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Living A Life Of Valor

I don’t think I’m a very brave person.

I’m normally quite timid, and taking a stand is something that does not come naturally to me. I sometimes hesitate to say what I really think for fear of how others will react, and I often find it easy to fade into the background in large groups. Even now as I am writing this, I have the keyboard and the computer screen serving as a shield between myself and whoever reads this. My inherent shyness is why I am fascinated by women who are bold, strong, and unafraid; by women who fight for what they believe in, and who can stand their ground without faltering. One such woman is Hannah Szenes, and part of what makes her such a powerful figure is that in the face of absolute horror, she kept writing poetry.

Szenes was a Hungarian Jew who, during WWII, took part in a daring rescue mission endorsed by the Allies to aid Jews in danger of being deported to Auschwitz. As a member of the British army, Szenes and a group of thirty paratroopers trained together in Egypt and were then dropped over Yugoslavia. On foot, the group crossed the border into Hungary. Tragically, Szenes was almost immediately captured by the German forces occupying Hungary, and was taken to prison. In her cell, she was beaten and whipped for days, suffering serious injuries and losing several of her teeth. Despite this unrelenting torture and threats on her mother’s life, she never revealed the location of her fellow soldiers.

Words cannot express how thankful I am that I do not live in a time like Szenes’. My life has remained unperturbed by war. I was too young to remember the two planes crashing into the World Trade Center on September 11th, 2001, and I live in a town where Judaism is not only accepted, but is really quite common. I have never had to put my life on the line, or risk myself to save my friends or my people. Honestly, I’m not sure that I could. In my society, I have permission to speak openly and freely, to protest, to demonstrate, to call out—and I don’t. I live in a world scarred by poor race relations, gender inequality, poverty, sexual and domestic abuse—and I do a fraction of what I could be doing to help. I’m scared and selfish in a way that Szenes was not. She was completely selfless, willing to put herself directly in harm’s way if it meant saving another. She was able to do the right thing time and time again when she had so much to lose. And sadly, in the end, she lost it all.

Hannah Szenes was executed for treason on November 4th, 1944. I hear her story every year at a Yom Kippur service called The Martyrology, a ceremony at my grandmother’s temple that takes time before Yizkor (the memorial service for loved ones who have passed on) to honor Jews who have lost their lives in war. When the Rabbi reads the paragraph detailing her death, I get chills up my spine every time he says, “She refused the blindfold.” I can picture the scene in my head—Szenes defiantly staring at the soldiers with their raised guns, a fire in her eyes. It’s a haunting image, it’s a strong one; in a way it’s strangely beautiful. She never seems to appear weak or helpless. She is present and in control of her life until her last moment.

Szenes’ last poem was written on the wall of her cell:

One-two-three…eight feet long

Two strides across, the rest is dark…

Life is a fleeting question mark

One-two-three…maybe another week.

Or the next month may still find me here,

But death, I feel is very near.

I could have been 23 next July

I gambled on what mattered most,

The dice were cast, I lost.

Szenes’ courage in such a dark situation reminds me that, in my own safe environment, I can afford to be brave. It seems as though she was at peace with her situation, acknowledging it in that simple, final line: I lost.  Her resilience in the darkness of her world and her determination to stand her ground shows unparalleled strength. In a world where it is socially acceptable for both young people and women to raise their voices, I hate that it’s taken me so long to learn how to stand up and to proudly say what I think. But now I am working toward making my voice heard and losing the passive edge that my speech always seems to have. In my own way, I am learning how to fight. 

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Hannah Szenes in Uniform, 1944
Full image
Hannah Szenes in a Hungarian army uniform as a Purim costume, 1944.
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How to cite this page

Groustra, Sarah. "Living A Life Of Valor." 6 November 2015. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on December 15, 2017) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/living-life-of-valor>.

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