of year was also from Hungary and probably lived very close to Hannah...she too put up resistance against the Nazis and helped other Jews as much as she could within Germany. I have placed this poem written by Hannah Senesh besides the picture of my grandmother in this photo album.

So like Hannah's mission, despite the film's failures, it's still a success.

Related Links:

An interview with filmmaker Roberta Grossman at Women and Hollywood

A review of the film by Jessica Mosby or The WIP.net

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