Photo Credit: Jewish Press

Enzo Chaim Sereni (1905-1944) was an Italian Zionist, co-founder of Kibbutz Givat Brenner, a celebrated intellectual, and a Jewish Brigade officer best known for his heroism in parachuting into Nazi-occupied Italy in World War II, where he was captured and executed in Dachau.

Sereni’s wealthy assimilated Italian family was both culturally eminent and Jewishly involved; for example, his father was physician to the Italian king Victor Emanuel III and his uncle was head of the organization of Jewish communities in Italy. While still a teen, Sereni became one of Italy’s first Zionists after attending and being inspired by the Thirteenth Zionist Congress in Carlsbad (1923).

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After earning a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Rome, Sereni and his wife, Ada, made aliyah to Eretz Yisrael, then under British Mandate rule, thereby becoming the first two Italian pioneers to settle the land (1927). He worked in the orange groves of Rehovot, became active with the socialist Histadrut trade union, and worked to create a united Kibbutz movement.

As a founder of Givat Brenner near Rehovot, he continued to work the fields of the kibbutz while also traveling to raise funds for the new agricultural enterprise from both Jewish institutions and his own Italian relatives.

Sereni was sent to Europe in 1931-1934 as part of the Youth Aliyah movement to help bring Jews to Eretz Yisrael. After a brief arrest by the Gestapo in Nazi Germany, he helped organize the Hechalutz movement, which trained Jewish youth for agricultural settlement in Eretz Yisrael and worked to smuggle money and people out of Germany.

Sent to the United States in 1936 to help organize the Zionist movement there, he championed the kibbutz movement and, although he was very well received and met with great success in the U.S., his pacifism and his advocacy of co-existence with the Arabs angered many New York Jews.

At the commencement of World War II, Sereni immediately joined the British army and, working with British intelligence in Cairo, he supported the anti-fascist propaganda effort by editing Italian newspapers and radio broadcasts. Later assigned as a secret agent in Iraq, he organized clandestine aliyah and successfully arranged for the transport of Jewish youth to Eretz Yisrael.

In 1942, he became one of the first Jewish emissaries from Eretz Yisrael to Iraq, where he visited Sandur, a Jewish village in northern Iraq about a 90-minute drive from Mosul. He was incarcerated by his British superior officers when they learned of his Zionist activities, which included forging passports.

He was soon released by the British authorities after he launched a hunger strike and because they decided he was needed to organize and lead the Jewish parachute unit of the British Special Operations Executive (SOE), which was sending agents into Nazi-occupied Europe. A small, unimposing, and bespectacled man who looked more like an accountant than a military man, Sereni was one of 110 chosen out of 250 volunteers for training, and he was perhaps the oldest of the 33 final selectees who ultimately parachuted into Europe.

Despite strong opposition, he insisted on being dropped into northern Italy, still under Nazi control, and when he parachuted there on May 15, 1944, he landed behind German lines, was captured immediately, and was executed at Dachau on November 18, 1944.

Sereni was not your “typical hero,” if there even is such a thing. He was a man steeped in paradox: an intellectual who became a kibbutznik; a man who would work hard all day, performing the most mundane tasks on the kibbutz, and then read Latin and Greek at night (he was a great linguist); he was both a socialist and a believing Jew; at once a philanthropist and a fundraiser; and a man who, though he loved his home country, made aliyah in his youth.

Through all of his travels and in the course of all his assignments, Sereni was a magnificent and effective spokesman for Zionism who always found a way to help Jews and Eretz Yisrael. However, although he was fiercely dedicated to the Zionist and anti-fascist cause, he harbored a high degree of skepticism to “groupthink” and maintained his own beliefs and opinions.

Thus, although he was a passionate socialist who joined Mapai, Israel’s labor party, he often deviated from its party line, much to the chagrin of its leaders. At all times, however, he remained vociferously opposed to the Revisionists and he expressed particular disdain for Revisionist leaders Ze’ev Jabotinsky and Menachem Begin.

In this beautiful and remarkable June 24, 1954 correspondence on her Ministry of Labor letterhead, Golda Meir (then Meyerson) writes to Italian Zionist Ada Sereni, Enzo’s widow:

Golda Meir’s letter to Ada Sereni.

On the anniversary of the death of Enzo, I found it necessary to tell you the way I remembered your husband, Enzo Sereni, of blessed memory. It was during one of the stormy nights of the “Ha’apala” in 1945. I was standing on the seashore and was looking out at a “ma’apilim” ship bearing the name of Enzo Sereni as it was discharging 1,000 ma’apilim [illegal immigrants] on the sand, and I thought to myself that every nation honors its heroes in its own way, and in our way I am sure this would have found pleasure in Enzo’s eyes. May his memory be a blessing.

When Enzo was officially declared missing in action in May 1945, Kibbutz Givat Brenner decided to try to find him. Leading that effort and after a long search, Ada arrived in Munich, where she discovered a register of the Jews sent to their deaths in Dachau and found her husband’s name on the list.

Thereafter, in the face of strong British opposition and against strong odds, she won the cooperation of the postwar Italian authorities for Jewish rescue operations, helped purchase naval vessels, and brought immigrants through the British blockade. Ada became a key figure in the Haganah’s post-Holocaust smuggling of Jews through Italy to Israel. In fact, she commanded the entire Italian operation from 1947 through May 14, 1948, when the final ship openly departed Italy to the newly-born State of Israel.

In all, she is credited with helping 28,000 Jews reach Eretz Yisrael in 38 ships sailing from Italy. After the establishment of the Jewish state, she continued her (now-legal) immigration work, but she also engaged in the clandestine smuggling of arms from Europe to Israel.

