From the Senesh Family Archive, with thanks to Ori and Mirit Eisen
Anyone who even casually follows the course of Hannah Senesh’s life quickly discovers her biography’s common thread: Hannah Senesh (often spelled Szenes) never stopped writing. Even before she learned to write herself, she composed poems and stories. When she was a teenager, she was accepted to the literary council of her prestigious school (though she was forced her to give up her place due to antisemitism). From the moment she arrived in Mandatory Palestine, she wrote—first in Hungarian and then, very quickly, in Hebrew as well. She even continued writing when she returned to European soil, after embarking on the parachute mission from which she never returned.
In fact, Senesh continued writing until her final moments. She even wrote a poem while being held in her prison cell. The Senesh Family Archive at the National Library of Israel, however, preserves the very last lines she wrote in her lifetime. Following her execution, a tiny, brief note was found in her dress, written in Hungarian. It was addressed to her mother Katherine, as Hannah, who never stopped writing her whole life, finally chose to emphasize the value of silence:
Dear mother, I don’t know what to tell you. I will only say this: A thousand thanks and more, and forgive me, if you can. After all, you will understand, better than anyone else, that words are not necessary now. With great love, your daughter.
This note is now part of Senesh Family Archive at the National Library of Israel.
This was not the only note or letter that Hannah wrote while in Europe. Senesh left Palestine in January 1944. In March, she was flown to Italy, and shortly afterwards parachuted into Yugoslavia, into the heart of enemy territory. She wandered among the local partisan forces for about three months, waiting for an opportunity to continue her mission and infiltrate the country of her birth, Hungary. At the beginning of June 1944, the mission commanders thought the time had come—but Senesh was captured the same day, shortly after crossing the border. Charged with espionage, she spent the final five months of her life, until her execution, in prison.
Over the years, stories have surfaced about what she managed to write during her months with the partisans and even during her imprisonment. One of these is the story of “Blessed Is the Match”, one of Senesh’s best-known poems. Senesh passed the note on which she wrote the four-line poem to her comrade Reuven Dafni, just before crossing into Hungary. Dafni recounted how she asked him to take the note in case she didn’t return from the mission, and how he threw it away, saying there was no chance she would not return. Fortunately, he went back to retrieve it. How exactly it made its way to Israel we do not know, but this is one of her last poems. The original note in Senesh’s handwriting is held at Kibbutz Lohamei Hageta’ot.
Blessed is the match consumed in kindling flame.
Blessed is the flame that burns in the secret fastness of the heart.
Blessed is the heart with strength to stop its beating for honor’s sake.
Blessed is the match consumed in kindling flame.
In November 2020, the Senesh family decided to deposit the Hannah Senesh Collection in the National Library of Israel. The collection includes several more notes and letters that Senesh wrote after leaving the country for her dangerous mission. Among these are two notes Senesh sent to her mother Katherine and her brother Giora (George) on March 13th, 1944, two days before her jump. The two small notes were written in pencil in Hungarian. Senesh wrote to her mother, who was still in Budapest at the time:
My dear mother, in a few days I will be so close to you, yet at once also far away. Please forgive me and try to understand me. A million hugs. Anna.
She wrote the date at the bottom. On the back she wrote in Hebrew “To mother” and signed with her codename, Hagar.
These notes, along with other letters sent by Senesh during her time in Europe, form a sort of path by which we can trace the events of her final days, during her dangerous mission in Europe. Brief regards, a plea for forgiveness, even poems – Hannah Senesh wrote all of these during the last months of her life, until the very last moment.
The materials above are part of the Senesh Family Archive, with thanks to Ori and Mirit Eisen
Annual Docu.Text Documentary Film Festival Going Online
The sixth annual Docu.Text Documentary Film Festival will take place online from the 15th to the 25th of November, 2020
Two parallel online festivals will be held November 15-25: one for international audiences and one for audiences in Israel, both of them featuring award-winning documentary films, Q&A sessions, and an array of special events.
The international festival will highlight some of the best Israeli documentary films from years past, including, among others:
The Docu.Text Film Festival is produced in collaboration with the Docaviv Film Festival. International Docu.Text is part of “Gesher L’Europa”, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to share stories and connect with people, institutions and communities in Europe and beyond.
All events are free of charge and open to the local and global public, Zoom registration required.
All film screenings are available for streaming by purchase only.
Based on the user IP address, viewers will only have access to films from the Israeli festival or the international festival.
Two days into the talks, the Israelis realized they needed a representative from the southern front. Its commander, Yigal Allon, had refused to go. Allon’s protégé, Rabin, also strongly preferred to stay in Israel, where the fighting continued.
