Ada Ascarelli Sereni
1905 – 1998
Much of Ada Sereni’s life was spent in the shadow of the heroic figure of her husband Enzo, who died as one of the Jews who parachuted into German-occupied Europe during World War II, but she herself made so noteworthy a contribution to the Zionist enterprise as to win her the 1995 Israel Prize.
Ada Ascarelli was born in Rome on June 20, 1905, into one of Italy’s wealthiest and most respected Jewish families: the Ascarellis were descended from Spanish exiles, one of whom, Deborah Ascarelli, a sixteenth-century poet, was the first Jewish woman to publish a literary work. While Jewish tradition was very strong in the family, secularism was stronger. Ada’s father, a lover of history with an extensive library, owned a herd of sheep in Sardinia and produced cheese which was exported to the United States.
While still at school Ada fell in love with a fellow pupil, Enzo Sereni (1905–1944), a Zionist and socialist, like herself a member of the Italian Jewish aristocracy. An avid reader who early on wrote a novel, he attempted to persuade her to study the humanities, like himself, but she preferred chemistry, which she took at the University of Rome. After the birth of their daughter Hannah on July 4, 1926, the couple emigrated to Palestine, where they married on February 19, 1927. A second daughter, Hagar, was born on July 2, 1927, and a son, Daniel, on March 8, 1931.
Ada and Enzo spent their first year in Palestine in Rehovot under difficult conditions; she later referred to this as the worst time in her life. Enzo worked in the orchards, while Ada stayed at home to care for their two small daughters. In June 1928, together with a small group of Russian-born pioneers, they founded Kibbutz Givat Brenner, where Ada later worked as director of the Rimon juice and preserves factory. Enzo, who began to engage in communal service within the Labor movement, was sent to Germany at the beginning of the 1930s as an emissary of its youth movement. The family was several times sent to New York, where Ada organized a commune of young Zionist pioneers with whom they lived in the Bronx.
During World War II Enzo was among the initiators of a plan to parachute Jewish agents into Europe. He himself parachuted into the German lines on May 15, 1944, as a British army officer. Captured by the Germans, he was killed in Dachau on November 18, 1944. For several months Ada remained without news of her husband. In May 1945, when he was officially declared missing in action, Givat Brenner decided to try to find him. Ada approached Shaul Avigur (1899–1978), who was the head of the Haganah Organization for “Illegal Immigration” and an organizer of the parachute missions in collaboration with the British military, who suggested that she engage in military assistance in Italy for a term of at least two years. Officially, she was to establish clubs for the members of the Jewish Brigade, but she was also to engage in organizing illegal immigration, under the command of the legendary Yehuda Arazi (1907–1959) and also to search for Enzo. With the permission of the kibbutz and her children’s agreement, Sereni set out on July 3, 1945, together with three other women, all in British uniform. Traveling via Egypt, they flew to Naples. Ada found several clues to Enzo’s fate: Italian prisoners of war recalled the courage he had instilled in them; a Christian priest spoke of a book with notes in a strange language, which had been entrusted to him but had been lost; a sick young man from the Mildorf concentration camp reported on a “Captain Barda” who had been sent to Dachau and spoke of Barda’s having divided equally between all the members of his group a plate of soup which he, as head of the group, had been given. Arriving in Munich, Ada found the neatly arranged register of those who had been sent to their death in Dachau. Here she discovered notification of her husband’s death. Her private mission was over.
Sereni returned to Italy, beginning a period of intensive activity dedicated to the clandestine, “illegal” immigration of Holocaust survivors to Palestine, in direct opposition to British policy. Her task was to purchase ships, fill them with Jews and organize all aspects of the voyage. At first serving as second-in-command to Yehuda Arazi, she replaced him as commander of the operation in 1947. She continued in this position until May 14, 1948, when the last ship left from Formia (Rome)—no longer clandestinely, but openly, to the newly-established State of Israel.
In the course of her work in Italy Sereni demonstrated an admirable power of organization and a gift for speaking to the Italian authorities. These qualities were invaluable both in finding living quarters for the numerous refugees and in organizing their journeys. In all, she helped 28,000 Jews to reach Palestine, in a total of thirty-eight ships that sailed from Italy.
After the establishment of the state, Sereni continued to work on immigration, but also engaged in clandestine smuggling of arms from Europe to Israel. In an unofficial meeting with the Italian prime minister, Alcide Gaspari (1947–1953), she convinced him to help her in this task and succeeded in gaining passive complicity from the Italian authorities.
Returning to Israel in 1950, she moved to Tel Aviv and became active in various civil issues. In July 1954 her son Daniel was killed when a Piper plane crashed at Kibbutz Ma’agan on the shore of Lake Kinneret in the course of a ceremony commemorating his father and the other wartime parachutists.
A woman of great energy, Sereni joined Nativ, a branch of Israel’s secret service which engaged in the struggle to help Soviet Jews immigrate to Israel. In 1958 she sent a letter to David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s prime minister, requesting that he employ her in the effort of “Judaizing the goyim”—a task for which she spent the years 1958 to 1967 in Rome, working on the issue of Soviet Jewish aliyah.
Returning to Israel in 1968, she was soon employed by Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, who engaged her, together with Shlomo Gazit, in a giant mission to “persuade” the Arab residents of Gaza to emigrate. His choice of Sereni was apparently based on the hope that her ties with the Italian establishment would enable the transfer of large numbers of Gaza’s Arabs to Libya. Her appointment was initially for six months. In mid-May 1968 Sereni reported to Eshkol that in the first three months of activity, some 15,000 residents had left Gaza (Segev 2005).
Maintaining her ties with her country of birth, Sereni helped found the Associazione Italia-Israele. She spent the last years of her life in assisted living at Nofei Yerushalayim in Israel’s capital, where she died in November, 1998.
Sereni, Ada. I clandestini del mare. L’emigrazione ebraica in Terra d’Israele dal 1945 al 1948. Milano: 1994
Bidussa, David, and Maria Grazia Meriggi. Enzo Sereni, Emilio Sereni, Politica e Utopia. Lettere 1926–1943. Milano: 2000; Sereni, Clara. Il gioco dei regni. Firenze: 1993; Segev, Tom. Israel in 1967 (Hebrew). Jerusalem: 2005, 557–563; Toscano, Mario. La Porta di Sion. L’Italia e l’immigrazione clandestine ebraica in Palestina (1945–1948). Bologna: 1990.