Tag Archives: Zionism

Blessed is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh

Blessed is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh is an engaging portrait of a gifted young woman who sacrificed everything for her people.  It’s hard to believe that this is the first documentary about her life. It’s almost harder to believe that Hollywood hasn’t made any kind of film about the life of Hannah Senesh, given its mixture of drama and pathos.

Senesh was a poet and diarist, a young Zionist who immigrated to Palestine in the 1930’s, only to return home to Hungary in 1944 as a Haganah volunteer to the British Royal Air Force. She and her small group parachuted into Europe, hoping to assist stranded British airmen and the Jews of Hungary. Their timing was terrible: days after they arrived at the Hungarian border, Germany occupied the country. Senesh was captured by Hungarian police and turned over to the Gestapo, who tortured and executed her in November of 1944.

In a twist that was certainly stranger than fiction, Hannah’s mother was imprisoned with her in Budapest for a time.  The Gestapo was determined to force Hannah to give them radio codes that would allow them to send misinformation to the partisans and to the British.  They arrested Mrs. Senesh and threatened to torture her to get her daughter to talk.  Amazingly, Mrs. Senesh managed to survive the war (nearly all of Hungarian Jewry was murdered) and she appears in the film.

Synagogue-goers in the U.S. may be familiar with Senesh’s poem, Eli, Eli [My God, My God] set to a melody by David Zahavi.

Filmmaker Roberta Grossman waves together photographs, interviews, archival footage and dramatic reenactments to tell Hannah’s story.  Scholars give just enough historical background for the viewer to understand exactly what this young woman was up against.

Commentary

The experience of Hungarian Jews was different from that of most of the Jews of Europe, in that as an ally to Germany, Hungary was not under the control of the Nazis until late in the war.  Suddenly, in 1944, all of Hungary’s Jews were rounded up and sent to the death camps:  in the space of a few months, most of the community was destroyed.  Part of the power of this film is that it gives a very good picture of middle class Jewish Hungarian life before the war, as well as the darkest days of 1944.

It also conveys a particular kind of Zionist story, the story of a young Hungarian woman who immigrates to Palestine out of passion for the Jewish people and the Zionist project.  Had she not become a parachutist, Senesh would likely be a retired farmer in Israel, telling stories about her life on Kibbutz Sdot Yam.

This film is gentle enough for middle-schoolers to watch, but retains an emotional punch.  The mother-daughter relationship is presented with remarkably little sentimentality.  I got the sense of two strong Jewish women who, under extreme pressure, found they were stronger than they knew.

This is an excellent film for learning about Zionism and about the Holocaust. Large events in history are much more comprehensible when we view them through the lens of a particular life.  Hannah Senesh’s life is such a lens, and more.

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Cast a Giant Shadow

MickeyMarcusCast a Giant Shadow (1966) is a fictionalized account of the story of David “Mickey” Marcus, a Jewish colonel in the U.S. Army who fought in the Israeli War of Independence. Before his involvement with the nascent State of Israel, he served in WWII in Europe, and was part of the occupation government in Berlin after the war.  Among other duties, he was involved in the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps.  Marcus grew up in Brooklyn, received a nominal Jewish education, and attended West Point.

David Ben Gurion named him aluf [general] of the Israeli Defense Forces, the first person to hold that title since Biblical times.  Marcus’s advice and participation was critical to Israeli success in the war, and he is remembered with great fondness in Israel.  He is also the only soldier buried at West Point who died fighting under a foreign flag.

Marcus is played by Kirk Douglas, and his son, Michael Douglas, had his first film role as a jeep driver.  Yul Brynner (who looks eerily like Moshe Dayan), Topol, Angie Dickenson, and Frank Sinatra also appear in the film.  John Wayne plays an unnamed American general.

Commentary

Col. Mickey Marcus was one of the “Machal” fighters (the Hebrew acronym for Mitnadvei Chutz La’aretz, “volunteers from outside Israel”).  This film tells his story, and along with it, gives one of the best screen depictions of some of the most famous aspects of the Israeli War of Independence.

