Personal Reflections -
IBOLYA SHEER - "The Sixteenth Prisoner"
A true story. Happened eons ago.
I met Hanna Szenes in early September 1944.
Who was she? What did she mean to me?
To understand the connections between us, first I have to introduce myself - not as an ego-boosting stint - but to give you the context to where we both came from - how our lives converged – for two brief months only.
I was born into an Orthodox Jewish family, on April 26, 1926. We were five siblings and resided in Budapest, on 27 Dob Street. I attended the Orthodox Jewish middle school at 35 Dob Street.
When I was thirteen, my parents were planning to make alia, to emigrate to Palestine, but with five children, to start a new life, would have been daunting.
At that point in my life, I became a member in the left-leaning Zionist organization, Hashomer Hatzair and where I usually enjoyed myself. My parents would have preferred me to join the Mizrachi, the Orthodox Jewish youth group.
No matter, eventually the, then prevailing, Fascist regime closed both of them.
I would have loved to continue with my schooling after finishing middle school but we were poor and I needed to learn a trade. I managed to start apprenticing as a dressmaker in a good Salon. My mother arranged that I didn’t have to work on the Shabbat. About 30-40 women worked in this Salon, all of them trade union members. Obviously, I wanted to follow suit.
The union office was located on Almassy Square. I joined up and I learned a great deal from the members there. My open mind and receptive intellect soaked up what was offered around me: I learned about the importance of books, music and to be cultured. Here is where I came to understand the value of friendship, mutual help, and solidarity. These moral values were not exactly new to me. After all, my religious upbringing at home and especially what I learned from my Chasidic grandfather, Mendel Weisz neatly coexisted with the union values - at least, in some respects. The atheist worldview was strange for me. To deny the existence of God is a “neveire” a sin for me. I debated this issue endlessly. I would not succumb to giving up my deeply felt faith. “It’s all right, little girl”, the union leader would intervene, “after all religion is your private matter” and this issue was never raised again.
Observing the deepening fascism in Hungary by the enactment of more and more anti-Jewish laws and edicts convinced me that I must do something about it.
In the union there was such possibility. This year, in 1943, I aimed to attend the demonstration on March 15, a national, patriotic holiday, at the statue of Sandor Petofi, (well loved national, historical hero) and indeed I did.
By then, there was in Budapest an active anti-Fascist movement, mainly in the Iron, Leather and Tailors’ unions and in the so-called Peace Party. Unfortunately, many of the comrades were arrested. In spite of my youth, I was seventeen and a half years old; I connected with a few of these groups. I became active and was entrusted with a number of assignments, which I carried out faithfully.
The occupation of Hungary by the Nazis, on March 19, 1944, profoundly changed my life – I became an ‘illegal.’
I saw I have no choice but to become a housemaid and found employment at Vigado Square 2, which included a small room of my own. From here I conducted my illegal activities: distributed leaflets; attended clandestine meetings where I received my instructions for our next action. This also gave me the opportunity to obtain documents like “officially” stamped furlough permits, food vouchers, military ID booklets for the Yeshiva students, transferred nationals from Slovakia, to avoid conscription in the forced labour battalions.
Who knows what happened to them?
In April 1944, Mira Deutch gave me the mimeograph machine, once used by the Orthodox community.
With this machine it was possible for us to make leaflets, for May 1st, with the slogan:
Hungarian Workers Don’t Work for the German Fascists.
Death to the German Occupiers. It felt so good.
However, it didn’t last long. We were betrayed. On May 3rd, along with a number of my comrades I was arrested. For interrogation we were taken to the Gestapo office, in the Mirabel Hotel, located on Svab Mountain. During seven weeks of questioning and maltreatment I confessed nothing or betray my comrades. I pretended to be an innocent, ignorant and naïve young girl. A while later they closed the case – here.
But they transferred us to the Defense Department, located on Csillag Mountain, on Fo Street no.6. This was where the company of the dreaded and brutal Gendarmerie (Provincial police) functioned. The beating, clubbing and various abusive measures started all over again. Approximately, three hundred people were subjected to and kept under inhuman conditions. The sadistic Gendarmes couldn’t break me even here. Then the authorities closed the files of the case here too.
However, totally illegally - not allowing even the officially appointed defense lawyer to communicate with us - a military tribunal sentenced me to four years in prison – at the same time I turned 18, and was now considered an adult. Those who received the final sentencing were transferred, yet again, this time to the prison on Conti Street. So was I. I was locked into cell no II. 232, already occupied by 14 girls, a previously sentenced, closely-knit group. I was the 15th and the 16th bunk was empty. This was a very interesting group, made up of Hungarian communists, Serbian, Croat, Slovenian partisans, resisters and Soviet parachutists. I still remember the names of some of them. The Hungarian girls: Vera, Lici, Iren, Marta, Erzsi and me. The Serbs: Dragica Milica, Deszanka Jugovica, Zorka and Babaroza. Mara was a Croat. She was everyone’s interpreter. The two Soviet girls, Tamara and Masa spoke four languages. It was a good Collective. I quickly integrated into the group. They even permitted me to participate in their study sessions led by the highly educated Lici and Vera.
We kept the cell very clean. Fifteen people in a small cell must keep good order. There were debates but never arguments even though all social strata were represented there – from the old farmwoman to the highly educated, and knowledgeable Hungarian communist girls and anything in between. The girls while speaking many languages and believing in different ideas were connected by their hatred for Nazism, Fascism and angry about their degradation and humiliation.
And, the 16th bunk is still empty.
Early in September 1944, on a balmy autumn morning, the heavy door of our cell opened and in walked the 16th prisoner.
A girl. Suddenly it got brighter. The sun shone through the small cell window and the sunlight enveloped the new girl. We fell silent – the heavy cell door was closed with a rather loud bang behind her. She looked around with a smile and shined as she said, “I am Hanna Szenes, a British officer in the volunteer Palestinian Brigade and I am Jewish.” We eagerly gathered around and questioned her but she would say nothing more. She made herself at home on the straw mattress, took off her kaki jacket and took out a few personal items from a side bag. She sat down and we could tell from the way she looked around with her alert eyes, she was assessing the situation she was in.
She wasn’t exactly a beauty but she had two clever, luminous eyes that lit up her face. She had a Greek nose, strong chin and wore her hair in a Greek style.
She wasn’t slim either. She had rather wide hips and the heavy military boots didn’t flatter her legs. Still, she absolutely shined. One could not ignore her. In one hour she became the sole focus of our attention. In the beginning, she spoke infrequently but observed everything. Her comments were thoughtful and intelligent. My bunk was next to hers and I could easily observe her. She had an engaging behaviour.
With her clever but pointed questions it became clear to Hanna the kind of company was around her in the cell. In a few days she adjusted and became one of us. She pitched in with the cleaning and all other work we had to do. When she saw the kind of instruction and studying was conducted in our cell, she asked if she could share her expertise and knowledge with us - her sophisticated, worldly and military knowledge. She was well informed on a vast array of literature and her lectures were most welcome. She spoke six languages beside English. Hanna seemed to like us and she was never condescending. She taught us English, war maneuvers; grenade throwing; and rope climbing. The Serb and Croat girls admired her. She sang partisan songs with them. She learnt those songs in the Balkan Mountains while living with the partisans for a few months, waiting to be parachuted into Budapest. Her mistrust disappeared as soon as she realized that four of the five Hungarian girls were Jewish. Only Erzsi wasn’t. She was the daughter of an ironworker at the Csepel manufacturing company. Erzsi was a very loyal communist. Hanna was thrown together with a group of highly committed anti-Fascist young women.
Little by little she loosened up. We learned that her father was Bela Szenes a well-respected newspaper writer, who died before she made alia. Her mother was alive, lived in Budapest and Hanna last seen her on Gyorskocsi Street. She worried a lot about her mother. Talked about how she emigrated to Erez Israel and lives on a kibbutz near Cesaria. In fact, we heard a lot about kibbutz life and the girls just leapt it up.
She explained that works and studies a great deal during the day but at night singing and dancing around the campfire she gets re-energized. She went through military training also and when WWII broke out she enlisted in the British army. As an officer she had been on various assignments. She volunteered for this mission too with three other comrades.
Her task was, to reach Hungary, make connections with the anti-Fascist resistance and help develop it further. In addition, she was to help in rescuing the Jewish population.**
The jump wasn’t successful. They landed, as far as I know, near Pecs (city in Western Hungary) and one of her comrades was injured. People in the village noticed what happened and reported to the Gendarmes “British spies are in the village.” This is how she was captured and ended up in jail. A typical Hungarian story in 1944.
They interrogated her at the Secret Services Section. Hanna was not considered a war prisoner but a spy. She was tortured. She didn’t confess though. She didn’t betray her friends even though her mother, Katharine Szenes, was blackmailed.
Hanna stood by her vow.