Both men had served with distinction as part of the Palmach, the elite fighting force which Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion had recently disbanded, its troops integrated into the newly formed Israel Defense Army (now more commonly referred to as the “Israel Defense Forces” or “IDF”).
Palmach fighters had prided themselves in a particular ideology that was in many ways antithetical to the “textbook” conduct of a professional military. In the Palmach, chains of command were blurred, the pageantry of military life nonexistent.
Even after ranks were introduced to the IDF in the summer of 1948, Rabin and others wore them sparingly. The concept of a dress uniform was foreign, unnecessary and disdained.
Despite his reservations, the young Rabin was sent to join the small Israeli delegation at the luxurious Hotel des Roses.
With the exception, perhaps, of Allon himself, Rabin was certainly the most qualified man to represent the interests of the southern front at the talks, possessing an intimate and battle-worn familiarity with the terrain.
Perhaps most importantly – from Allon’s perspective – Rabin would faithfully promote the strategic interests the two felt most critically needed to be represented and defended in such discussions, especially as they strongly disagreed with many of the opinions held by the others already in Rhodes.
As the front’s deputy commander and chief operations officer, Rabin was quickly stepping out of Allon’s shadow.
In Yitzhak Rabin: Soldier, Leader, Statesman, Itamar Rabinovich explains that around the time of the talks in Rhodes, Rabin “began to be seen on his own as a first-class military planner, the officer who meticulously mapped out the major operations in the south and then supervised their implementation.”
After years of dreaming of a return to the agricultural life for which he’d trained as a teenager, Rabin’s trajectory as a career soldier had now become quite clear. Still a few years shy of 30, he had already achieved one of the highest ranks in the IDF (even though he preferred not to wear it on his sleeve), and was now preparing for his first appearance on the international diplomatic scene.
Never having needed one, he had no dress uniform for the occasion, though, fortunately, one was procured for him.
Recently, another Israeli military official had needed formal attire for a meeting with King Abdullah of Transjordan. For that occasion, a soldier had been dispatched to a Tel Aviv thrift store where he purchased a used World War II American dress uniform, which – now all but threadbare – would be worn by Rabin to meet the Egyptians and United Nations mediators in Rhodes.
A necktie would also be necessary. This, too, Rabin had never worn, nor did he know how to tie (or untie) one.
Walter Eytan, the director general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry and head of its delegation to Rhodes had a spare British-knit khaki tie which he gave to the young officer. Though different stories about the necktie were told over the years, it seems that a number of people, including Eytan, fellow Palmach fighter Yeruham Cohen, and even Rabin’s driver, all tried to teach him the proper way to tie a tie.
Rabin was quite dexterous and had once intended to study hydraulic engineering, yet he famously had trouble mastering the necktie at the Hotel des Roses.
Ultimately, the story goes, his driver graciously tied it for him, leaving it loose so that it just had to be tightened in order to show up to meetings and dinner looking presentable.
“I was terrified of the prospect that the knot might come undone,” the future prime minister later recalled in his memoirs.
Despite the assistance, no one had explained how to properly loosen or remove a necktie, and when he went to the hotel’s barber and was asked to take the tie off, Rabin struggled mightily, eventually forcefully yanking it over his head.
Top Egyptian negotiator Colonel Seif a-Din, with whom Rabin had become friendly, witnessed the event with astonishment. The prime minister would later muse that the distinguished Arab officer probably thought at the time: “What kind of savages am I dealing with here?”
Following initial coldness and Egyptian refusal to speak directly with the Israelis or even sit in the same room as them, the two sides would not only come to engage with one another in the context of the official negotiations and the barbershop, but would also socialize between meetings, often playing billiards, a game Rabin first learned (and reportedly mastered) at the Hotel des Roses.
Before boarding the UN charter flight to Rhodes, Rabin had been instructed by his mentor Yigal Allon to accept nothing less than a full peace and to not allow Egypt to retain the territory which would become known as the Gaza Strip.
In his first international diplomatic role, the man who would serve as ambassador to the United States before becoming prime minister reportedly said nothing in any of the official meetings between the sides, though certainly not because he didn’t have anything to contribute to the conversation.
In fact, he served as an active and critical adviser behind the scenes, so important in that capacity that when he asked to leave the island after becoming disillusioned with the direction of the negotiations, General Yigal Yadin refused to let him go.
A number of factors likely contributed to Rabin’s mute presence at the official meetings.
