The search for her famous husband, Enzio Sereni, ended when evidence emerged that he been murdered in the Dachau concentration camp in November 1944. In the meantime, Sereni fit in well at the Mossad office in Italy. She spoke the language and was acquainted with the local manners and customs. After finding the evidence about her husband, Yehudah Arzi, the head of the Mossad in Italy, asked her to join the Mossad as his second in command.
Sereni was immensely impressed with Arzi and the two worked together to send clandestine ships to Palestine. In April 1947, Arzi returned home and Sereni was appointed to replace him as head of the Mossad in Italy. From 1945 to 1948, the Mossad sent 37 ships to Palestine with 28,000 clandestine immigrants. Sereni managed this secret and complicated operation. She traveled throughout Italy in search of ports and beaches that could serve as ship launching sites (her driver during these travels was a young volunteer named Moti Hod who would become the head of the Israeli Air Force), found, bought, and prepared ships for use in the clandestine Haganah operations, organized the transport of the immigrants who entered Italy illegally from all over Europe to the ports of departure, and ran the operation of loading the ships and sending them off the Palestine. In 1948, she also bought weapons and ammunition that she shipped across the Mediterranean to equip the newly formed Israel Defense Forces.
Very quickly, she became someone who was “not connected,” in her words, to the commander of very complex and dangerous operations. She was responsible for actions that involved deciding how much danger the immigrants should be put in. As Sereni commanded more and more operations, she gained more confidence and courage.
Sereni was a master of disguise, showing up as a translator, a doctor, or an American tourist arriving to enjoy sunny Italy. In December 1947, during preparations to send off the ship Al Tafchideni (Do not Frighten Us), she told the local population that gathered around in the small fishing harbor, “We are filming a movie … a war scene with hundreds of fleeing refugees,” and asked them to help. The locals all chipped in to help the production and that night, they pushed the boats with the 850 Jewish refugees to the ship anchored outside the harbor. Sereni learned the fine details of laws and regulations governing harbors and shipping. She thwarted British attempts to find out what the Mossad was up in a variety of ways, such as changing names of ships, sailing times, and of course destinations.
Even though Sereni operated in a world of deceit and illegality, she tried to be truthful about her actions to the Italian authorities and never gave bribes.
“My name is Ada Sereni and I am the head of the organization that helps Jewish refugees in Italy clandestinely get to the Land of Israel,” she told one of the Italian admirals she met, adding, “They need your help.”
The Italians were not taken aback. Sereni pointed out their common interests: Italy wanted to get rid of the thousands of Jewish refugees crossing its borders, but did not know how to do this. As she wrote, “We wanted to take the refugees out and they wanted them to go.” Sereni also knew that the Italians’ dislike of the British and their guilt over the suffering of the Jews during the war would win Italian support for her activities.
Sereni’s connections came in handy after November 29, 1947, with the outbreak of the War of Independence, when the Mossad’s main focus switched to the purchase of arms, together with stopping arms shipments to the Arabs. Towards the end of March 1948, Sereni received a command from Avigur to take over an Italian ship, Lino, which was on its way to Beirut with arms for Syria. When Sereni found out that the ship’s crew was composed of Italians, she decided to use her experience and connections. Making contact with a senior officer in the Italian navy, she – as she had always done – told him the truth: the innocent-looking ship was carrying arms and she was not sure if the arms were on their way to arm the forces fighting against the Jews in Palestine or to be used in an insurrection in the upcoming Italian elections. The Italians immediately gave an order to halt the ship. This created the window of opportunity that allowed Haganah forces to sink the ship. Following the Italian elections, Sereni met the new Italian prime minister, who offered his help in sending arm shipments to Israel in the midst of the War of Independence.
It seems odd that the activities of the woman that planned, acquired, organized, equipped, and sent over 30 clandestine Haganah ships to Palestine were not included in the dominant narrative of the clandestine immigration to the Land of Israel. In general, until the 1980s, women were erased from the collective Israeli memory in order to belittle their participation. Sereni, however, was very unusual, a fact that makes her exclusion stand out even more. She was a singular, independent personality in her education, her life with Enzo, joining the Zionist movement, and making aliyah in the 1920s against the wishes of her family. She was different from most of the eastern European women who had made aliyah, few of whom had a higher education. Even in the Mossad, she was the odd person out. Like most Mossad operatives, she was a kibbutz member, but unlike them, she was a woman – “a sharp individualistic women, good looking and aristocratic,” according to the Mossad historians. This image is not compatible with the Mossad operative model, which historian Prof. Idith Zertal described as a “member of the collective order motivated by kibbutz ideals more than his own personality and vision.” In addition to all this, Sereni was nearly the only woman in a man’s world and the only woman to attain a senior position.