Director Roberta Grossman on Blessed Is the Match

April 12, 2010

Hannah Sanesh was only 22 years old when she parachuted into Nazi-occupied Europe in an effort to save the Jews of Hungary, but she had already left behind a body of literary work consisting of poems and diaries that would inspire readers for generations to come. “Blessed is the Match,” is the first feature documentary to bring to life this remarkable Holocaust heroine through interviews, eyewitness accounts, rare family photographs, dramatic re-creations, and the writings of Hannah and her mother Catherine Sanesh.

We had a chance to speak with director/producer Roberta Grossman about the making of “Blessed is the Match,” which airs Tueseday, April 13 at 10pm on THIRTEEN.

T: What were the biggest challenges of telling Hannah Senesh’s story?

RG: One of the biggest challenges was confronting a general perception among funders and critics that we’ve reached “Holocaust Fatigue,” that people no longer want to learn about the Holocaust.  Many times during the making of the film and upon its release, we had to decide to ignore that notion. In my mind, I was telling Hannah Senesh’s story — she is one of the great Jewish and great women heroines of history, and her story is nearly unknown outside of Israel. I wanted Hannah and her story to be know and the film is the way to enter the historical consciousness in our era.  I have often wondered, why is Anne Frank, who was a victim without the ability to act, so much better known than Hannah, who, because of her circumstances, was able to act, to resist and chose to do so?  I think of the film not as a Holocaust story, but as a mother-daughter love story set against the backdrop of the Holocaust.

T: You said you learned about Hannah Senesh when you were in middle school, but you were closer to Hannah’s mother’s age when you undertook the film. What perspective about Hannah did the process of making “Blessed is the Match” bring you?

RG: I think that heroes are quite boring, hard to relate to, one dimensional.  If I had told Hannah’s story when I first wanted to, right out of college, I think I probably would have made an ultimately boring film about a hero.  But, because of the passage of time, I think I made a film about a daughter, a girl, and her mother who had to watch her brilliant and strong-willed daughter make decisions that would ultimately cost her her life.  That’s interesting, that’s powerful, that’s something people can relate to.

T: This is a story about a singular mother-daughter relationship. What aspect of their relationship resonated with you the most?

RG: I guess, for me, the part that resonated most was the unbreakable bond between mother and daughter.  Catherine did not approve of Hannah emigrating to Palestine and certainly would not have approved of her going on such a perilous mission.Yet when confronted in the interrogator’s office with Hannah — when told, “make Hannah tell us her radio code or you’ll never see her again” — Catherine immediately decided if Hannah didn’t want to talk, she had good reason not to, and she would not try to influence her otherwise.  That’s trust, that’s respect.  Secondly, I think Hannah’s story is, in some ways, about trying to break away from her mother, to find her own life, her own path.  I suppose that resonated with me as well.

T: What about Hannah’s upbringing informed the gumption to parachute behind enemy lines during the War?

RG: Hannah came from a famous intellectual family in Budapest.  Her father was a playwright and newspaper columnist.  I think Hannah inherited a sense of self confidence in her own ideas and views.  In addition, Hannah grew up during a period of rising anti-Semitism — one choice was to fold under that pressure, the other choice was to embrace a Jewish identity and feel proud.  Hannah chose the later and that fueled her.  She had all the conviction of a recent convert when she embraced Zionism as the solution for the problems of the Jewish people in the 1930s.

T: Heroes and heroines often become oversimplified over time. What were the challenges of capturing Hannah’s heroism without sacrificing her complexity as a human being?

RG: The biggest challenge was fitting everything into a watchable film — I would have like to have included more passages from Hannah’s diary that reflect her self-doubt, her sense of humor, her self-deprecation.  If I could go back and change anything about the film, I’d change that.

Visit Independent Lens for more interviews and film segments.