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Exhibit transcends myths about a Holocaust heroine

David Senesh nephew Hannah Senesh his wife Ilanappear Illinois Holocaust Museum's new exhibitiabout Budapest-born Hannah who was killed World War

David Senesh, nephew of Hannah Senesh, and and his wife Ilana, appear at the Illinois Holocaust Museum's new exhibition about the Budapest-born Hannah who was killed in World War II at age 23. | Curtis Lehmkuhl~Sun-Times Media

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When: Through Sept. 8.

Where: Illinois Holocaust Museum, 9603 Woods Dr., Skokie

Museum admission: $6-$10

Info: (847) 967-4800;

Updated: May 30, 2013 1:02PM

The Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center’s new traveling exhibition isn’t interested in showing Hannah Senesh as an iconic and heroic martyr, though that’s been her legacy for nearly 70 years.

Senesh, 23 when she died by firing squad in 1944, has been called the “Israeli Joan of Arc,” but the girl and young woman now on display at the museum is most decidedly made of flesh and blood.

“I don’t believe people think me a particularly pretty girl, but I hope I’ll grow out of it,” Senesh says in a 1937 diary entry at age 16.

Her sense of humor and self-discovery, her introspection about who she was and who she wanted to be, are reflected through her own words. Like the museum’s earlier rendering of Anne Frank’s story, “Fire in My Heart: The Story of Hannah Senesh” removes its subject from a pedestal and becomes all the more authentic and poignant for doing so.

“The more I read about her, the more I understood that the story of Hannah Senesh had never been told properly,” said Dr. Louis D. Levine, the exhibition’s guest curator. “I was totally unfamiliar with the story, but I was very familiar with the myth.”

Created by New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage, the exhibition was originally developed with the idea of taking it on the road.

Meticulously laid out and executed, the exhibition’s physical space twists and turns with each new chapter of young Hannah Senesh’s life. It opens and closes with short films, the first a three-sided display of images immersing the viewer in the Budapest of the 1920s and’30s that shaped her.

A poet, diarist and author of the hymn “Eli, Eli,” Senesh died on a volunteer mission trying to save allied fliers and Jews from Nazi-occupied Hungary. As the museum’s press release notes, she became “a lasting symbol of courage and determination.”

David Senesh has had two perspectives about his aunt his entire life.

“There’s the family story — the story always told within the family — and when I was growing up, I could understand it in different ways,” he said. “Then there was the formal story I learned in school just like the other kids. The two stories converged eventually, and now I can see it in a more complex way.”

Hannah Senesh’s diary and letters reveal a bright child and then an astute teenager with self-doubts typical of her age as well as a relentless questioning of her place in the world.

“I would like to be a great soul,” she says at one point.

But she also sketches dresses, talks about boys and flashes a delicious sense of humor. Her developing passion for Palestine is stirring, especially since we “feel” it from her own words.

“My soul has yearned for a life in the Land of Israel,” Hannah writes.

When she lives in a kibbutz in Palestine, she writes of her loneliness and questions whether it’s the right choice for her. But her commitment to Israel grows strong, and the mission that will take her life comes from deep conviction and a moral compass that guides her.

“I don’t know whether I’ve already mentioned I’ve become a Zionist,” Hannah writes. “To me it means, in short, that I now consciously and strongly feel that I am a Jew, and proud of it.”

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