The Young Spy Who Died a Heroine for the People of Israel

Is a spy a hero or a villain?  The answer obviously depends on which side the person involved is spying for. If it is for your cause or that of your country, obviously the spy is a courageous hero putting himself or herself at great risk to further a justified ideal. If the spy is acting for an enemy, that person is to be reviled.

Among those who spied and paid the ultimate price for heroism, the name of Sarah Aaronsohn stands out. Sarah (born Jan. 4, 1890 and died Oct. 9, 1917) was a member of Nili, a ring of Jewish spies working for the British in World War I, and. the sister of notable agronomist Aaron Aaronsohn. She is often referred to as the “heroine of Nili.”

Sarah was born in Zichron Yaakov in the north of Israel, at that time under the control of the Ottoman Turkish regime. Her parents were Zionists from Romania who had come to Ottoman Palestine as some of the first settlers of what was known as the First Aliyah.

Sarah studied languages and was fluent in Hebrew, Yiddish, Turkish and French, had a reasonable command of Arabic, and taught herself English. She married Haim Abraham, an older and affluent merchant from Bulgaria, and lived briefly with him in Istanbul; but the marriage was an unhappy one and she returned home to Zichron Yaakov in December 1915.

On her way from Istanbul back to Zichron, Sarah witnessed part of the Armenian genocide by the Ottomans. As a result of that traumatic episode, Sarah decided to assist British forces against the Ottomans in Palestine.

Sarah, her sister Rivka, and her brothers Aaron and Alexander, and with their friend (and fiancé of Rivka) Avshalom Feinberg formed and led the Nili spy organization. The name derives from the initial Hebrew letters of the Biblical quote from I Samuel 15:29:  “The Eternal One of Israel will not lie nor relent, for He is not a mortal that He should change His mind. “

Sarah oversaw operations and passed information to British agents offshore. Sometimes she travelled widely through Ottoman territory collecting information useful to the British, and brought it directly to them in Egypt. In 1917, her brother Alexander urged her to remain in British-controlled Egypt, but Sarah returned to Zichron Yaakov to continue Nili activities. Nili developed into the largest pro-British espionage network in the Middle East at that time, with a network of about 40 spies

In September 1917, the Ottomans intercepted one of her carrier pigeons carrying a message to the British and decrypted the Nili code. In October, the Ottomans surrounded Zichron Yaakov and arrested numerous people, including Sarah. Her captors tortured her father in front of her. She endured four days of torture herself, but she released no information beyond what she thought of her torturers.

Before she was to be transferred to Damascus for further torture, she asked permission to return to her home in Zichron Yaakov to change her blood-stained clothes. While there, she managed to shoot herself with a pistol concealed under a tile in the bathroom. It was on Friday, October 5, 1917. Even this did not end her torment. While the bullet destroyed her mouth and severed her spinal cord, it missed her brain. For four days she lingered in agony. She died on October 9, 1917. She was only 27 years old.

In her last letter, she expressed her hope that her activities in Nili would bring nearer the realization of a national home for the Jews in the Land of Israel. She was buried in her home town of Zichron Yaakov.

Following her death, Sarah became widely memorialized and celebrated in Israeli literature. The Aaronsohn home in the historic district of Zichron Yaakov became a Nili museum and is visited to this day by many thousands every year.