In his comprehensive Hebrew-language biography of the Israeli leader, historian Yossi Goldstein proposes a few reasons, including Rabin’s introverted character, his poor English at the time, his respect for the more senior members of the delegation and – perhaps most significantly, according to Goldstein – the disagreements he had with his colleagues.
He himself recalled being “hardly enraptured by the charms of diplomatic ‘give and take'” at the time.
Nonetheless, according to Rabinovich, who served as Rabin’s ambassador to the United States and chief negotiator to Syria in the 1990s:
“This first experience in diplomacy and negotiations had a lasting effect on Rabin. The lesson he drew from the Rhodes negotiations was that it would be wrong for Israel to negotiate with a group of Arab states because the radical parties would force their line on the others. He would always try to negotiate with one Arab party at a time.”
As the agreement with the Egyptians was being finalized, it became clear that while some of Rabin’s suggestions made their way into the document, especially with regard to the demarcation of armistice lines, neither of Allon’s two primary objectives had been achieved.
Disagreeing with the prime minister and other senior members of Israel’s leadership, Rabin concurred with Allon in his prescient belief that without securing these demands, war would simply break out again in the not-too-distant future.
Prior to the signing, Yitzhak Rabin boarded a flight home, unwilling to be a part of something he viewed as strategically perilous for the future of Israel and eager to help Allon secure control of the Negev.
Continued border tension and four more wars would take place between Israel and Egypt before a comprehension peace treaty was finally reached 30 years later.
Many thanks to Ambassador Itamar Rabinovich for generously contributing his time and expertise.
This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to share stories and connect with people, institutions and communities in Europe and beyond.
How a Map Torn From a Newspaper Helped Decide a Critical Battle of the Yom Kippur War
The Yom Kippur War of 1973 was utter chaos. Armored corps soldiers who joined the battle in the Valley of Tears on the Golan Heights were not familiar with the terrain and couldn't find a proper map to guide them, so they improvised…
Thank you for contacting us. A librarian will be with you shortly.
Sarah, 3:22 pm:
Hello, my name is Sara. Welcome to the National Library’s live chat. How may I help you?
Amnon, 3:23 pm:
Hello Sarah, I was wondering if you might have a copy of the front page of the Haaretz newspaper, dated October 7th, 1973?
(A chat conversation between Amnon Kafkafi and Sara Yahalomi from the National Library’s Reference Department)
With four more months left to serve in the army, Amnon Kafkafi was on leave and staying at his parents’ house in Ramat Hasharon in central Israel. The year was 1973. Around two o’clock in the afternoon, an alarm broke the silence of Yom Kippur.
A few months earlier, Kafkafi had left his position as a tank commander in the 82nd Battalion of the 7th Armored Brigade, and therefore he was not called back to his unit. Nevertheless, he quickly put on his uniform while reassuring his mother that “it will be alright”. His father drove him down to the nearby highway. He then hitchhiked the rest of the way to the battalion’s base, Natan Camp near Be’er Sheva in Israel’s southern Negev region.
The base was nearly empty when he reached it. Amnon wasn’t aware that the unit’s soldiers had already boarded a flight on the eve of Yom Kippur from the local airfield to Mahanaim, in Israel’s north. He did not know that they had been assigned tanks and gear from the nearby emergency warehouses and sent to fight the Syrians on the frontline in the Golan Heights. The battalion adjutant, the lieutenant on base, ordered him and the other soldiers that arrived to stay on base and assist in various tasks.
They were far away from the critical frontline, where their battalion was deployed. Kafkafi called the Armored Corps Headquarters. The commanding officer asked if there were any tanks at Kafkafi’s base. Kafkafi replied that there was a T-54 tank in front of the battalion commander’s office, loot from the Six-Day War. The officer replied, “I’m sending a transporter vehicle for the tank,” forcing Kafkafi to admit he had only been joking, and that the tank’s frame was merely a monument and completely out of use. The officer told Kafkafi they needed tank operators on the frontline but that he could not spare a vehicle to collect Kafkafi and the others.
Kafkafi told the base adjutant that after two days of hard work, he and his friends wanted to go refresh themselves at Montana Ice Cream, within walking distance of the base. The lieutenant said, “No problem, just don’t forget to bring me back some ice cream too.” The soldiers indeed went out for ice cream, Kafkafi called his mother from a pay phone and told her he was on the base near Be’er Sheva and that there was no need to worry. Then, the seven tank operators crossed the road and began a hitchhiking journey up north, to the frontline.
Amnon, 3:27 pm
On that date, the day after the Yom Kippur War broke out, a map of the battlefield in the Golan was published. This was the only map I had when I fought in the Valley of Tears. Can I get a copy of this map or of the entire front page?
