Grapevine: Remembering Enzo Sereni

No Italian is better known in Israel than Enzo Sereni, the co-founder of Kibbutz Givat Brenner, an advocate for Jewish-Arab coexistence and an officer in the Jewish Brigade.

April 16, 2015 19:54
Yisrael Meir Lau at Auschwitz

Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau stands at the gates of Auschwitz.. (photo credit: REUTERS/MICHAL LEPECKI)

No Italian is better known in Israel than Enzo Sereni, the co-founder of Kibbutz Givat Brenner, an advocate for Jewish-Arab coexistence and an officer in the Jewish Brigade – who was parachuted into Italy in 1944, captured by the Nazis and murdered in the Dachau concentration camp.

Born in Rome to a father who was physician to the king of Italy, Sereni – who was raised in an assimilated household – was among the pioneers of Italian Zionism.

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He arrived in Mandate Palestine in 1927, and though an intellectual with a PhD in philosophy from the University of Rome, delighted in rolling up his sleeves and laboring in the orange groves of Rehovot. After helping to found the kibbutz, he became active in the trade union movement.

Among the emissaries sent to Europe in 1931 to join in the effort to bring Jews, especially children, to Palestine through the Youth Aliya movement, he was briefly detained by the Gestapo but after his release continued with his activities in Germany, where he was among the organizers of the Hehalutz movement that helped smuggle people and money out of the country. After three years in Europe, Sereni was sent to the US, to imbue a greater Zionist spirit in the Jewish community there. Later, when the war broke out, he joined the British Army and went to Egypt, where he disseminated anti-fascist propaganda.

The British later sent him to Iraq, where he made contact with the Jewish community and spent part of his time organizing clandestine aliya. Discovered to be forging passports, he was imprisoned for a short time; however, the British needed him to help organize the Jewish parachute unit of the British Special Operations Executive. Of the 110 trainees selected from among 250 volunteers, 33 including Sereni were parachuted into Europe.

He was parachuted into Italy on May 15, 1944, exactly four years before David Ben-Gurion proclaimed Israel’s independence.

Immediately captured, Sereni was sent to Dachau and shot.

Kibbutz Netzer Sereni is named for him, as are several streets in Israel. To honor his memory on the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Italy from German occupation, the Italian Embassy together with the Italian Cultural Institute and in cooperation with the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality and the Eretz Israel Museum, will hold a memorial tribute for Sereni at Independence Hall, 16 Rothschild Boulevard, Tel Aviv, on Sunday, April 26, at 6 p.m. The event will be held under the title, “To liberate Italy and to dream of Israel.”

Speakers will include Italian Deputy Foreign Minister for International Cooperation Lapo Pistelli; Italian Ambassador Francesco Maria Talo; Paolo Mieli, president of RCS Publishing House; MK Hilik Bar, secretary- general of the Labor Party; MK Eitan Broshi, secretary-general of the Kibbutz Movement; Sereni’s grandson, Prof. Alon Confino of the University of Virginia and of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev; Sereni’s niece, Ada Sereni; Muki Tsur, historian of the Kibbutz Movement; and journalist and former diplomat Sergio Minerbi.

■ WHAT KIND of gift do you give your mother on her 94th birthday? If she’s a Holocaust survivor, regardless of her financial status, she has a bond with other Holocaust survivors, and wants to help them.

Unlike so many Holocaust survivors who live in dire economic straits, Leah Stern doesn’t have to worry about money, but she does worry about those fellow survivors who have been less fortunate.

As it happens, her son Yitzhak Davidovich is one of Israel’s leading figures in the supply of hearing aids. Advanced age often leads to impaired hearing, and most Holocaust survivors today are in the 80-plus age group.

So to do his mother proud, Davidovich contributed hearing aids at a total value of NIS 400,000 to the Foundation for the Benefit of Holocaust Victims in Israel – of which MK Avi Dichter is the pro-bono chairman.

As the son of survivors, Dichter understands the needs and fears of those who lived through the Holocaust, and he was delighted that Davidovich’s gift will help so many of them hear what is going on around them.

None of the beneficiaries can afford to purchase a hearing aid. Davidovich met with both Dichter and foundation CEO Rony Kalinski, who told him that after dental issues, impaired hearing is the most common problem among Holocaust survivors.

