Zehava (Genia) was born in 1930 in Łódź, Poland to parents Fela-Ziporah and Hirsch-Zvi Rotenberg, a younger sister for Nachum-Natek (b. 1925). Hirsch was a Zionist who was active in the Jewish community. He ran a bakery, and Fela had a haberdashery store. Hirsch's sister immigrated to Eretz Israel (Mandatory Palestine) in the 1920s. Not wanting to part from her parents, who lived with them, Fela and her family remained in Poland. They lived in a Christian area, and maintained a secular lifestyle, but felt a connection to Jewish tradition. Zehava attended the local Polish primary school.
On 8 September 1939 the Germans occupied Łódź, and the persecution of Łódź's Jews began immediately, with arrests, forced labor, abuse and humiliation. The Rotenbergs did not escape this fate. Their house was looted several times, and on one occasion, the Germans persecuted Fela's father, Chaim Fuchs. They beat him, forced him to perform athletic exercises in the courtyard, and set fire to his beard. After this harrowing incident, Chaim, his wife Rivka and their grandson Nachum fled to Fela's brother in Grodno.
On 22 September, the Soviets occupied Grodno. Zehava and her parents tried to cross over into the Soviet-occupied zone and to reunite with their family in Grodno, but the Soviets forbade them to cross the border, and they returned to Łódź, then fled to Warsaw and were incarcerated in the ghetto. Fela made sure that Zehava still studied, and put her in Janusz Korczak's orphanage for a short spell of time, after which Fela and Hirsch organized a paid hiding place outside the ghetto for Zehava and two other girls. They escaped via the sewage tunnels, but were abused by the people concealing them, and made their way back to the ghetto.
Fela was murdered in the ghetto while waiting in line for food. Zehava and Hirsch escaped from the Warsaw ghetto and reached the ghetto in Piotrkow Trybunalski. Hirsch was assigned to a digging labor detail, while Zehava was sent to work in a forced labor camp where they built caravans for the German Army. During one of the selections in the ghetto, Hirsch managed to pull Zehava over to the men's group and to hide her. They were sent to another camp, and Hirsch brought Zehava with him and looked after her. Zehava would hide in the men's barracks while they went out to work. Later on, Hirsch was transferred to the Skarzysko-Kamienna concentration camp, and Zehava was deported to the Ravensbrück concentration camp in Germany. From there, she was sent with a group of women to Bergen-Belsen, where she arrived in a very poor physical state. Dr. Ada Bimko (later Hadassa Rosensaft), a Jewish doctor imprisoned in the camp, came to her aid, and managed to remove her from roll call and to transfer her to the orphanage in Bergen-Belsen, populated mainly by Dutch children.
On 15 April 1945, the British liberated Bergen-Belsen. Among the Jews liberated were some 300 children, including Zehava. After liberation, a children's home and school were established in the Bergen-Belsen DP camp.
One day, Zehava was called to the DP camp offices. She relates:
I had no information about my father. I didn't know how to find him. ... I told someone from the [Jewish] Brigade that I had a father, mother and brother, and that I didn't know what had become of them. … they didn't want to pry too much, they just wanted to listen. … I came to the office. A man I barely recognized came and fell on me, weeping – it was my father. He looked completely different. He was very thin, and cried a lot. On the one hand he was happy to see me, but he was also terribly sad.
My father had a brother in the US who had passed away, and there was a sister-in-law there, a whole family in New York, and they really wanted us to come. … Father came and told me he wanted us to travel to America. I told him that I wasn't going to America, I was staying with my friends. … and I stuck to my guns. I wasn't leaving. I was going to Eretz Israel. … It was hard for me. … the counsellors calmed him down.
In January 1946, Zehava was taken together with a group of children, teachers, counsellors and caregivers to the children's home in Blankenese, a suburb of Hamburg on the banks of the River Elbe. In April, Zehava immigrated to Eretz Israel on the "Champollion", with a group of children and counsellors from Blankenese. She belonged to the group that arrived at Kibbutz Kiryat Anavim, where she volunteered to work in the cowshed, and joined the Palmach.
In 1948, Zehava left the kibbutz. She studied nursing, married Shaul Shamir and they had three children.
"I was given an Italian rifle bigger than I was. We would do guard duty in shifts at the kibbutz, and in one of the skirmishes, one of our friends was killed and another was badly wounded," says Zehava, recalling her kibbutz days. About one year later, her father immigrated to Eretz Israel. Her brother Nachum and Fela's parents were murdered in the Holocaust. The circumstances of their deaths are unknown.