Most Americans knows who Anne Frank is, but hardly anyone outside Israel has heard of Hannah Senesh (Szenes), the Hungarian Jewish patriot who died in the effort to rescue her native country from Nazism. “Blessed Is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh” will play at the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center on Sunday, June 27.
The documentary is the second film in this year’s Summer Institute Series, which began last week. Eight films from the Boston Jewish Film Festival have been selected for Sunday screenings through August 15.
Eight years in the making, “Blessed Is the Match” was shortlisted for an Oscar nomination. Director Roberta Grossman seamlessly blends interviews, archival footage, and re-enactments to tell Hannah’s story.
Like Anne Frank, Hannah recorded her private thoughts and hopes in a diary that is still read by teenagers today. Born in 1922, she grew up in an affluent Budapest family with a father who was a journalist and playwright.
Hannah was only six when her father died, and at that early age, she began dictating poems to her grandmother. She started keeping a diary at age 13 and became a Zionist at age 17, studying Hebrew in preparation for moving to Palestine.
Although her mother Catherine was opposed, she left for Palestine in 1939. Determining that the new Israeli nation needed farm workers more than intellectuals, she attended the Girls Agricultural School and went to live in a kibbutz.
As the political climate for European Jews worsened, this idealistic young woman longed to make a difference. Hannah’s chance came when the British Army organized an undercover mission to rescue downed flyers and Jews. As part of a small group of commandos, Hannah parachuted with a radio transmitter into Yugoslavia in 1944, in what would quickly turn into a suicide mission. By the time the commandos crossed the border, the Nazis had invaded Hungary. Hannah was captured and turned over to the pro-Nazi Arrow Cross Party.
Imprisoned in Budapest, she was tortured by Gestapo counterintelligence but refused to give up the British radio codes they were looking for. In a voiceover by Joan Allen, Hannah’s mother describes being urged to pressure her daughter to cooperate. Ultimately, 23-year-old Hannah was executed by firing squad.
As part of the only military rescue mission for Jews during the Holocaust, Hannah is revered as a hero in Israel. She wrote “Blessed Is the Flame,” the strikingly modern-sounding poem that gives this documentary its title, on the ground in Yugoslavia not long before she was captured. Her most famous poem, “Eli, Eli,” a prayer-like incantation of sand and sea, will carry special resonance for Vineyarders.
As gripping as Hannah’s story is, Ms. Grossman’s documentary struggles to bring the young woman to life. The filmmaker emphasizes the historical context to the neglect of Hannah’s character. Some of her contemporaries found her aloof and unappealing but there is little examination of why.
The choice may be understandable considering what archival footage was available. One of the unavoidable liabilities of re-enactments is their degradation of authenticity. World War II remains a “man’s” war, so “Blessed Is the Match” stands as a welcome tribute to an unusual and courageous woman who sacrificed her life for her people.
Opening next week on Wednesday, June 30, is the seventh annual Summer Film Festival of the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival. “Follow Your Heart” plays for children at 5 pm and “I Am Love” screens at 8 pm at the Chilmark Community Center.
“Blessed Is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh,” Sunday, June 27, 7:30 pm, Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center, Vineyard Haven. $8. For more information, visit mvhc.us/summer_institute.htm
Brooks Robards, who divides her time between Northampton and Oak Bluffs, is a regular contributor to The Times.