1890: WWI Spy Who Would Choose British Overlords Over Turkish Is Born

Witnessing Turkish brutality to Armenians, Sarah Aaronsohn suspected the Jews in Palestine might face the same, and allied herself with England.

David Green
David B. Green
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Jewish spy Sarah Aaronsohn, shown here unsmiling and wearing a pleated white shirt. She would elect to shoot herself in the mouth, and die, rather than continue to suffer torture by the Turks during WWI.
Jewish spy Sarah Aaronsohn, who would elect to shoot herself in the mouth, and die, rather than continue to suffer torture by the Turks during WWI.Credit: Galim.org.il, Wikimedia Commons
David Green
David B. Green

January 5, 1890 is the birthdate of Sarah Aaronsohn, one of the heads of a Jewish spy ring that supplied intelligence to British forces in the Middle East during World War I. Aaronsohn entered the Zionist pantheon in large part for her heroic death, caused by a gunshot wound she inflicted upon herself so that she would not reveal details about her comrades in the Nili organization.

Sarah was the fifth of the six children of Efraim Fischel Aaronsohn and the former Malka Glatzano. Both were from Baku, Romania, and came to Palestine in 1882 as part of the First Aliyah wave of Jewish settlement. The Aaronsohns settled in what became the town of Zichron Yaakov, on southern Mt. Carmel, and became a leading family of the colony, which was famously bankrolled by the Baron Edmond de Rothschild. Sarah’s older brother Aaron (1876-1919) achieved special distinction as an agronomist, establishing an experimental station at nearby Atlit.

When World War I began, Palestine was still under the rule of the fading Ottoman empire. Opinions varied among the Jewish settlers as to whether their cause would be better off with an Allied victory, meaning that the United Kingdom would likely occupy the country, or with an Axis win, in which case Turkish rule would presumably continue. David Ben-Gurion, for example, was studying law in Constantinople (later Istanbul) in 1914, and for the first two years of war, he and most of his labor-Zionist comrades supported the Turks. 

Turkish atrocities

Though she had limited formal education, the independent-minded Sarah studied languages on her own, and was proficient if not fluent in Hebrew, Turkish, English and Arabic, among other languages. She also assisted her brother Aaron in his agricultural research.

Another colleague of Aaron Aaronsohn’s was Avshalom Feinberg, who some historians assume was an early paramour of Sarah’s. In any case, later Feinberg became romantically involved with Sarah’s younger sister Rivka. Custom would not permit Feinberg and Rivka to marry so long as her older sister was single, which may be why Sarah became engaged in 1914 to a man she had never met, Chaim Abraham, a Bulgarian-born Jewish businessman living in Constantinople.

Sarah Aaronsohn and Avshalom Feinberg: Some historians assume he was Sarah's paramour, but he became involved with her younger sister Rivka.Credit: JWA.org, Wikimedia Commons

After a wedding in Zichron, Sarah and Chaim moved back to Turkey, but they were not well-suited, and quickly divorced. In the summer of 1915, she returned overland to Palestine, in a trip that exposed her to some of the atrocities that the Armenians of Anatolia were undergoing at the hands of the Ottoman forces.

Aaron had also heard blood-curdling accounts about the Turks’ treatment of the Armenians, and he and Sarah became convinced that the Jews in Palestine would eventually suffer a similar fate. So, after a brief period of cooperation with the Turks, he decided to offer active assistance to the British.

'God does not deceive'

The 40-person spy network that Sarah and Aaron set up in Palestine and Lebanon was called Nili, an acronym for the Hebrew Netzakh Yisrael Lo Yishaker (“the Eternity of Israel [meaning, God] does not deceive,” from 1 Samuel 15:29).

After the war, General Edmund Allenby testified that Nili, under the leadership of Aaron Aaronsohn, “was mainly responsible for my Field Intelligence Organization behind the Turkish lines.”

By 1917, Sarah was running the operation on her own, as Aaron was regularly traveling, and Avshalom had disappeared during a mission to Cairo (his remains were found in the Sinai desert only after 1967).

In October 1917, after capturing a carrier pigeon sent by Sarah and decoding its message, the Turks surrounded Zichron Yaakov and made a number of arrests, including of Sarah. Over a period of four days, she was tortured, but apparently did not crack.

Shortly before sending her on to Damascus for additional interrogation, her captors sent her home to clean up. She took advantage of a moment of being unwatched to take a hidden gun and shoot herself in the mouth.

Her death was far from instant; she lingered in pain for another four days before expiring. In a suicide note, she wrote how, “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.”

Grave of Sarah Aaronsohn, right, and of her mother Malka Aaronsohn, left, in Zichron Yaakov.Credit: Rebkos