Aaronsohn, Sarah (1890–1917)

views updated

Aaronsohn, Sarah (1890–1917)

Zionist pioneer, spy, and patriot, known as "the Joan of Arc of the New Palestine," who is one of the few women in the pantheon of Jewish Palestine's national martyrs and heroes. Name variations: Aaronson. Born in the agricultural settlement of Zikhron Ya'akov, Turkish Palestine, in 1890; killed herself to avoid divulging information during extended torture by Turks in October 1917; daughter of Efrayim Fishel Aaronsohn (1849–1939) and Malkah Aaronsohn (Jewish pioneer settlers); sister of Aaron (1876–1919) and Alexander (1888–1948) Aaronsohn; married Bulgarian-born Hayyim Abraham, in 1914.

Born in 1890 in an agricultural settlement in the Palestinian province of the Ottoman Empire, Sarah Aaronsohn grew up as part of a remarkable family of Zionist pioneers. When Jews were persecuted and massacred in bloody pogroms in Eastern Europe, her father Efrayim Fishel Aaronsohn and her mother Malkah left their native Rumania and settled in Turkish-controlled Palestine. Here they helped found the agricultural settlement of Zikhron Ya'akov. Enterprising and hardworking, the Aaronsohns became prosperous farmers, making the desert bloom and raising a family of three, Aaron, Alexander, and last-born Sarah, who came of age in the heady atmosphere of hard labor and high hopes for a future independent Zionist state, a refuge for persecuted Jews the world over.

Sarah's brothers recognized Palestine's precarious status in the declining but still powerful Ottoman Empire. In 1913, her brother Alexander founded a short-lived self-defense organization, Gidonim, to defend Zikhron Ya'akov and other Jewish agricultural settlements against Turkish aggression. In 1906, her other brother Aaron discovered wild Emmer wheat in Galilee—the precursor of all strains of modern wheat. As an agricultural expert, he established important links with government officials in Europe and the United States.

Unlike her brothers, Sarah seemed destined for a quiet domestic life. In 1914, the year World War I began, she married Bulgarian-born Hayyim Abraham and moved to Constantinople with her new husband. The marriage quickly failed, however, and the next year she returned to Zikhron Ya'akov. On her arrival, Sarah Aaronsohn witnessed the first of the 20th century's many holocausts as the Turks systematically exterminated the Armenian minority—men, women, and children—living in the Ottoman Empire. Shocked by the massacre, Aaronsohn interpreted the genocide as Ottoman state policy; it was clear to her that under the appropriate circumstances the Jews, too, would find themselves systematically destroyed.

When Aaron started an organization dedicated to the eventual overthrow of Turkish rule in Palestine, she readily joined. Although some like Avshalom Feinberg called for an armed uprising of Jewish settlers against the Turkish forces, Sarah and her brothers felt a spy ring—that would provide important military intelligence for the British—would be more useful. They believed their assistance could lead to the creation of a British-protected Zionist republic. Consisting of a handful of members, the secret group was called Nili. The name—which also served as a password—was taken from a Biblical quotation, "Netzah yisrael lo yishaker" (I Samuel 15:29), "The Strength of Israel will not die."

Sarah Aaronsohn, her brothers, and members of Nili quickly began gathering information to assist British military strategists in the Middle East. In 1916, Aaron used his prewar scientific contacts as a pretext for a trip to Germany. From there, he went to neutral Denmark where he relayed valuable information to British agents. In August, he went to London and created a permanent arrangement between the Nili organization and British intelligence. The British were grateful for Nili's collaboration, as they knew the information would help plan a successful campaign against the Turks. Agents from British ships began landing off the coast of Athlit to stay in close contact with members of his group.

Sarah Aaronsohn was in charge of dispersing the money sent by the British, especially to aid the Jews who were expelled from the cities of Jaffa and Tel Aviv by Ottoman authorities during Passover. She also used the money to bribe Turkish officials who would look the other way. In April 1917, Aaronsohn secretly went to British-occupied Egypt with her brother Aaron for consultations with British intelligence officials. During this visit, she very likely came in contact with T.E. Lawrence, the legendary Lawrence of Arabia. Impressed by Aaronsohn's courage, intelligence, and idealism, many in Egypt feared for her safety and pleaded with her not to return to Palestine. In June, however, she returned to Zikhron Ya'akov.