Aside from a schlocky romance with a beautiful Israeli that Hollywood could not resist adding, the screenplay  is  largely in keeping with the only English-language biography of Marcus, Cast a Giant Shadow by Ted Berkman.   The rest of the story is fairly reliable, and the film was shot on location in many of the places where battles in the War of Independence were fought.  I recognized Latrun, and a particularly bad spot on the road to Jerusalem, as well as the famous “Burma Road.”  (These are all places you can visit in Israel today.)

Many of the details are accurate.    There were indeed busloads of refugees, many of them survivors of the death camps in Europe, who were handed guns at Latrun and sent in to fight.  Women served in combat and were among the truckdrivers who made up the convoys that traveled under fire carrying food and water to the Jews of Jerusalem.  The Israelis were so short on munitions that they resorted to many ruses to make the Arab armies believe they had more firepower than they really did.   The “Burma Road” really was that perilous, and it was cut by hand in record time.  As far as is known, Marcus did eventually die as portrayed in the film.

I recommend this film to get a sense of what was going on in Israel immediately before and after the Declaration of Independence in 1948.  Just keep in mind that it’s fictionalized history:  if you are curious about particular details, then a little bit of research is required.

Exodus

exodusExodus (1960) is adapted from the blockbuster novel by Leon Uris. It is set in Cyprus and Palestine during the British Mandate period of 1947-48.  First it follows  the misadventures of a boatload of Jewish refugees from Europe whom the British imprison in Cyprus rather than allow them entry to Palestine, then it follows characters on that boat and their friends and lovers through the events leading up to Independence in 1948.

The movie was produced and directed by Otto Preminger, and it starred Paul Newman, Eva Marie Saint, Ralph Richardson, Peter Lawford, Lee J. Cobb, and Sal Mineo.   One notable aspect of the movie is that it was filmed entirely on location in Cyprus and in Israel.  Paul Newman makes an odd-looking Israeli, but every scrap of the scenery is authentic.  Given that the real star of Exodus is the land itself, Eretz Israel, that is especially appropriate.

Other notable facts:  Otto Preminger hired Dalton Trumbo to adapt the screenplay from the novel, despite the fact that he was one of the people on the Hollywood blacklist.  This marked one of the first times a major director “broke” the blacklist.

Exodus won the Oscar for Best Music, and Sal Mineo received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

Commentary

Exodus is another film that runs deep in the Jewish-American psyche; I have listed it as a must-see.  It is an excellent way to experience the narrative of the foundation of the State of Israel as many American and Israeli Zionists understand it.

It reflects a time when many Israelis were thoroughgoing socialists, when the “black hat” orthodox of Eastern Europe were believed to be dying out, when tourism in the area was unthinkable, when no one at all was talking about “Greater Israel.”    Europe was interested in getting rid of the few Jews who had survived the Holocaust, and because no one else wanted them either, they were living in DP (displaced persons) camps.  There were three groups of Jews in Palestine at this point, the “Old Yishuv” Jews who had been in the land all along (and who do not figure into this film at all),  the Sabras (Jews born in Israel, whose parents or grandparents had settled there from Europe) and the new immigrants, mostly survivors of the Holocaust, who managed to get into the country despite the British blockade.

The film was a huge undertaking, one of the most elaborate of its time, and it is impressive but flawed.   Uris’s novel is simply too massive for a film adaptation; both plot and characters are truncated to make them fit.  As history, it has obvious flaws (starting with the fact that nearly all the characters are fictional, and the fictional characters crowd out the historical ones.)  Why, then, is it a must-see?  It is because if you want to understand why so many Jews feel passionate about the need for Israel, this film is a good place to begin.  It is also a must-see because it is a way to see the Land itself.

Many of the events in the film really happened:  there was a ship Exodus.  The King David Hotel was indeed bombed by the Irgun.  There was a prison break from the fortress of Acre.  And of course, there was a War of Independence immediately after partition in 1948.

Just don’t be in a hurry:  Exodus is one LONG film, 212 minutes.  Make yourself and a friend some popcorn, and settle in for a long evening, because after it is done, you’ll want to talk.

Double Feature

Watch Exodus before or after watching Gentleman’s Agreement.  They are set in exactly the same time period, one in Europe and the Middle East, the other in the United States.    Keep in mind as you watch that the attitudes in Gentleman’s Agreement were the attitudes of the U.S. State Department as it participated in the U.N. discussions so critical to events in Exodus.