Stern received a certificate of appreciation from the foundation, on which Dichter had inscribed the Yiddish words gezunt und shtark – healthy and strong.

Hailing from Romania, Stern had two children – Davidovich and his sister. She and her husband, who had each survived the concentration camps, came to Israel as refugees when it was still under the administration of the Mandate authorities. Like so many other refugees, they were sent to Cyprus – where they remained for a year and a half until Israel became a sovereign independent state.

According to Davidovich, his mother rarely spoke of her Holocaust experiences, but as a child when he asked for something that was expensive, her invariable response was: “During the Holocaust, we didn’t have food; we used to pick mushrooms and potatoes and eat them raw.”

Davidovich’s wife is the daughter of a Holocaust survivor who was subjected to the cruelty of Dr. Josef Mengele’s experiments.

The family’s joint triumph over the Nazis is in the fact that the Davidovichs have five children and 15 grandchildren – a fact that Stern treasures above all else.

In addition to his hearing aid enterprises, Davidovich is a talented painter and photographer who exhibits his works around the world.

■ IN STUDIES published each year around Holocaust Remembrance Day or at Passover and Rosh Hashana, findings indicate that a large percentage of survivors live alone and suffer from acute loneliness. One such woman was 92-year-old Haya Gertman of Bat Yam, who lost her entire family in the Holocaust and had absolutely no living relatives that she knew of. She was adopted by one of her neighbors, Tikva Cohen, who used to look out for her, and she became a surrogate grandmother to Tikva’s daughter Sarit Cohen Toledo.

In a story written by Adva Cohen in Yediot Aharonot this week, Cohen Toledo said that when Gertman died, she and her mother were concerned there might not be a minyan to escort her on her final journey.

They rushed around to all the neighbors and urged them to come to the cemetery in Holon, so that Gertman could have a proper Jewish funeral.

Tikva Cohen spoke to the burial society and asked them to delay the funeral for a day so she could round up some more people; Cohen Toledo went one better and posted Gertman’s story on Facebook, urging people to come pay their respects.

Gertman had been 16 years old in the death camp and had been subjected to medical experiments. She and her sisters were standing together in the selection for life and death; someone pushed her out of the line and she was saved. Her sisters went to the crematoria. After the war she was married for a short time, but spent the rest of her life alone – but for the neighbors who looked out for her welfare.

Two months ago she was diagnosed with cancer and hospitalized. Tikva Cohen and her daughter spent nearly the whole of that period at Gertman’s bedside.

Gertman died at the end of last week.

Cohen Toledo had no idea until she and her mother arrived at the Holon cemetery how many people, if any, would respond to her Facebook plea. When they entered the cemetery they caught sight of their neighbors, but in addition, there were dozens of people who had not known Gertman – but had been moved by her story and decided she should not leave this world alone.

How wonderful that so many came. How sad that so few people befriended her in her lifetime.

■ PEOPLE WHO had migrated from Germany and Austria to places like America, Canada, England and Australia were naturally regarded as enemy aliens during World War II. Even Jews born in Germany and Austria were treated with suspicion, and were sometimes sent to camps or forbidden from engaging in certain categories of employment.

But those who received a clearance were often used to infiltrate Germany and Austria as well as other parts of Nazi-occupied Europe, because their fluency in German was regarded as a great asset. In Israel they, and in later years their offspring, became central figures in Israel’s intelligence community.

Among them is Reuven Merhav, who heads the Association of Israelis of Central European Origin, and is a former director- general of the Foreign Ministry and a former agent of both the Mossad and Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency). Merhav likes to tell the story of the absurdity of Jews who fought for Germany in the First World War, came to Palestine after being gradually pushed out of their jobs and stripped of their rights when the Nazis came to power, and were subsequently awarded medals by Nazi representatives in Palestine in commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the start of that war.

His father was one of those soldiers, so Merhav may tell that story again on Monday, April 20, at a Yekke Bund evening at the Eretz Israel Museum – where organizers make no bones about the fact that Yekke spies will be recognized and honored. The event is sponsored by the Tefen Museum for German-Speaking Jewry, whose founder Stef Wertheimer will greet participants. Listed among the speakers are Yehoshua Shafir, who chairs the Tel Aviv branch of the AICEO; Ron Ketri, chairman of the Institute for Intelligence Studies; and Danny Asher, who will talk about the first Yekkes in Israel’s intelligence community.

