Film about a martyred poet draws on a friend’s memories

Film about a martyred poet draws on a friend’s memories

Hannah Senesh, sometimes called Israel’s Joan of Arc, will be featured in a film at the JCC Mini Film Festival. Photos courtesy Katahdin Productions
Hannah Senesh, sometimes called Israel’s Joan of Arc, will be featured in a film at the JCC Mini Film Festival. Photos courtesy Katahdin Productions

Susan Beer was 19 when she met Hannah Senesh in a jail in Budapest in 1944. She had been imprisoned for trying to escape from Hungary with her family.

Senesh, just 22 herself, had been captured after parachuting into the war zone with a group of Jewish activists from Palestine, hoping to rescue fellow Jews, including her mother, in her home country.

The two young women were together for just three weeks, but it was an encounter that has stayed vivid in Beer’s memory all these years.

“No one who met Hannah could ever forget her,” Beer told NJ Jewish News.

She will describe her encounter with the martyred writer and fervent Zionist at a screening of a movie about her, Blessed Is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh. It will be shown on Thursday, April 29, at the AMC Mountainside 10 Theater on Route 22 as part of the Spring Mini Film Festival hosted by the JCC of Central New Jersey.

That parachute rescue effort was the one and only military effort to save Jews. Senesh knew how dangerous the undertaking was and how great the chance that she would be killed. Beer said when they met, she seemed utterly resigned to her fate and was focused instead on lifting everyone else’s spirits. “She smiled at me. I was beaten and bloody, but it was so encouraging just to see that smile,” she recalled.

They walked together in the exercise yard, and communicated between neighboring cells. Then Beer and her parents were taken from the jail in Budapest and put on a train to Auschwitz. As awful as the prison had been, this was way worse. “It was like waking up in hell,” she told NJ Jewish News.

Together with her mother, she survived the camp and the death march that followed that internment, as the Allied forces closed in on the Nazis. Her father survived too, and they were reunited after the liberation.

Beer came to the United States in 1948. She lived in Cleveland with her husband, also a survivor, for 50 years, and moved to Englewood 12 years ago.

From the 1960s — earlier than most survivors — she has been speaking about the Holocaust to school and community groups. On June 10, she will be guest speaker at the Spring Women’s Luncheon at the Museum of Jewish Heritage: A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, in New York City.

‘Brave yet gentle’

On her first trip to Israel, in 1966, she sought out Senesh’s mother, Catherine, who had joined her son there after the war. “She was so glad to have contact with anyone who knew her daughter. Her home was like a museum to Hannah,” Beer recalled. The elderly woman died in the 1980s, but the families have been friends ever since. When Hannah’s nephew, David Senesh, came to Cleveland, he was a frequent guest in their home.

When Beer heard that a film was being made about Hannah, she felt she might be able to make a contribution. Her daughter contacted the director and producer, Roberta Grossman. Though she was interviewed for hours, Beer is featured just briefly in the film, but her description of Senesh is one of its most powerful statements. She describes her as very brave and yet also very gentle.

Grossman recognized the veracity of that description. As tough as some people said Senesh could be, in jail she was the soul of kindness, making dolls for the children who were there, teaching Hebrew to her fellow Jews, and comforting everyone around her.

The director said she would have liked to include more of what Beer had to say, but they met when the film was almost complete. “The most agonizing part of making it was having to leave so much out,” she told NJ Jewish News. Despite the brevity of Senesh’s life, there was an abundance of material, from her own writings and those about her, and about the cataclysmic time she lived in. “I’d lie in bed at night thinking about the parts I didn’t use,” Grossman said.

One of her most valuable sources was the memoir written by Catherine Senesh. That extraordinary bond between mother and daughter — tragically, the very thing that possibly led to Hannah’s death and almost to her mother’s — became the heart of the film.

The organizers of the screening have invited students from local schools, and Grossman herself has said she would like to see the film used for mother-daughter programs.

Grossman said she became fascinated by Senesh when she first read her diary as a middle school student. It took years of work in television, and a long and successful track record of producing and directing before finally she was able to put together the financing to do a film about her feisty, passionate heroine.

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