Almost 70 years after her execution by a German firing squad, the Jewish poet and martyred rescuer Hannah Senesh is the focus of a human rights collaboration at Kean University.
Premiere Stages, the professional theater company based on the Union campus, is presenting a play about the Hungarian-born Zionist who parachuted into Nazi-occupied Europe in an attempt to rescue her mother and other Jews threatened with death.
The play, written by John Wooten and directed by Adam Immerwahr, runs at the Zella Fry Theatre from Sept. 1 through 18.
The production is part of the theater’s ongoing human rights initiative, linking performance with an exploration of social justice. It is being presented in partnership with the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education and Kean’s Jewish Studies and World Affairs program, its Holocaust Resource Center, master’s program in Holocaust and Genocide Studies, Human Rights Institute, and Women’s Studies program.
Wooten, who teaches in Kean’s Department of Theater, is the producing artistic director of Premiere Stages. He said he got to know Senesh’s story in the late 1990s when he was commissioned to do a play about her. Much of his writing has focused on personal experiences at the heart of historic turning points.
Senesh fascinated him because of her passion for her people and the idealism she maintained even as she faced almost certain death. Born in Hungary, she immigrated to what was then the British Mandate of Palestine in 1939 and joined a kibbutz.
In 1943, she enlisted in the British army and was parachuted into Nazi-held territory in Yugoslavia on a mission to save Jews. She joined a partisan group but was arrested at the Hungarian border, tortured, and tried, before being executed on Nov. 7, 1944, at the age of 22.
Senesh was also a poet. Her best known poem, Ashrei Hagafrur (Blessed Is the Match), was the last she ever wrote, after she joined the partisan camp; it includes the line “Blessed is the heart with strength to stop its beating for honor’s sake.”
“The people involved with her said they didn’t become friends,” Wooten said, “but they all respected and admired her.” She came from a wealthy family, he pointed out, and could have clung to that comfort — at least until the Nazi invasion — “but she gave it up to go to Palestine, because she was so drawn to that vision.”
For the Kean production, Wooten rewrote the play, “punching up the drama and making it more contemporary,” he said. Moving backward and forward through time, he covers the story of how Senesh tried to save her mother, Catherine, and struggled to persuade the Jews in Hungary to escape while they still could. She expresses no regret about the dangers she faces; the only regret she mentions was that she never fell in love.
Dennis Klein, head of Kean’s Jewish Studies Program, will interview the playwright after the performance on Sept. 15.
“In a time like ours, when we’re looking for leadership, it’s really good to have an example like this of heroism and sacrifice,” he said. “Hannah Senesh’s is a story that belongs in our conversation and our scholarship about that dark time.”
Stacy Schiller, acting director of the Holocaust Resource Center and Diversity Council, agreed that Senesh is an inspiring figure.
“As a strong and courageous woman, she can serve as a role model to those of us striving to fight genocide today,” she said. “I found the script to beautifully depict Hannah Senesh’s passion, and I’m excited to support this excellent production. I’m sure the cast will create a moving portrayal of her determination to rescue her fellow Hungarian Jews.”
In addition to his work at Kean, Immerwahr is an associate producer at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, resident director at Passage Theatre Company in Trenton, and artistic director of Community Without Walls OnStage, an ensemble of senior citizens based in central New Jersey who collect and perform stories, their own and their peers’.
“It’s always so thrilling to work on a new play, to be able to watch and guide the actors and designers as they embody, for the very first time, a playwright’s characters and ideas,” Immerwahr said. “John’s extraordinary telling of Hannah’s story is haunting and searing. Watching it come alive during rehearsals has been utterly electrifying.”