Ada was born into one of Italy’s wealthiest and most respected Jewish families – her ancestor, Deborah Ascarelli, was a 16th century poet and the first Jewish woman ever to publish a literary work – where Jewish tradition was important, but secularism was foremost. After their aliyah to Eretz Yisrael, she married Enzo there on February 19, 1927.

She worked as director of the Rimon juice and preserves factory at Givat Brenner and accompanied her husband on his trips to the United States, where she organized a commune of young Zionist pioneers in the Bronx. Returning to Israel in 1950, Ada moved to Tel Aviv and became active in various civil issues.

Sadly, her son was among the 17 killed in July 1954 when a small plane crashed at Kibbutz Ma’agan on the shore of Lake Kinneret in the course of a ceremony commemorating Enzo and the other wartime parachutists. She later settled in Jerusalem and became active in Nativ, a branch of Israel’s secret service engaged in the struggle to help Jews escape Soviet Russia and make aliyah.

In 1995, she was awarded the Israel Prize, regarded as the country’s highest cultural honor, and she is the author of Sefinot Le’lo Degel (Ships Without a Flag, 1973), in which she discusses illegal aliyah.

The Enzo Sereni.

In her letter, Golda mentions a ship named the Enzo Sereni involved in bringing ma’apilim to Eretz Yisrael. The back story of this event is among the most dramatic chronicles of Jewish attempts to break the British blockade of Eretz Yisrael between the end of World War II and the birth of Israel in 1948.

In 1945, Yehuda Araz, as head of Mossad L’Aliya Bet in Italy – and with Ada’s assistance – purchased the Rondine, a newly-built wooden 410-pound vessel. The ship, which set sail on January 7, 1946 from Vado Ligura, a small Italian fishing village near Genoa, included a record 908 ma’apilim as passengers. Included aboard the vessel, which had been renamed the Enzo Sereni, were “the Children of Salvino,” orphans who, having miraculously survived the Shoah, had been gathered together by Jewish units in the British army and cared for by them in a specially-built camp in the village of Salvino.

Because, to the great embarrassment of the Mandate authorities, eight previous ships had broken through the British blockade, the British navy had been placed on high alert and, as such, it was ready when the Enzo Sereni approached Eretz Yisrael on January 17, 1946. The British intercepted the vessel, took it into custody, and interred its passengers – including the children – at the infamous Atlit detention camp.

Stamps honoring Enzo and Ada Sereni issued by the Israeli Postal Authority.

As the interception of the Enzo Sereni constituted both a dramatic escalation of the British effort to keep Jews out of their homeland and a radical departure from the law of the sea – marking the first time that the British had intercepted an “illegal immigrant” ship in open waters outside the territorial waters of Eretz Yisrael – the Mossad decided to sue the Mandatory Government through the front man who owned the ship on paper.

After a lengthy trial, the ship was ordered returned to its owner, and it sailed back to Italy. In an act of revenge, the Irgun blew up the British radar station on Mount Carmel. Finally, in 1948, the vessel made an additional three trips, two after the issuance of Israel’s Declaration of Independence after which, no longer needed, it was sold in Italy.

Golda, who was apparently among the group waiting on the sands of Haifa to welcome the passengers aboard the Enzo Sereni, evokes sharp memories of standing on the seashore on a stormy night and watching the discharge of 1,000 ma’apilim from the ship. However, she clearly has her dates wrong, as the Enzo Sereni arrived at the shores of Eretz Yisrael in 1946 and not in 1945, as she writes.

Enzo wrote several books and numerous articles, including two books that were published posthumously, HaAviv HaKadosh (The Holy Spring 1947) and Mekorot Ha’Fashizm Ha’Italki (Sources of Italian Fascism, 1951). The seminal work published during his life, however, was Jews and Arabs in Palestine (1936), in which, as editor and contributor, he provides a “historical survey” discussing “the Jewish-Arab question” in Eretz Yisrael.

His stated purpose of the work was to “give the serious student and reader a presentation of facts and opinion, written by men thoroughly conversant with the practical and theoretical aspects of the question.” Contributors included David Ben-Gurion on “Planning Zionist Policy;” Chaim Arlosoroff on “Economic Background of the Arab Question;” Berl Katznelson on “The Political Future of Palestine;” and Moses Beilinson on “Problems of a Jewish-Arab Rapprochement.”

Shown here is a rare and original copy of Jews and Arabs in Palestine, which the author has inscribed to Arthur Ruppin, the father of Zionist settlement in Eretz Yisrael. Ruppin (1876-1943) is perhaps best known for bridging political Zionism and pragmatic Zionism; leading the systematic expansion of settling the cities and rural regions and of the country’s economy; and playing a central role in the absorption of the Fifth Aliyah, which brought tens of thousands of immigrants from Germany and refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe.

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Ruppin also helped create new forms of settlements, including the kibbutz, the kevutzah, and the moshav. He directed the purchase of contiguous tracts of land for agricultural settlement; established the Palestine Land Development Corporation (1908); and, in particular, directed the purchase of land in Emek Yizrael, Haifa, Mt. Carmel, Rechavia, parts of Jerusalem, and the land that became Tel Aviv.

Finally, Kibbutz Netzer Sereni is located between Be’er Ya’akov and Ness Ziona and was established on June 20, 1948 by Buchenwald concentration camp survivors. It was originally called Kibbutz Buchenwald by a group of Buchenwald concentration camp survivors who, while still in Germany, united into a training group under that name and preserved the name when the kibbutz was established in 1948. The name was later renamed in honor of Enzo, and there are also several streets throughout Israel named in his memory.

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Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at saul.singer@verizon.net.