Aided by information provided by Nili, British forces were moving in on Palestine. On a regular basis, the British supply ship Monegan sailed to a point off the coast near Athlit and put an agent ashore who collected the intelligence reports. Aaronsohn, upon seeing the ship's smoke on the horizon, would hang out a sheet to indicate it was safe to land. On those nights, she rode her horse down to the ruins of Crusader Castle carrying a satchel of reports that were otherwise kept hidden in a secret panel in her home. After handing over the reports, she received more money for Nili's operations. Aaronsohn's clandestine activities were controversial. Some Jewish leaders in Palestine feared savage Turkish retaliation, while others were not certain that British rule would ever replace the Ottoman government in Palestine.

Her work was always dangerous. By September 1917, the presence of German submarines on the coast near Athlit made the customary dropping of a British agent too risky. In order to transmit intelligence to Nili, carrier pigeons were used to send coded messages to the British forces in Egypt. Soon a pigeon landed in a Turkish army camp. Within a week, the Turks broke the complicated Nili code, which used not only Hebrew but also Aramaic, French, and English. The message confirmed the Turks' long-held suspicion that valuable information was being passed to their enemies by treasonous Jews in Palestine. Turkish troops rounded up a number of Jewish suspects whom they imprisoned and tortured. Learning of the crackdown, Aaronsohn ordered the Nili members to disperse while she remained at home to preserve the appearance of normal life. Her cool-headed courage allowed many of the Nili members to escape.

On October 1, 1917, Turkish troops surrounded her settlement, arresting Aaronsohn and her father. For four days, they were tortured. Using the infamous bastinado method—beating on the soles of the victim's feet—her Turkish interrogators subjected Aaronsohn to indescribable suffering, but she refused to reveal information. Lashed to the gatepost of her home, she was whipped relentlessly but refused to talk. After four days, her Turkish captors decided to take her to Nazareth, where "expert" interrogators could force her to reveal the information they were certain she possessed. Aaronsohn persuaded her captors that her bloodstained dress might create a bad impression on the trip and obtained permission to change her clothes. In the bathroom, she took out a pistol concealed there and killed herself.

By the end of the year, the British had achieved major military victories in Palestine. Though some have debated the importance of Nili intelligence to the war, General MacDonough, chief of British military intelligence in the Near East, countered that "General Allenby knew with certainty from his intelligence in Palestine all the movements of the enemy. All the cards of the enemy were revealed to him, and so he could play his hand with complete confidence. Under these circumstances, victory was certain before he began."

Sarah Aaronsohn's idealism and courage were not forgotten. Some think that the unidentified "S.A." to whom Lawrence of Arabia dedicated The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, his epic account of the Arab revolt against the Turks, is in fact Sarah Aaronsohn. The dedication reads:

To S.A.
I loved you, so I drew these tides of men into my hand and wrote my will across the sky in stars
To earn you, Freedom, the seven pillared worthy house that your eyes might be shining for me
When we came.

The end of war in 1918 opened a new chapter for Jews throughout the world. For the first time in almost 2,000 years, they could envision a homeland, a place where all Jews could return. Today many call Aaronsohn "the Joan of Arc of the New Palestine." Every October, hushed pilgrimages are made to her grave in Zikhron Ya'akov. In February 1991, she was honored by an Israeli commemorative postage stamp. Sarah Aaronsohn gave her life to further the Zionist ideal more than 30 years before the birth of Israel in May 1948.


Cowen, Ida, and Irene Gunther. A Spy for Freedom: The Story of Sarah Aaronson. NY: Lodestar Books, 1984.

Engle, Anita. The Nili Spies. London: Hogarth Press, 1959.

Frost, Murray. "Judaica Philately," in Global Stamp News. No. 55. February 1995, p. 58.

Tsur, Jacob. Zionism: The Saga of a National Liberation Movement. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, 1977.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia