Review: ‘Blessed Is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh’

Film Critic

“Blessed Is the Match” is not only the title of a solemn, respectful documentary about Israeli Holocaust martyr Hannah Senesh, it is also the opening of the poem that helped make her famous.

“Blessed is the match, consumed in kindling flame” is the first line of that brief poem, a tribute to self-sacrifice written by Senesh in 1944, just days before she was captured in Nazi-held Hungary. She had parachuted in a few days earlier, one of a group of idealistic Palestinians who were desperate to rescue Jews headed for concentration camps. Imprisoned, tortured and executed, she was but 23 years old at the time of her death.

As directed by Roberta Grossman, “Blessed Is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh” begins by letting us know that Senesh became a national heroine once Palestine became Israel a few years after her death, but the film focuses almost exclusively on her brief life, not its aftermath.

Grossman and her team were given extensive access to the Senesh family archive, including unpublished letters and photographs. They’ve also gone to great lengths to track down and interview those still living who knew Senesh, including her former school classmates, her fellow Palestinian kibbutzniks, surviving parachutists and prisoners from her time in jail.

Certainly, there was nothing about Senesh’s upbringing that suggested this kind of an ending for her life. With a father who was a successful playwright, she was raised in well-to-do comfort in Budapest, but that all darkened when her father died prematurely at age 33, when Senesh was but 6.

Admitted to an elite high school, she faced institutional anti-Semitism for the first time and announced at age 17 that “I’ve become a Zionist.” As the bleakness of impending war filled the air, she explained, “one needs something to believe in.”

Senesh was able to emigrate to Palestine, but that meant leaving her beloved mother behind, and “Blessed Is the Match” speculates that it was a desire to rescue her, to do great deeds, that was part of what motivated her to volunteer for the mission into Hungary.

Because Senesh died so young, it’s hard to fill out a film of nearly 90 minutes that claims her as the subject, so director Grossman has resorted to using newsreel footage as well as re-creations, which, though discreet, add nothing special to the proceedings.

Despite her undoubted heroism, there are hints in the film that Senesh was admired more than liked among her Palestinian friends. A fellow kibbutznik, for instance, says she was so idealistic she was “like a statue.” Intent on seeing Senesh as a symbol of hope and resistance, “Blessed Is the Match” is content to focus on the tragic legend that her life became.