Masterminding illegal immigration to Palestine: Ada Sereni

According to the figures, some 24,000 immigrants left the shores of Italy in about 30 boats, including the famous Exodus 1947.

Ada Sereni (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Ada Sereni
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Ada Ascarelli was born in 1905 to an eminent, wealthy, secular Jewish family in Rome. While in high school, she became enamored of her cousin Enzo Sereni, who was, like herself, an avid Zionist. The two married in 1926, had a baby girl, Hannah, and subsequently left their families to follow their idealist dreams. Their second daughter, Hagar, was born while they were living in Rehovot; in 1928, the young family joined the founders of Kibbutz Givat Brenner, which became their home.
Ada was given traditional female tasks on the kibbutz, where she gave birth to her son Daniel in 1930. Her charismatic husband, the active Zionist, was sent on a mission in 1944 that involved parachuting over Europe. Unfortunately he disappeared, and Ada, now 40 years old, was determined to discover his fate. So she set out for Italy.
As it turns out, Enzo had been captured and was executed at Dachau.
Ada remained in Italy, where she was theoretically representing a committee in charge of Jewish soldiers’ care and running a camp for them. During her stay, however, she met Yehuda Arazi, who had been sent in June 1945 to head the association for illegal immigration in Italy – known in Hebrew as the Mossad L’aliya Bet. She became Arazi’s assistant for a while, but when he returned home in 1947, she was named his successor.
Her children, all teenagers by this time, had been left in the care of the kibbutz, where she assumed that they were benefiting from an excellent Zionist education. Lilach Rosenberg-Friedman (see reference below) notes that Ada did not send them letters very often, either because she was too busy or because she had difficulty writing in Hebrew after re-immersing herself in Italian.
Once widowed, she apparently wanted to make a change in her life, and this job enabled her to do precisely that. Heading the operation of organizing illegal immigration presented a major challenge. The fact that she not only spoke Italian but was also familiar with the Italian mentality gave her a tremendous advantage in negotiating her way in her new position. She realized that many Italians were generous individuals and were also sympathetic to the Jewish refugees’ plight. In carrying out the numerous tasks that her job entailed, she displayed initiative and creativity.
The list of activities for which she was responsible is impressive: She bought the boats that would transport the refugees; she gathered immigrants who were scattered throughout the country and prepared them for their trips; and she located staff for the ships and supervised them before setting sail. Needless to say, she did all this with the utmost secrecy. She was also involved in weapon smuggling.
According to the figures, during this period, some 24,000 immigrants left the shores of Italy in about 30 boats, including the famous Exodus 1947. This number represents approximately a third of all illegal immigration to Palestine during the height of the national struggle to establish the State of Israel between 1945 and 1948.
Ada was resourceful, to say the least. She made contact with government officials and managed to obtain their passive acquiescence to her activities. She attempted to influence these men and, whenever possible, preferred to deal with officials of the highest order, such as the minister of interior.
She had dealings with police officers, port inspectors, navy officers and naval intelligence, and even met with the prime minister, Alcide De Gasperi. She believed that planned illegal immigration was a good option for Italy, as it would help solve its refugee problem. In addition, she was well aware of the Italians’ dislike of the British, who were attempting to prevent these immigrants from achieving their goal.
This woman manifested theatrical inclinations as well. When she felt it served her purpose, she posed as whatever she believed was necessary at that moment. She managed to masquerade as a physician and as an Italian-American tourist.
When arrested, she carried herself like an important personage, rather than like a prisoner.
She succeeded in enlisting the aid of locals by pretending that she and her entourage were making a film. She posed as a vacationer in various ports in order to make inquiries that would not be perceived as suspicious and to examine the conditions of those ports for her own aims.
Ada Sereni had a short but amazing career. She displayed political savvy and sharp intuition. She published a book based on her memories from this period entitled Ship without a Flag (1974), but somehow her achievements were never entrenched in the Israeli historical memory. She was, if only for a few years, a daring and creative woman strongly motivated by her Zionist ideals and a desire to prove herself after her beloved Enzo’s murder. She died in 1998. She deserves a place in the hall of fame of Zionist leaders who made the creation of the state possible.
For more details, see Rosenberg-Friedman’s “National Mission, Feminine Identity and Female Leadership in a Mythical Masculine Organization: The Story of Ada Sereni, Head of the Mossad Le-Aliyah in Italy during the 1940s,” Women’s Studies 43 (2014). 
The author is a professor of Jewish history at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem and the academic editor of the journal Nashim.