By Gregory J. Wallance
Had a homesick housewife returning to her native Palestine in 1914 not witnessed the Armenian genocide, the British would have had a harder time defeating the Ottoman Empire in 1917.
That housewife was no ordinary woman, of course. She was Sarah Aaronsohn. The daughter of Romanian immigrants, she had grown up in Zichron Ya’akov, a settlement community 22 miles south of Haifa.
In Zichron, she’d had freedom managing her father’s household, and challenge working with her brother Aaron, an internationally renowned agronomist. Although she had married Haim Abraham, a Bulgarian Jewish businessman living in Constantinople in March 1914, being a city housewife didn’t make her happy.
She decided to go home for a visit. Expected to be gone only a few months, she never returned.
The train took her directly through the horrors of the Turkish massacres of the Armenian people. What she saw convinced her that Jews in Palestine would eventually have the same fate.
She, her brothers Aaron and Alex, her sister Rivka and Rivka’s fiance Avshalom Feinberg began collecting information to aid the British. When World War I broke out in the late summer of 1914, the Ottomans allied themselves with the Germans.
But while the Aaronsohns and Feingberg expected the British to welcome the information, they soon learned that it was easier to secretly gather information than to make contact and be taken seriously by the British.
First Aaron, but later Sarah, began recruiting spies, collecting information and preparing reports. The result was a spy ring called Nili. Its members were young, adventurous, idealistic men and women, Jews and Christians. None had training in espionage, although some had paramilitary training.
Aaron’s agricultural station, funded by a number of wealthy and influential American Jews, was good cover for field trips throughout the area. He trained Sarah and those who worked for him to be detailed, scientific observers.
Other Nili members who had been drafted into the Ottoman army had front row seats to Turkish military activities. Engineer Nahum Wilbushevits was assigned to manage the water system supplying Turkish forces in Damascus. Moshe Neumann, MD, worked at a hospital near an important train junction in Afula. Not only could he observe what the Turks were shipping, he could pick up information from officers and soldiers about troop movements and supply issues.
In Cairo, however, British intelligence officers were suspicious of Aaron’s offer of information. They couldn’t understand why citizens of the Ottoman Empire were making such an offer. They feared that Aaron and Nili were double agents observing the British for the Turks.
Aaron eventually made a circuitous journey around war-torn Europe to meet with British officials in London, who then put him in touch with more open intelligence officers in Cairo.
Sarah was left running Nili. An attractive woman, she inspired committed recruits who often fell in love with her. She also distributed the money that the British provided to members of the group, packaged the information they collected and worked to get it safely to British ships that approached the coast on moonless nights when weather permitted.
Discovery was inevitable. Nili members had so many local relatives and that the spy ring was an open secret. Local leaders feared that the Turks would retaliate against the Jews if Nili became known. When they demanded Sarah cease her efforts, she ignored them.
When a messenger pigeon Sara had sent with a capsule of coded messages went astray and ended up in Turkish hands, Nili was exposed. Turkish troops surrounded Zichron Ya’akov and arrested many people, including Sarah, in October 1917.
Her captors tortured her father in front of her and then tortured her for four days without results. The Turks planned to take her to Damascus for more interrogation and torture. She was allowed to go home and change her blood-stained clothes. There she attempted suicide but did not die for another four days. She was buried beside her mother’s grave in Zichron. She was 27.
The British, who battled their way across Sinai to Jerusalem and then into northern Palestine to Damascus and beyond in late 1917 and 1918, greatly benefited from Nili’s data about Turkish armaments, airplanes, supply lines and protocols. British General Gilbert Clayton claimed that the information supplied by Nili saved the lives of 30,000 British soldiers.
Author Gregory Wallance has done a great job of telling this complex story and the tumultuous world events happening in the background. The story never loses momentum as he tells first Sarah’s story, then Aaron’s efforts to engage the British, and then the challenges that Sarah faces in Palestine gathering information and getting it to the erratically arriving British ships along the coast.
He doesn’t end the story with Sarah’s death. He carries the story forward. Sarah Aaronsohn wasn’t a forgotten heroine. Her sister maintained the family home as a shrine that drew visitors from the early 1930s onward. Her story resonates today as a symbol of courage and loyalty to her people.
About the Author: Gregory J. Wallance
A lawyer, former federal prosecutor and a writer, Gregory J. Wallance is the author of several books including the Edgar Award-nominated PAPA’S GAME, about the theft of the French Connection heroin.
He also wrote TWO MEN BEFORE THE STORM: ARBA CRANE’S RECOLLECTION OF DRED SCOTT AND THE SUPREME COURT CASE THAT STARTED THE CIVIL WAR (2012) and AMERICA’S SOUL IN THE BALANCE: THE HOLOCAUST, FDR’S STATE DEPARTMENT, AND THE MORAL DISGRACE OF AN AMERICAN ARISTOCRACY (2013).
He is actively involved in human rights issues and has traveled for Amnesty International and Helsinki Watch. He was a producer of an HBO film “Sakharov,” which starred Jason Robards and Glenda Jackson.
His essays and opinion pieces have appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, the Chicago Tribune and the Wall Street Journal. In addition, he has appeared as a commentator on CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, C-SPAN and NBC’s “The Today Show.”