The Emotional Reunion With Hannah Senesh’s Notebook

In the 1950s, Katherine Senesh donated four pages containing poems handwritten by her paratrooper daughter to the National Library. Now, with the deposit of the full Hannah Senesh Collection, these pages will be reunited with the notebook from which they originally came

Amit Naor
30.11.2020
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Hannah Senesh, with the first poem in her notebook in the background, from the Hannah Senesh Collection at the National Library of Israel

In the early 1950s, Katherine Senesh, the mother of the famous paratrooper and poet Hannah Senesh (often spelled Szenes), entrusted a number of documents from her daughter’s estate to the National Library of Israel. Among these were some of her letters: a few she sent to her mother while attending the agricultural school in Nahalal, a letter she sent to her brother while she was with the partisans in the Balkans, and a letter she sent to her friend. There was also a collection of typed poems she had written in Hungarian, as well as four handwritten poems in Hebrew.

The four handwritten poems can be viewed on the National Library website, here. All were written during 1941 in various places linked to Senesh’s life in pre-state Israel: Nahalal, Kibbutz Sdot Yam, of which she was a founding member, and Ginosar. With their donation to the National Library, they joined the Schwadron Collection, which collects portraits and autograph samples of many personalities.

The upper corners of the handwritten pages are numbered, and the pages look as though they have been torn from a notebook, which they were. Now, we can finally tell the complete story of these pages.

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The handwritten text of Hannah Senesh’s Hebrew poem Lamut? (“To Die?”), donated to the National Library by her mother. From the Schwadron Autograph Collection at the National Library of Israel

Hannah Senesh was born into a home where writing was an integral part of family life, and she herself began writing at a very young age. She wrote first in her mother tongue, Hungarian. After arriving in Mandatory Palestine, she began to learn Hebrew and very quickly mastered writing in that language as well. She wrote constantly and kept a diary for years. As is well known, she wrote her poems in secret, with all of them being published posthumously.

Just before embarking on the parachute mission from which she did not return, Senesh copied her poems neatly into a notebook with numbered pages. She titled the notebook Lelo Safa  (“Without Language”) though most of the poems were in Hebrew, and signed it with her underground codename, Hagar. She gave this notebook to her close friend and classmate at the Nahalal Agricultural School for Girls, Miriam Yitzhak. On the first page, she added a dedication: “To Miriam Yitzhak, my first and dearest reader and critic, in true friendship, Hannah.”

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“To Miriam Yitzhak, my first and dearest reader and critic, in true friendship, Hannah.” Hannah Senesh’s handwritten Hebrew dedication to her friend, Miriam Yitzhak, from the Hannah Senesh Collection at the National Library of Israel

When Katherine Senesh arrived in Israel and began collecting poems and letters for the commemoration of her daughter, she asked Miriam, who had kept the treasured notebook, to send her some poems in Hannah’s handwriting. In a letter Katherine wrote to Abraham Schwadron, she mentioned Miriam’s qualms about tearing pages from the notebook: “This time I am sending the poems I promised, the ones that Hannah’s friend, after much hesitation, was willing to tear from the notebook.” This was how the pages reached the archives of the National Library of Israel. Now, decades later, the torn pages have finally been reunited with the complete notebook.

After Miriam Yitzhak’s death, the notebook passed into the possession of Eitan Senesh, Hannah’s nephew, who for years managed, cataloged and maintained the Hannah Senesh collection. In November 2020, when the family decided to deposit the entire Hannah Senesh Collection with the National Library, Eitan confessed that he asked himself many times what had happened to those missing pages – numbered 7, 8, 11 and 12 in Hannah’s handwriting. Eitan did not know that his grandmother, Katherine, had already handed them over to the National Library seventy years earlier, into Abraham Schwadron’s trustworthy hands. Now, the lost pages are finally reunited with the original notebook, from where they were torn. Along with the notebook, dozens of other items from Senesh’s estate were deposited with the Library, among them her typewriter, camera, certificates, documents from Hungary, letters and photographs.

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Two poems from Hannah Senesh’s handwritten notebook. The missing pages are noticeable, as the page on the right is numbered “10”, and the one on the left is numbered “13”. Pages 11 and 12 are among those that were torn out in the 1950s and donated to the National Library. From the Hannah Senesh Collection at the National Library of Israel

With this donation, the National Library’s Archives Department now faces a professional dilemma, whether to physically reattach the torn pages to Hannah Senesh’s original notebook, or leave them as separate items in the Abraham Schwadron Autograph Collection. Matan Barzilai, who heads the Archives Department, hesitated but finally made an unconventional decision: “Although there is no doubt that the pages were torn [from the notebook], and that it is our job to reflect the work as it was originally, in this case I am inclined to leave things as they are. Hannah Senesh’s story did not end in 1944. The archive also reflects the commemoration process and the creation of the legacy surrounding her figure. Katherine’s frank deliberation, her communications with Schwadron and the tearing of the poems [from the notebook], for example—all offer an authentic glimpse of the culture of remembrance in the first years of the state, of Katherine’s involvement in her daughter’s commemoration, and the attitude of librarians in those days regarding the preservation of the original work. Therefore, despite the dilemma, I think we will keep the pages out of the notebook, and leave them were they have been for the past seventy years.”

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