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New Downtown Exhibit Celebrates Life of WWII Poet Executed for Defying Nazis

By Julie Shapiro | October 18, 2010 7:18am

By Julie Shapiro

DNAinfo Reporter/Producer

BATTERY PARK CITY — A new exhibit at the Museum of Jewish Heritage traces the brief life of Hannah Senesh, a Hungarian poet who was executed in 1944 while trying to rescue Jews from Nazi-occupied Europe.

After her death, Senesh became an Israeli folk hero, lauded for her talent and bravery. But until now, no scholar has ever collected the pieces of her life and developed a complete picture of her 23 years.

"She wasn’t just some myth," said Betsy Aldredge, spokeswoman for the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park City. "She was a real person — and that makes her even more extraordinary."

Called "Fire In My Heart: The Story of Hannah Senesh," the exhibit uses Senesh's own words and dozens of never-before-seen artifacts to describe Senesh's bourgeois Budapest childhood, her dismay over her country’s burgeoning anti-Semitism, her journey to Palestine to build a Jewish state, and finally her decision to enlist in a secret British mission to help Hungary’s Jews.

Senesh’s career as a volunteer soldier was short-lived. She was captured almost immediately after crossing into Hungary in June 1944 and was convicted of treason several months later. On Nov. 7, 1944, she was executed by a firing squad.

One surprising thread that emerged in Senesh’s story was her sense of humor, which was present "right up until the end," exhibit curator Louis Levine said. Senesh’s cellmates in Budapest recalled that she kept them in good spirits and made them laugh, even after she’d been imprisoned for months.

But Senesh was also lonely for much of her young adulthood, Levine said. She missed her family after she immigrated to Palestine, and she longed for a soul mate that she never found.

Throughout her journey, Senesh continued writing poetry, including the hymn "Eli, Eli," which is like a second national anthem in Israel.

The exhibit includes Senesh’s last known poem, written in her Budapest prison cell several months before she was executed.

The poem ends:

I could have been

twenty three next July.

I gambled on what mattered most.

The dice were cast. I lost.

"It’s possible to live an extraordinary life in 23 years," Levine said, describing the modern relevance of Senesh’s story. "What would that life have been if it had been more than 23 years?"

"Fire In My Heart: The Story of Hannah Senesh" is on display at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, 36 Battery Pl., through Aug. 7, 2011.