Nearly eighty-five years have passed since Sarah Aaronson shot herself in the head, putting an end to the torture her Turkish interrogators inflicted upon her for refusing to disclose information about her associates in the NILI, an anti-Turkish spying organization that supplied the British with intelligence.
NILI stands for “Netzach Yisrael Lo Yeshaker” (the eternity of Israel will not deceive, Shmuel 1 15:28). It was founded in 1916 by Sarah’s brother Aaron, who believed that only liberation from the cruel and corrupt Ottoman Turks could advance Jewish settlement in Eretz Yisrael. In order to achieve Jewish settlement, the group assisted British command by supplying information about Turkish and German positions, thereby advancing the British campaign in Palestine.
Sarah was born in Zichron Yaakov, Palestine, which at the time was a province of the Turkish-ruled Ottoman Empire. She lived briefly in Istanbul until 1915, when she returned home to Zichron Yaakov.
On her way from Istanbul, Sarah witnessed the Armenian Genocide. In her testimony, she described seeing hundreds of bodies, men, women and babies, being loaded onto trains and a massacre of up to 5,000 Armenians who were bound to a pyramid of thorns and set alight.
When Aaron sought to enlist her into NILI’s intelligence activities against the Germans and the Turks, Sarah unhesitatingly complied. She shared Aaron’s concern over the fate of the Jewish settlers under Turkish occupation.
At that time Sarah was twenty-six year old. Her family members were pioneers in Eretz Yisrael. Her father and mother, Efrayim Fishel and Malkah, came to Eretz Yisrael from Falticeni, Rumania in 1882 and were among the founders of Zichron Yaakov.
Malkah and Efrayim Fishel Aaronsohn brought up their four sons and three daughters with a fierce love of the land and the people of Israel.
Aaron, the eldest, followed in his father’s footsteps in every way. He became an agronomist and natural historian with a professional reputation in scientific circles. In 1909 he was invited to the States by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and when WWI broke out, he was one of the three members of a central committee appointed to allot the financial aid sent to Eretz Yisrael.
Later, Aaron sent large sums of money through the NILI organization to help the Jewish settlers in Eretz Yisrael.
In her brother’s absence Sarah was to administer these funds. She was also in charge of the NILI agents’ operations and of relaying information to the British in Egypt. In April 1917 Sarah secretly visited Egypt to consult with Aaron and the British Command. As news had reached Egypt about Turkish suspicions relating to the Aaronsons’ activities, Sarah was advised to remain in Egypt. She, however, concerned that her absence might substantiate rumors and endanger the lives of her associates in the organization, returned to Eretz Yisrael. Upon learning that the NILI espionage network had been uncovered, Sarah ordered her agents to go into hiding in different parts of the country while she herself remained at Zichron Yaakov in order to facilitate their escape.
In September 1917, the Ottomans caught Sarah’s carrier pigeon which was carring a message to the British and decrypted the Nili code. She was arrested at her home and subjected to brutal torture for four days, during which she lapsed into a coma – yet she revealed nothing. When she regained consciousness Sarah managed to slip by her guards, get hold of a gun and put an end to the life she had dedicated to her country.
Sarah Aaronson’s grave in Zichron Yaakov is a site of pilgrimage, especially for Israeli youth. They flock to the tomb to remember the heroine whose commitment to the idea of a Jewish State was a link in the chain of events that made it possible.