Sarah, 3:29 pm
We can send you the picture, but if you come here, you can get a copy at a much better price.
Amnon, 3:29 pm
I’m not sure if the map was published on October 7th or 8th, how can I find out before I order the page?
Sarah, 3:30 p.m.
I can check that for you.
Amnon, 3:30 p.m.
I’d be extremely grateful…
(A chat conversation between Amnon Kafkafi and Sara Yahalomi from the Library’s Reference Department)
“I was asked by a historian studying the war to put into writing everything that had happened,” says Kafkafi. “What sets my tank’s story apart in the war, is that because of the chaos of the first few days, the soldiers in my tank and I had to operate in an extremely unconventional manner. No one in the army ever thought people would go to war the way we did. Guys who had returned from leave and were no longer a part of the unit just took the initiative. Guys who had completed their service as tank operators a few months earlier, guys who chose to go to the frontline and hitchhiked all the way there. We took an unequipped tank, that could not shoot but could only be used for running the enemy over and just found the rest of the gear later [when they found abandoned IDF tanks on the Golan Heights]. We found everything we needed except for a map, because it is forbidden to leave maps behind.”
“We climbed up the hill and arrived at dawn on Monday, October 8th, at Camp Philon [on the Golan Heights]. The operations office did not know the exact location of our unit, but they said that the 7th Brigade was assigned the northern front and that the 82nd Battalion no longer existed. I figured this ‘news’ must be false, because after all we were dealing with a long day of battle. We all had in mind the commanders’ promise that anyone who hit an enemy tank would win a bottle of champagne.”
“At Camp Philon we reunited with the four guys who traveled with us from Montana Ice Cream and together we decided we should go eat breakfast. We found the mess hall and asked the NCO in charge to give us food or at least some bread and cheese. He refused and said we were not assigned to his base and therefore were not entitled to food. We left there empty-handed. I found a newspaper from the previous day with small maps of “The Battlefields in the South and North.” I cut out the map of the Golan Heights, its size was approximately 5×9 centimeters, with a drawing of the Sea of Galilee and to the right an arched line marking the border… I buried it in the pocket of my jumpsuit; it served us from that point on.”
(From the Hebrew book Ashnav 3 [“Window 3: My Yom Kippur War – The Story of a Tank Squad”] by Amnon Kafkafi)
Sarah, 3:30 p.m.
You saw the newspaper, and took it with you to war?
Amnon, 3:31 pm
I saw the newspaper and cut out the small map and kept it in my pocket. When I arrived at the emergency storage unit to be assigned a tank, there were no maps left, and so I navigated according to the newspaper clipping…
Sarah, 3:32 pm
Amnon, 3:32 pm
Sarah, 3:32 pm
This was before every six-year-old had a navigation tool on their phone.
Amnon, 3:32 pm
I am now writing a memoir and would love to attach that fully schematic map to it.
Amnon, 3:33 pm
In 1973 there were no cellphones…
(A chat conversation between Amnon Kafkafi and Sara Yahalomi from the Library’s Reference Department)
“I knew I wouldn’t find the map in our digital collection of historical Jewish press and that I would have to search the microfilm collection,” says Yahalomi. “I knew he needed help here. He thought the map was published in the Haaretz newspaper and I searched and found a map on microfilm from October 8th, two days after the war broke out. I was sure it was the map from the war and sent it to him.”
2017-01-01 18:02 GMT + 02: 00 Sara Yahalomi:
We spoke last Wednesday about the Golan Heights map you were searching for in the Haaretz newspaper.
I am happy to inform you that it was found on the second page of the newspaper printed on October 8th, 1973 (I hope this is indeed the right map).
It is attached to this email in two formats – pdf and jpg.
I must admit I was deeply touched by your story and it was an honor for me to find the map that served you in battle.
(I just wanted to clarify, so as not to create false expectations in the future, that this is not a standard service provided by the Library.)
Sarah Yahalomi | Librarian
The Reference Department, Public Services Branch
It is very pleasant to meet (even if only on chat) someone who keeps their word, someone who is willing to go out of their way; someone who is simply moved by a simple story that took place 43 years ago.
Thank you so much for your help.
Did you check the Haaretz newspaper dated October 7th, 1973? I think there was an even less-detailed map published there, that did not specify the location of the Syrian attack. I’m not sure this is indeed the map I had back then. Maybe I was wrong altogether and the map in question was published in Yedioth Ahronoth or Maariv. Anyway, I think it was published on the front page on October 7th.
