Her screams could be heard all across Zichron Ya’akov, Israel.
It was October 1917, and Sarah Aaronsohn, member of a Jewish spy ring, was being tortured by Ottoman officers. She had been caught passing secrets about the Ottomans to the British, whom the Jews thought would grant them an eventual homeland in Eretz Israel. Now Aaronsohn would have to speak up about all that she knew, or face the consequences.
She chose the latter.
After four days of torture, Aaronsohn asked if she could return home for a shower and change of clothes. An officer accompanied her there. But when she was left alone, Aaronsohn went to the living room, where the family kept a pistol stashed inside the wall. She proceeded to shoot herself in the head.
Aaronsohn missed a clean shot and lay suffering for nearly four days, begging the doctor to kill her—she might talk otherwise, if delirium were to seize her.
Desperate times required desperate measures. Aaronsohn needed to make sure that she would not reveal any secrets, and, had she chosen to stay in the confines of the Ottomans, she feared she might break down. More than anything, Aaronsohn needed to protect her colleagues, and the prospect of a Jewish state, which she so strongly believed in.
Aaronsohn was born January, 5, 1890, in Zichron Ya’akov, the fifth of six children, to a well-off family of Romanian origin. The family had come years earlier—furniture, china and all—and helped found the colony, one of the first settlements in pre-state Israel, in the period called the First Aliyah (1881-1904). This made Aaronsohn part of the first generation that was native-born, Hebrew speaking, and born and raised on agricultural settlements (moshavot). The Aaronsohns became one of the village’s most prominent families, and not just because Aaronsohn’s eldest brother, Aaron, was a world-famous agronomist and botanist.
Aaronsohn never completed her formal education, but with Aaron’s tutoring, spoke fluent French, Yiddish, Hebrew, and Turkish. She had a reasonable command of Arabic and taught herself some English, as well.
In 1914, Aaronsohn married an older, well-off Bulgarian merchant and briefly moved with him to Istanbul. But the marriage quickly floundered: The two lacked mutual interests, and Aaronsohn longed for the village life she was used to. Meanwhile, the first World War had broken out, giving the Jews of Palestine an opportune moment to side with the British in hopes to shaking off the yoke of the Ottomans; the Jews of Palestine thought that a new Middle East, under the rule of Great Britain, would help them achieve some semblance of autonomy. Aaronsohn decided to leave her husband and returned to the nationalist struggle in Zichron Ya’akov.
In the meantime, her brother, Aaron, and a family friend, Avshalom Feinberg (with whom Aaronsohn likely had a romantic relationship at one point), set up a spy network. They named it Nili, an acronym for “Nezah Israel lo yeshaker,” which is a verse from the Book of Samuel meaning “the strength of Israel will not lie.” The organization developed into the largest pro-British espionage network in the Middle East.
Sarah Aaronsohn joined the nascent and short-lived group, which boasted about 40 members, upon her return from Istanbul in November 1915. She is thought to have been particularly motivated in working for an anti-Ottoman cause after witnessing the Armenian genocide as she travelled home from Istanbul; she and other Yishuv Jews thought that the Jews of Palestine might meet the same fate, had the Ottomans willed it. According to the Jewish Women’s Archive:
“From at least the end of 1916 until her capture and death in October 1917 she coordinated and virtually conducted its activities in Palestine and the Lebanon area, handling Nili’s core of about 40 agents, its larger circle of supporters and informers and the organization’s finances. She decoded and sifted information, encoded it and communicated with British intelligence headquarters in Cairo, making contact from the Atlit station with the British warship Managam. She also supervised the transmission by Nili of Jewish American money converted to gold to aid the Jewish population, which was suffering destitution, hunger and dislocation. In addition she liaised with the Turkish authorities (who were unaware of the underground until late 1917), the increasingly hostile community of her native colony and the formal leadership of the Yishuv, which distanced itself from the organization. Though Hebrew sources compiled during the aftermath of the war present her leadership as familial, drawing on her position as the sister of the powerful Aaron Aaronsohn, British and Turkish intelligence sources never regarded her as a strong man’s aid and proxy. She alone of Nili’s top hierarchy stayed on in Palestine (Aaron traveling between Europe and Cairo and Feinberg having disappeared in 1916, in an aborted expedition to Egypt).”
It was then, after less than a year of working for Nili, that the Ottomans arrested Aaronsohn. The Ottomans had caught one of her carrier pigeons, and decrypted the Nili code, which was based on Hebrew, Aramaic, French, and English. As a result, the Ottomans were able to unravel the spy network.
Aaronsohn’s story—her work as a spy and subsequent suicide—is significant for several reasons. First, she took on a secular, masculine role at a time when it would have been easier not to. In particular, her correspondence with her siblings and other Nili members reveals her independent thinking and rejection of traditional, domestic roles for women. She lashed out at Nili members who wished to idealize her as a sort of “female saint” for her work; all the while, she is said to have cross-dressed and occasionally referred to herself in the male gender. According to the Jewish Women’s Archive, “Her pre-meditated and staged suicide constitutes the first example of a secular, active death of a Jewish-Zionist woman for the nation, unprecedented in both religious martyrdom and in the Zionist tradition established in Palestine.”
Secondly, Aaronsohn’s story gained prominence by helping form a foundational, nationalist narrative for the budding Israeli state. Following her death, the Jews of Palestine wanted Aaronsohn to be buried in the Zichron Ya’akov cemetery. But Jewish tradition bans anyone who commits suicide from a Jewish burial, since suicide is forbidden. Given the nationalistic motivations of Aaronsohn’s death, however, a compromise was made: a small fence built around her tomb still symbolically “separates” her from the other graves.
Her tomb eventually became the center of a sort of cult commemoration. Annual pilgrimages commemorating the “hero of Nili”—rather than its “heroine”—began in 1935. That the admirers would consider Aaronsohn a male-style hero blurred Aaronsohn’s femininity, elevating her to a status of a national soldier-saint at a time when the Jewish push for statehood was growing.
Aaronsohn’s story of heroism was eventually adopted by both the right and left in Israel. The Jewish Right adopted the legend as a counter to the story of Joseph Trumpeldor, the “Hero of Tel Hai.” Decades later, after the Six Day War in 1967, “she and Nili were incorporated in the central state-sponsored cult of heroism, officially recognized by Labor and perpetuated in children’s literature,” according to the Jewish Women’s Archive.
While Aaronsohn is known throughout Israel, in the last decade her story has sparked further research. In 2005, American-born Hillel Halkin investigated the death of one of the Jewish women said to have abused, excoriated, or perhaps assaulted Aaronsohn (which of the three has never been clear) as she was marched through town by the Ottomans. According to Halkin, whose research culminated in the book “A Strange Death,” Aaronsohn’s friends might have retaliated against that woman and murdered her. It remains one of the darker mysteries of Zichron Ya’akov, which has since become a haven for tourists. Many come for the idyllic views, but many also come to discover the legend of Aaronsohn as they visit the home in which she committed suicide.
Rachael Levy is a freelance writer who recently graduated from The American University of Paris with a degree in international and comparative politics. You can follow her on Twitter at @rachael_levy.