By Myra Chanin
OK, OK, I know that declaring anything a work of art may be tantamount to dooming it to perdition, but I believe that a market for artistic quality exists and that one of that market’s masters is Zalmen Mlotek, the Artistic Director of the National Yiddish Theater/Folksbeine, a man who’s eluded the second-rate throughout his entire creative life. So, if you long for the kind of truths that provoke catharsis, see NYTF’s current English production of Hannah Senesh, an emotional, inspiring yet totally non-sentimental biographical drama about a prescient and unbelievably valiant young woman whose enemies declared her the bravest person they’d ever met. Hannah Senesh, written and directed by David Schechter and developed in collaboration with Lori Winer 30 years ago, is included in NYTF’s and the Museum of Jewish Heritage’s Season of Spiritual Resistance of works that explore the struggle against oppression, concurrent with their present Auschwitz exhibition: Not Long Ago, Not For Away.
Here’s what the internet reveals about Hannah Senesh’s brief existence. She was born in Hungary in 1921, the daughter of a journalist/playwright, with her own literary talent evident at an early age. Anti-Semitism stoked her interest in Zionism and her migration to Palestine at 18 where she studied Agriculture before joining a kibbutz. Amid the tedium of daily Kibbutz life, she persistently wrote poetry, plays and maintained a ledger of her life in her diary. In 1943, Hannah parachuted into Yugoslavia with 32 other Jewish volunteers, assigned to find the partisans and together free imprisoned British aviators. Three months later, hoping to find her mother, Hannah crossed into Hungary alone. She was captured and jailed almost immediately. Despite beatings and torture by the Hungarian Police, she refused to betray her comrades, divulge information about her mission or reveal the code to her captured transmitter. She was convicted of treason and executed by firing squad a few days before her 24th birthday.
Schechter’s play adds fascinating details to these listless facts, and juxtaposes the reminiscences of Hannah’s mother Catherine (the amazing Lexi Rabadi!) with the specific feelings and thoughts her daughter Hannah (also played by the amazing Lexi Rabadi!) included in her diaries and poetry. The Tony-Award-Winning Steven Lutvak composed and arranged the musical score for Hannah Senesh. The score also includes one song composed by Elizabeth Swados (to the poem “One, Two, Three” that Hannah wrote in prison), one song adapted and composed by David Schechter (called “Soon” sung in the kibbutz) and the song “Eli Eli” composed to one of Hannah’s poems by David Zehavi. In addition there are the two partisan folk songs.
The play opens with Catherine Senesh, the seated, dignified, simply but elegantly dressed 60-year-old mother of Hannah revealing how she learned that Hannah, who she believed was safe in Palestine, was actually in a Budapest prison. The Warden walks with Catherine to the section where Zionist underground prisoners are held, and makes Catherine look at a dark cell until she recognizes the person waving a rag at her in it is Hannah.
The initial musical interlude between scenes extends long enough for a miraculous transformation. Thanks to Izzy Fields outstanding costume design, Mother reappears as her 13-year-old daughter. I couldn’t believe my eyes! They were both played by the same actor.
Hannah’s first diary entries at age 13 covered many subjects. A new party dress which Hannah requested be not frilly but smart and sensible … and pink before realizing what a mistake asking for pink had been. Hannah had opinions on everything. A swimming match between America and Hungary at which the former world backstroke record was overturned. The Scarlet Pimpernel film with Leslie Howard. He was marvelous. She’s rejected by boys at an evening dance, where the only one who asked her to dance, left her in the middle of the song.
She visits her father’s grave and talks about how close she feels to him when she reads his plays, and then writes her own private benediction for the dead. Each entry is real and very specific. She doesn’t hide what she thinks and feels ever. Life is in the details. Her thoughts on the War, her ambitions, her self-doubts, the passage of Jewish Laws which encourage people she knows to convert to Christianity. She learns Hebrew, gets her certificate of immigration. She finds about the killing camps and questions the existence of God. She manages to do what needs to be done. She complains but is persistent. She’s lonely. At 22 she has never kissed a boy.
Her last diary entry is dated 24 March 0300 hours right before she takes her gun and crosses the border to Hungary by herself. A few hours later Hannah’s captured and her mother reappears to finish the story.
The late Elizabeth Swados, composed the music to Hannah’s last poem, the one she wrote describing the time left on earth for her in her cell:
One-Two-Three, Eight feet long
Two strides across, The rest is dark
Life hangs over me like a question mark.
One-Two-Three, Maybe another week
Or next month may still find me here
But death I feel is very near
I could have been Twenty-three next July
I gambled on what mattered most
The dice were cast. I lost.
A half-hour after Hannah’s execution a car arrives and takes her body away. Hannah is buried in the martyr’s section of the Budapest National Cemetery. Unable to learn who arranged this because Jews were not allowed to leave their houses, Catherine decides an admirer gave her daughter this final kindness and is grateful for it.
Photos: Victor Nechay – Properpix.com
Being performed until August 18th at the Museum of Jewish Heritage
For tickets visit NYTF.org or call 212-213-2130