I have no doubt, Sarah, that what you have done for me is exceptional and not a standard library service, and for that I am truly grateful.
Please send my regards to your tank-operator nephew and wish him well.
Yahalomi continued to search for the map in the computerized archive of Yedioth Ahronoth, to which the National Library system is linked; she found a map that fit the description and sent it to Amnon Kafkafi.
2017-01-12 18:15 GMT + 02: 00 Sara Yahalomi:
I’ve attached a photo of a map published in Yedioth Ahronoth on October 7th, 1973.
Sara Yahalomi, librarian
The Reference Department, Public Services Branch
You are the best!
This is the map just as I had remembered it. Granted, it is not in Haaretz nor is it on the front page – after so many years, memory can be deceptive. In any case, this is without a doubt the only map I had and with which we navigated our tank the whole time we were in the Golan, until our tank was hit and destroyed in the last holding action in the Valley of Tears.
I thank you from the bottom of my heart for all your efforts.
And Sara Yahalomi adds: “It was an especially moving request. Can you picture the situation? Four guys in a tank with no map! Today, we use Waze for every little thing. They fought with a map they found in a newspaper! It was so surreal and unusual that I decided I wanted to help. Finding the map was exciting as was getting Amnon’s confirmation that it was indeed the map he was looking for.
“I have a nephew who is a tank operator, so the story touched me on a more personal level,” says Yahalomi. “The work of the Reference Department is oftentimes technical, but what’s exciting is that behind the technical searches are people to whom the information we find means a great deal. Amnon contacted us via chat but each of us here responds to about 800 chats every year; yet there was something special about this request.”
Kafkafi and the other tank operators barely knew the terrain of the Golan Heights. They were trained in the deserts of the Sinai Peninsula. Before he joined the army, Kafkafi spent a few years in Washington D.C. where his parents worked at the Israeli embassy. He was therefore not familiar with the Golan, which had been conquered by Israel only a short while earlier.
“The size of the map I clipped from the newspaper (which you were so wonderful in helping me find) was a few centimeters; it was totally schematic,” says Kafkafi. “It outlined and marked the Sea of Galilee and the border. It was almost worthless, but still it was the only map available. So, I cut it out and put it in my pocket.”
“Aside from the nostalgia – for 43 years I remembered that map we carried around with us – it is an indication of how unready and disorganized we were. Heading out with a tank that wasn’t intact, with ex-tank operators who took the liberty and initiative to go out to war, reached the frontline and took part in the most significant and critical battles of the Yom Kippur War in the Golan Heights. The fighting in the Golan Heights was literally a battle for the borders of the country. The Syrians reached almost as far as the Sea of Galilee.”
Kafkafi in an interview with Israel Hayom from September 12th, 2013, on reconnecting with Shmulik Zemel, who was with him in the tank during that same battle: “We had a very brief but intense experience together. We didn’t know each other before the war and spent only two days together, but we were there in the most difficult battles of the war. At the end of the last holding action in the Valley of Tears, our tank was hit. One of our tank-mates was killed and a fourth tank operator was killed shortly after, while on his way to a memorial ceremony in memory of his brother who was killed in action. Zemel and I were injured. At one point, I knew two of my squad mates were killed and I did not know what happened to the third; was he dead or alive? And if he was alive – what had happened to him since? And so it was important to me to find him and recall our experiences.”
An email from Shmuel Zemel to Kafkafi:
“We were a small cog in the machine but as they say on Hanukkah: ‘Each one of us is a small light. But together we are a mighty light.’
Indeed, that morning in the Valley of Tears can be seen as a tiebreaker, in which the side that did not break won, because in the end it still had a bit of strength left, and we were (like each of the other fighters) that ‘extra little bit’ needed to prevail!
Send my warm regards to Mickey and take care of yourself.
I wish you good health and may you take great joy in your grandchildren.
“We went out [to war] scared for the fate of the State,” Kafkafi concludes, “and ‘Raful’ [division commander Brigadier General Rafael Eitan, later Chief of Staff] truly said of the fighters on the northern front: ‘You are the ones who saved the State.’ Today they call it ‘engaging in combat’ or ‘initiating contact’ – we were guys who understood the significance of the events and did what had to be done in order to help out. And in the end, we succeeded. And we did it without a real map.”
This article was originally published in Hebrew in 2017.
We thank Amnon Kafkafi for allowing us to publish the correspondence.
If you are looking for of historical information that has special meaning to you, we recommend browsing through the Historical Jewish Press website, JPress. You may very well be able to find it there.