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Sarah Aaronsohn - the 100 year-old heroine of Zichron Yaakov

Wikipedia Public domain
Well, actually she has been around for more than a 100 years now. Sarah was born on the fifth of January 1890 and in 1917 died from the gunshot wounds of an attempted suicide. Our common home town, Zichron Yaakov, recently held the 100-year old anniversary of her death.

In the suicide note she wrote:
“I no longer have the strength to suffer, and it would be better for me to kill myself than to be tortured under their bloodied hands.”

The torturers she were referring to in her note were the Turkish authorities. Israel, or Palestine as it was called in those days, was a backwater province of the dwindling-down Ottoman empire but still played a crucial role in WWI.

Sarah Aaronsohn was the fifth child of the six children of Efraim and Malka (née Glatzano) Aaronsohn. Her parents, both from Romania, left the increasingly harsh life of Jews there and eventually became one of the leading families of Zichron Yaakov.

She studied languages on her own and was fluent in Hebrew, Arabic, English and Turkish. She also knew how to farm, ride horses and shoot.

Sarah helped her brother Aaron Aaronsohn, a world-renowned agriculturist, with his work. Aaron discovered emmer wheat (Triticum dicoccoides). It is believed to be the ancestor of modern-day wheat. His research allowed him to travel extensively throughout the Ottoman empire.

Some historians think that Sarah was romantically involved with Avshalom Feinberg, Aaron’s assistant. He was however dating Rivka Aaronsohn, the younger sister. This might be reason why Sarah got engaged to Chaim Abraham in 1914 when she was 24 years old. It is was a Jewish custom those days that a younger sister could not get married before the older sister.

Chaim Abraham was a Jewish businessman living in Constantinople in Turkey. The two had never met before their engagement but eventually got married in Zichron Yaakov. The couple then moved to live in Constantinople. They were however not very well-suited to each other and divorced soon afterwards. Sarah made her way back to Palestine overland. During her time in Turkey she heard reports about the Armenian genocide and on her way home she witnessed some of the atrocities first-hand.

This is what Aaron wrote in his diary about what she had seen:

"In front of her very eyes, she saw the Armenians being tortured by the Turks. She saw hundreds of dead Armenians, lying on the ground, unburied, devoured by wild dogs."
In the background of Sarah’s story, the First  World War broke out. The two sides were the Allies (Britain, France, Russia, Italy and the US) and the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria).

The massacre of the Armenians by the Turks, the way the Turks in Palestine treated the local Jews and their parents’ experiences in Romania convinced Sarah and Aaron do actively do something.

So Aaron, Avshalom Feinberg, Levi Schneersohn and others established a local spy-ring called N.I.L.I. Levi Schneersohn, who coined this name was asked by a British officer “.. perhaps you know what name is suitable for our affair?"

Schneersohn took out the Bible that he carried everywhere with him, opened a page randomly, pointed at a line without looking and then counted seven more lines down. He stopped at 1 Samuel 15:29. It said, "Netzach Yisrael Lo Yeshaker” (The Eternal One of Israel will not lie). When he told the British officer that they will use the acronym for these words,  NILI, the officer smiled at him and said in English:  "Oh, how nice. She must be a lovely girl, this Nili."
The aim of NILI. was to help with the British invasion of Palestine via Egypt. They were to provide the British with crucial information, make the rest of the world aware of the Turkish oppression of the local Jews and advance the hopes of a Jewish homeland.

Aaron, with his constant travels throughout the region not only knew where all the water wells in the Negev were but also met with British forces with vital information gathered by the spy-ring. The British had hardly any knowledge of the geography of Palestine at the time. The British field marshal, Edmund Allenby used the information provided by Aaron Aaronsohn, crossed the desert and eventually took Jerusalem in December in 1917.

He later testified that Nili  “was mainly responsible for my Field Intelligence Organization behind the Turkish lines.” Edmund Allenby by the way, was also the commanding officer of the British Army Intelligence officer T.E. Lawrence, aka Lawrence of Arabia.

Sarah Aaronsohn was now sole the spy-mistress of NILI. Her brother Aaron was constantly traveling and Avshalom Feinberg had disappeared during a secret mission to Cairo. Only after the 1967  Six-Day War was his remains were found in the Sinai desert under a palm tree. The tree had grown from date seeds that were in his pocket.

Sarah passed along the gathered information and also coordinated the spy-rings" activities. She managed the core group of forty agents as well as the group’s supporters and the paid informants. She also oversaw the transmission of the Jewish American money that was converted to gold to help the Jewish population in Palestine. Sarah sifted through the encoded information she received, re-coded it and sent it along to the British intelligence headquarters in Cairo via the British warship Managam. At first one of the group’s members would swim to a small yacht of the coast, handing off the information by hand and receiving the money collected by American Jews.

The Turks however started to suspect that the there was a spy in operating from the area and also noticed the use of these golden coins. They warned the local Jews not to get involved in the war and started to watch them even more closely. The coastline was constantly patrolled now, so the NILI spies started to use homing pigeons to pass along their information.

On the first of October 1917, Sarah Aaronsohn was arrested. One of her pigeons had rested at the house of a Turkish officer in Caesarea and her message was noticed and decoded. The Turks surrounded Zichron Yaakov and arrested and tortured a number of the town’s people.

Sarah was tortured for four days but did not reveal any information. The authorities decided to send her to Damascus for further interrogation and she was worried that she was going to eventually break down. She asked if she could stop by her house to wash and change clothes and her request was granted. There she locked herself in the bathroom, scribbled her final note, threw it out of the window and then took out the pistol that she had previously concealed under a floorboard and shot herself in the mouth.

She did not die immediately but lingered for three days before finally dying from her wounds. Suicide was forbidden by Jewish law and at first she was denied a traditional burial. She was however considered a Jewish war hero and eventually a compromise was reached. A small fence around her grave symbolically separates her from the rest of the graveyard. Her grave is still often visited and has become one of the landmarks of the town.

It is thought that T.E.Lawrence dedicated his book “Seven Pillars of Wisdomto her. The dedication merely reads, "To S.A." It is however doubtful that the two have ever met.

In her correspondence with her siblings and with other Nili members, Sarah’s independence and refusal to adopt old-fashioned roles for women is very clear. She is not just the 100 year-old heroine of Zichron Yaakov but also a woman that should be admired even today. Sarah saw horrible things being done but instead of quietly looking the other way and keeping her head down, she stepped forward and made a difference.

I was, and still is, so enamored by Sarah Aaronsohn that I wrote one of my Zichron Yaakov stories with her as one of the main characters. You can read the story here.
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  1. This post has been included in the latest blog roundup, so please take a look, visit the others and share. Shiloh Musings: What's New in The Blogging World

    Shavua Tov,

    Have a truly wonderful and blessed week


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