We learnt all this from the clerk in the jail’s library who read the documents. This clerk also informed us about Ferenc Szalasi (the Hungarian Fascist leader) taking over the government in October 1944 and that the Soviet army is getting close to Budapest.
In the evenings Hanna would recite her poems by heart.
I heard the one about the match in that jail. She was a poet we realized. She also kept a diary. She took it with on November 6. I wonder who found it? With her sunny personality, her kindness and unshakable faith she was a wonderful role model. Her presence had a great influence on us. She was very good with people, a rarity, I hadn’t seen since.
She and I had frequent discussions, after the lights were turned off. She noticed that I didn’t eat the bacon, sent from the Balkans to the Serb girls. She didn’t eat it either – for it was treif, (not kosher). She truly understood me and became my role model. I regarded her as a sister. She was everybody’s favourite. Her fame spread trough this penal institute, for her goodness, subtle strength and practical skills were admirable. She was magnificent in her simple modesty.
In mid October 1944, my parents came to visit me. When my father saw me in my in prison garb, he said “Oh my child “reboine shelailom” if only They would see this misery in the heavens!” My Mother, with yellow star sewn on her jacket, was crying. They brought me food, whatever they could and enough for all 16 girls. When I asked the girls what my mother should bring us next time, Hanna laughingly declared “potato dumplings.” I related this to my parents, adding “but bring enough for all of us.” My Father visited me in November bringing an enormous pot full of, still warm, potato dumplings, remarking “tell that Jerusalemite girl to eat it – I brought it with love.” And so it was. We ate the festive dumplings, covered in breadcrumbs – not knowing this to be our last day together – we laughed a lot and were ebullient. It struck us as hilarious that the women at 27 Dob Street prepared this huge amount of hand-made dumplings for us, poor prisoners. It tasted wonderful.
Next day, on November 6, 1944, the heavy cell door opened. The turning keys made frightening noises.
Entered two prison guards calling out her name Anna Szenes. They gathered up all her belongings and put handcuffs on her. We were shocked. What does it mean to be transferred to the Margit Avenue jail to stand trial there? We sensed danger: Szalasi! Martial law! Kangaroo court! I was chagrined. I feared for my dear Hanna, my sister. We embraced. Her handcuffs rattled. We all cried and kissed. Hanna didn’t cry but her eyes were full of tears as she embraced me saying: “My little sister be courageous and strong. Tell your family and the people how all this came about, what and why it happened.”
She kissed my forehead and left. Two guards surrounded her as she walked the length of the corridor with the sound of her steps echoing for a long time.
The fifteen of us didn’t sleep all night. We missed Hanna. Nobody was telling magic stories about life on a kibbutz.
The following morning, on November 7, 1944, the usually talkative guy who brought our food, silently handed it in through the small cell-door window. At the dinner distribution we learned that Hanna Szenes, this sparkling star, was sentenced to die by the kangaroo court and three hours later executed in the jail yard. She courageously refused the blindfold – died as she lived – a hero.
We were unable to eat. We mourned her as Jews mourn a sister, sitting on the floor. All day, on November 8, we continued to mourn and remained inconsolable. We wept.
On November 9, the whole building was evacuated.
They deported about two hundred political prisoners,
Jews and non-Jews alike to Nazi concentration camps in Germany. I shall not talk about that – that story is well known.
On May 3rd 1945 we liberated ourselves and in early July I arrived home. My entire family survived the horrors. In September, the same year, I married a most wonderful man.
In 1947 my son and in 1949 my daughter was born. I named her Anna, in honour of Hanna’s memory. Through my daughter she lives on.
Ever since then, on every November 7, I light a memorial candle, to mourn and remember her.
I lived up to her request and do talk about her life and her death – Hanna Szenes of blessed memory.
** According to further research, Hanna’s mission in Hungary, first and foremost, was to rescue British pilots, the rescue of Hungarian Jews was secondary.
Ibolya Sheer, after her return from the camps, enrolled in Fine Art Studies but had to interrupt it for she had to support her family. At forty years of age, as mother of two grown children she successfully matriculated and completed her higher education with excellent result.
After retirement she was an active member in WIZO (Jewish Women’ organization) and in MAZSIKE (Hungarian Jewish Cultural Association).
She gladly gave readings of her writings to audiences of her fellow survivors and to young people, in equal measure. She passed away in 2006.
This is published here with the permission of Ibolya Sheer's estate and Dr. Katalin Pecsi, editor of the Esztertaska blog where it also appeared in Hungarian.
English translation: Judy Weiszenberg Cohen.
© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2007.