The young Jewish woman the Hungarian police arrested on the Slovene border in March 1944 was only 22. She carried a wireless transmitter and was operating as a British paratrooper officer.
Her name was Hannah Szenes (Senesh) and she’d crossed from what was then German-occupied Yugoslavia to assist Hungary’s Jews at the time of the Nazi invasion.
Eight months later, having been brutally tortured, Hannah was shot.
To my shame, Hannah wasn’t someone I’d heard of before I started researching a novel about wartime Yugoslavia: The Lines We Leave Behind. While the stories of Violette Szabo and Odette Sansom and other female agents sent into wartime France are fairly well known, I couldn’t find evidence of female Allied operatives in wartime Yugoslavia until I came across Hannah’s gripping story.
Hannah Szenes was Hungarian-Jewish by birth. In 1939 her family encouraged her to emigrate from her comfortable Budapest home to Palestine. Hannah could have stayed there safely during the war. Instead she signed up for British paratrooper training and was dropped with a team into occupied Yugoslavia. Her mission involved helping the Partisans find and rescue downed Allied airmen. But the group’s second objective was to make for Budapest to help organise Jewish resistance in advance of the Nazi invasion of Hungary.
By the time Hannah’s party landed in Yugoslavia, the Nazis had already invaded Hungary, meaning this element of the mission would be even more dangerous.
Hannah wasn’t deterred and insisted on crossing the border, along with a male colleague.
Tragically, she was caught by the Hungarian police almost immediately. Her German interrogators wanted the code for her wireless transmitter. Hannah refused to give it to them despite torture including clubbing. She lost several teeth. Her mother was eventually brought into the prison in an unsuccessful attempt to intimidate her into talking.
Hannah continued to keep her own spirits and those of her fellow captives high until she was shot by a German firing squad in November 1944, following a trial by a Hungarian military tribunal for treason.
The post-war Hungarian state exonerated her of this charge and Hannah’s remains were brought to Israel for reburial in 1950.
My novel isn’t a retelling of Hannah’s story, but I was so enthralled by it that I based a female paratrooper, Naomi, on her. Naomi is determined to give her all for the Hungarian Jewish community she left behind before the war. Sometimes her bloody-mindedness drives everyone mad, but they admire her guts.
Naomi is also betrayed, tortured and executed before she can carry out her mission. For the purposes of my narrative, this occurs in Yugoslavia, rather than Hungary, as a cover-up for an act of treachery, but I hope there’s something of Hannah’s real-life qualities in my character.
In one of her last poems the real Hannah Szenes wrote a line I believe perfectly describes her own life: Blessed is the match consumed in kindling flame.
Eliza Graham’s The Lines We Leave Behind is published by Lake Union and is available now.
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