Israeli paratroopers have described being deeply moved last week by their experience in a commemorative expedition in Slovenia, held to honour the memory of Hannah Senesh (Szenes) and other Jewish paratroopers who parachuted into the same area of Europe during World War II.
“When you jump from the plane, you look right and left, and it takes on a new significance,” the Deputy Commander of the Paratroopers Brigade, Col. (Res.) Oran Bersano, told JNS in recent days.
“Hannah Senesh did this at night, in secret, so that no one would discover her here. Today, Israeli soldiers are parachuting in broad daylight with the media waiting for us on the ground. This is moving,” said Bersano. “The Lightning of the Heavens Expedition” was an international joint parachute jump and memorial event that took place in Slovenia, Croatia, and Hungary, which marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of Senesh, the first Jewish female paratrooper.
In British Mandatory Palestine at the time, Senesh, who is also known for the emotive and lasting poetry she wrote of the area, enlisted in the British Army in 1943 and went on to become one of 37 volunteers from the Yishuv to parachute into Nazi-occupied Europe in order to help their Jewish brethren. She parachuted into Yugoslavia in March 1944. In June 1944, she was caught by Hungarian forces trying to cross the border into Hungary, arrested and brutally tortured, but she refused to disclose sensitive radio codes. She was executed by firing squad in November 1944 at the age of 23.
Bersano, whose 94-year-old grandmother is a Holocaust survivor from Hungary, described the feeling of coming full circle by taking part in the jump. “My grandmother’s brother was killed in the 1948 War of Independence, after immigrating by boat in 1944. Before that, he fought in the Hungary-Romanian area against the Nazis as a partisan. So this is a truly significant closing of the circle for me personally,” he added.
“Who would have believed then that in 2021, we’d be here in uniform?” he added.
Bersano, a father of four who serves 100 days in the Israeli Defense Forces’ reserves each year, trained with the German military in 2019—an experience he also found brimming with historical and contemporary purpose.
The expedition also included walking through the forests that the Jewish paratroopers wandered through. “As I speak to you, there is a pastoral river nearby. Not long ago, Jews were thrown in the river in the 1940s. Now, Israeli soldiers are here in uniform. The significance of IDF paratroopers coming to any place in the world is that we are not a nation that does not forget a thing. And that no matter who is in distress, we will come to their aid. This is the Israeli DNA,” said Bersano.