- Perfect Heroes: The World War II Parachutists and the Making of Israeli Collective Memory
The four line song “Eli Eli” is known by every person educated within the Israeli school system or who has participated in a Jewish youth movement group in Israel or abroad. With its lilting melody and prayer-like quality, it features repeatedly in memorial ceremonies, political rallies, film scores, and school assemblies, and is an endemic part of Israeli popular culture. As any schoolchild can tell you, it was written as a poem by Hannah Szenes, who heroically parachuted into Hungary for the British during World War II, and was captured, tortured, and killed. Said child might also be able to tell you that she was originally Hungarian and a Zionist, and that she moved to Mandate Palestine and lived on a kibbutz. Perhaps that child might even be able to name one or two other parachutists, though I suspect that to be unlikely. Yet there were several dozen parachutists sent by the British in conjunction with the Yishuv (the Jewish settlement in Palestine before the establishment of the State of Israel). Judith Tydor Baumel-Schwartz examines the ascendency of Szenes’s mythic status in Israeli society and by contrast the relative erasure of the other parachutists from the pantheon of national heroes.
Perfect Heroes: The World War II Parachutists and the Making of the Israeli Collective Memory is not just a biography about the parachutists, it is also a [End Page 353] biography about Israeli society and its progressive transformation of the parachutists’ narratives. Baumel-Schwartz presents the historical events that led up to the use of Yishuv parachutists by the British, the missions into Europe, and the fate of each member of the original group. She then explores the evolution of the parachutist narrative from the 1940s onwards. In the early days, institutional structures such as different groups within the kibbutz movement were instrumental in shaping modes of commemoration, selecting from among those who had died candidates who represented the right ideological message (61). From the very earliest period, Szenes was catapulted to a central position due to her relative lack of particular political affiliation, her poetic corpus, but most importantly because she was a young, unmarried woman, who served as a blank canvas upon which could be projected heroic national ideals. By the 1950s the parachutists were no longer individuals and had, instead, become an “abstract concept” of heroism, duty, and national pride (104), which by the 1960s had transformed them from “paragon into myth” (105).
Baumel-Schwartz traces the social reception of the parachutists through modes of commemoration that include ceremonies, burial services, and commemorative devices such as renaming a kibbutz or a street. However, it is her analysis of key educational markers such as school textbooks and youth camp manuals which makes the most remarkable impact. Her poignant presentation of the evolving relationship between the Holocaust and the parachutists within pedagogical frameworks captures the counterintuitive responses in Israel to the horrors in Europe.
By the mid 1960s the change of emphasis in the Israeli national consciousness led to changes in educational material—and the parachutists disappeared almost entirely from the national narrative: “Memories of the War of independence and the Sinai Campaign were fading and the emphasis was shifting from defence to settlement and growth. The daily worries over security that for years had kept young people’s eyes riveted on heroic episodes from the past had waned.”
This book excels at placing these changing receptions of the parachutist narrative in the wider context of Israeli social norms, military experiences, and international political relations. Baumel-Schwartz engages us in the constant tension between the parachutists’ European origins and the European field of operation for their missions on the one hand, and the Zionist project with its Yishuv foundations, and the need to construct national heroes in Israel for the new state on the other. It remained important to downplay the European element of the...