Merhav, writer Haim Beer and Ketri will discuss fact and fantasy in the spy business, and other participants will present personal stories. Aspiring writers of thrillers may find this a good learning experience.

■ MANY PEOPLE hesitate to donate to an organization for fear their money will not go directly to the cause, but will be used to pay the salary of an executive director or media liaison. They don’t mind giving – but they want to give directly to the beneficiaries.

One organization that has been doing this for nine years is Yashar Lachayal – direct to the soldier – which was founded by the Moskowitz family of Miami Beach together with a small group of volunteers in 2006, at the height of the Second Lebanon War. They decided to collect and package much-needed supplies of toiletries, sunscreen, towels, underwear and other necessities, and had them transported directly to soldiers at the front.

Volunteers actually went from Miami to Israel to deliver the goods in person; sometimes, they had to take shelter from rocket fire. Scary though it was, it didn’t deter anyone – and Yashar Lachayal is still going strong.

This last Passover, says executive director Leon Blankrot, Yashar Lachayal contributed more than 1,000 food packages to soldiers in need, as they did on Rosh Hashana.

Yashar Lachayal packs and distributes the food packages so as to ease the financial burden on soldiers and their families, providing them with basic food items to help them celebrate the holiday.

This year, volunteers from different Jerusalem- area schools and families worked all day to pack food for the soldiers. Representatives from bases all over the country joined the effort and helped put together and deliver the Passover packages to the soldiers’ homes. Packages were distributed to soldiers from Division 210, Paratroopers 890, Golani 13, Netzach Yehuda, Nahal and Golani Training Bases, Division 401, MLRS, Kfir, Training Base 15, Iron Dome, Shomron Territorial Brigade, Tank Units 46, 52, 53, 71, 74 and 77, the navy, intelligence units, Artillery 411 and more.

The uniform gives the impression of equality, but there are many soldiers in the IDF who come from very poor homes.

■ THE SMOLARZ Auditorium at Tel Aviv University was the venue for a special tribute to Holocaust survivors, their heroism and their contribution to the development of the State of Israel, organized by the Center of Organizations of Holocaust Survivors in Israel.

Survivors and their families were addressed by author and playwright Nava Semel, the daughter and granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, and Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, one of Israel’s most prominent survivors and the chairman of the Yad Vashem Council.

There were also performances by actress Lea Koenig, who is a Holocaust survivor, and the Beersheba Theater Ensemble, Racheli Galai, Dorit Reuveni and David D’Or.

It was a busy week for Lau, who shared some of his Holocaust experiences with his audience. On Wednesday night he was at Yad Vashem and on Thursday, he was in Poland for March of the Living – as he has been every year for as long as anyone can remember. At the opening ceremony at Yad Vashem of the official 70th-anniversary commemoration of the end of the war, Lau’s son David, who is the Ashkenazi chief rabbi and a second-generation survivor, recited from the Psalms.

■ AT AUSCHWITZ, Yisrael Meir Lau, 77, who was the youngest prisoner among those liberated from Buchenwald by the US Army, was accompanied by Auschwitz survivor and Yediot Aharonot journalist Noah Klieger – one of the oldest working journalists in the Hebrew press.

Klieger, who together with Lau hoisted the Israeli flag at the March of the Living ceremony, will turn 89 in July. He is a frequent visitor to Holocaust-related events in Poland, and was there last October with President Reuven Rivlin for the inauguration of the Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews. He lectures on the Holocaust in several languages to groups in Poland and other parts of the world, as well as to visiting groups in Israel.

Both Lau and Klieger are captivating speakers, and despite the nightmarish experiences of their youth, share a marvelous sense of humor and a generally beaming countenance.

■ PRESIDENT of Princeton University's Board of Trustees Kathryn Hall was on a low-key visit to Israel to look at joint projects with Israeli institutions and investigate possible investments Princeton’s board might make in this country. While in Jerusalem, she visited the Old City and was hosted by Shmuel Rabinowitz, rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites, who accompanied her to the Western Wall and took her on a tour of the tunnels.

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