Of Scandal, Candles And Pews
04/02/2010 - 12:34
Jonathan Mark

With Yom Hashoah coming up (April 11), PBS is rebroadcasting -- on April 13 at 10 p.m. -- the flawed but fascinating "Blessed Is The Match," a PBS Independent Lens documentary on Hanna Senesh, the Zionist poet who famously -- and fatally --- parachuted behind Nazi lines in 1944. Fascinating, because rare photos and interviews take us through her Hungarian childhood through her aliyah and her volunteering for the mission. Flawed, because at least a third of the film is dramatized (almost the entirety of her mission, capture and imprisonment) and dramatization is always problematic for a documentary.

The documentary "Shoah" had it right -- showing (in color) the actual prisons, forests, tracks, scenery, accompanied by only a voice-over, or even no voice -- is more powerful and honest than faking it. What the Senesh documentary has is powerful enough without faking the gaps.

The other problem is that the unseen interviewer simply is not as good as this story deserves. For example, one of the men who parachuted into Europe with Hanna Senesh says, "I did not like her. I admired her." He didn't like Hanna Senesh? Wow, OK, now we're onto something, making the legend into a real woman. The obvious follow-up question is, what about Hannah didn't you like? Except that question was never asked, as if we would admire her any less if we actually got to know her.

Another dropped ball is the fact that Hanna's intended contact in Budapest was Rudolf Kastner, a Jewish Agency operator who was negotiating with Eichmann, himself based in Budapest, for the release of Hungarian Jews. After Hannah was captured (as a British prisoner of war) and was being held and tortured in a Budapest prison, Catherine Senesh, Hannah's mother, who lived in Budapest, went to Kastner, begging him to intervene with the Nazis, as Kastner was somehow a privileged character under Eichmann's protection. (Kastner, in turn, provided positive affadavits at the Nuremburg trial that helped free several of Eichamann's top Nazi associates.) Hanna's mother kept seeking Kastner's help but Kastner wouldn't give her the time of day. After the war, Kastner, who at first was seen as a  wartime hero, was involved in an explosive trial centering on whether Kastner did more to help Eichmann or to help Hungarian Jews. At the trial, Catherine Senesh testified how Kastner ignored her pleas to at least visit Hannah in prison, or speak to Eichmann on Hanna's behalf. It was a turning point in the trial and helped seal Kastner's reputation as a collaborator. Kastner was even assassinated not long after the trial. One would think that a documentary on Hannah Senesh would include a look at this aspect of the story, rather than having actors dramatize less consequential activity. The recent documentary on Kastner, "Killing Kasztner: The Jew Who Dealt With Nazis," went into this, as did Ben Hecht's book, "Perfidy." The Senesh documentary ought to at least have done the same.

Nevertheless, this documentary is important if only to remind people -- and introduce people -- to Hanna Senesh, an extraordinary young woman who epitomized so much of what was beautiful about pre-state Israel and the poetry of Zionism. She is mythical in Israel but nowhere near as well known among American Jews as she ought to be, and this documentary is an excellent opening to the discussion.

The title, "Blessed Is The Match," comes from a poem -- her own epitaph -- that Hannah wrote after she landed from the sky into Nazi territory: "Blessed is the match that is consumed in kindling the flame./ Blessed is the flame that burns in the secret fastness of the heart. / Blessed is the heart strong enough to stop beating for honor's sake. / Blessed is the match that is consumed in kindling the flame."

She handed it on folded paper to one of her fellow soldiers who dropped it in the forest, but he went back soon after and found it.

And speaking of Hanna Senesh's writing, am I the only one who thinks "Eli, Eli" is just not that good a poem, that it's just too trite, painfully adolescent? The best part of "Eli, Eli" is the music, and Hanna didn't write that. We're never told who wrote that -- who did compose the ethereal music? (David Zehavi)  -- as if that would take something away from Hanna.

Hey, don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that Hanna Senesh wasn't more brave than most of us will ever be, but that this should be her most famous poem is just wrong. Look, I'm just going to change the subject. I don't want to knock a 22-year-old martyr's poetry. But it's like Anne Frank's line, about "people being good at heart." I don't believe that even Anne Frank believed that line, not when she was hiding from Nazis. There's noting wrong with young girls writing like young girls, and I'm sure that Anne and Hanna would have grown to be terrific writers, extraordinary writers, but I'd also bet that the grown-up Hanna would never have allowed "Eli, Eli" to be published, and that Anne, as a grown woman, would surely have edited out the line about people being "good at heart."

I can't believe I'm smacking around Hanna Senesh and Anne Frank. I better change the subject.  

Speaking of "pews" in this blog's headline, there was some sad and interesting findings from the Pew Research Center regarding coverage of religion in American media. The findings reflect on the very Web site you're reading, and why Jewish newspapers are needed more than ever. In 2008, the total space (or minutes) available for coverage of actual religion (and the role religion plays in our lives) in newspapers, television and other media was just 0.8 percent.

The Pew report adds, the importance of web sites and blogs "as a place for news and discussion about religion may grow as the number of religion writers in traditional news outlets decreases. According to the Religion Newswriters Association, at least 16 major print news outlets have reduced or abandoned their religion beats since 2007," making web sites and blogs covering religion all the more vital. 

Peggy Noonan doesn't always write about religion but when she does, she's as good as it gets. Noonan, a religious Catholic, and the biographer of Pope John Paul, has an excellent piece in The Wall Street Journal on the sexual abuse scandal within the Church, and the importance of journalism in keeping religion honest.

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