Next month is the 100th anniversary of the start of the Armenian genocide during which the Ottoman-Turkish government murdered one and a half million of its Armenian citizens. Obscured by the horror of the 20th century’s first genocide is the role that the Armenian holocaust played in the events leading to the creation of Israel or that it was the backdrop to an extraordinary love story.
* * * * *
It began on April 24, 1915. The pretext was that the Armenians were supporting Ottoman-Turkey’s enemy, Russia, but one purpose was to fulfill pan-Islamic dreams of a huge Islamic state from the Mediterranean to the Ural Mountains. Orders had gone out to “without mercy and without pity, kill all from the one month old to the ninety-year old.” Armenian political leaders, educators, writers, clergy, and dignitaries were rounded up and tortured and then hanged or shot.
With the leadership gone, the Turks followed up by arresting Armenian men en masse, marching them out of their towns, and, with the aid of mobs and bandits, hacking them to death with axes, pitchforks, hoes, iron rods, and hatchets. Then it was the turn of the Armenian women, children, and the elderly, who were pulled from their homes and forced on death marches into the scorching Syrian desert.
Soon the Turkish countryside became so littered with decomposing bodies that the government told provincial leaders to “issue the strictest instructions so that the corpses in your village are buried.” In general, these instructions were ignored.
In November 1915, Sarah Aaronsohn, a homesick young 25-year-old Palestinian Jew unhappily married to a Bulgarian Jewish businessman, fled her husband’s home in Constantinople while he was away on a business trip. She set out by train for her home in Palestine. But first she had to cross Turkey.
* * * * *
Sarah Aaronsohn was born in 1890 to emigrant Romanian parents in the village of Zichron Yaakov on the slopes of Mount Carmel. Sarah, called Sarati, or “my Sarah” by her family, was outspoken to the point of rebellion. She had blue eyes, an oval face, an erect posture, and a full figure. She enjoyed riding her horse alone into the Palestine countryside, taking a pistol for protection against Arabs (she was an excellent shot), and vigorously arguing politics and the future of Palestine with her brother Aaron, a world-renowned agronomist by the time he was 30. Her sister Rivka, two years younger than Sarah, was her opposite – petite, shy and retiring.
The two sisters were in love with the same dashing and fearless young man from a nearby settlement, Absalom Feinberg. Absalom had intense, moody eyes set off by a tousle of brown hair falling romantically across his forehead. He read and wrote Arabic fluently, had mastered the Koran, and wrote poetry in several languages. “I am a Jew of the East,” Absalom once said. Sarah, proud and self-possessed, was the last woman in Palestine to listen with silent admiration to a man and would not patiently indulge Absalom’s moods. Absalom and Rivka became engaged.
As the older sister, Sarah had to marry first and she settled on Chaim Abraham from Constantinople, whom she apparently did not love. In Constantinople, Sarah’s in-laws all but kept her a prisoner in her husband’s home, a free-born lioness in a cage. She broke off a letter to Absalom’s sister with, “I can’t continue writing, my tears are streaming, and my heart is breaking.”
In the spring of 1915, while Sarah was in Constantinople, two of her brothers, Aaron and Alexander, formed a spy ring with Absalom Feinberg. The British had just suffered a disastrous defeat in their attempt to land forces at Gallipoli on the northern bank of the Dardanelles Straits in Turkey. The three Palestinian Jews believed the future of the Jewish settlement depended on a British victory and that, in turn, depended on the British attacking Palestine, where the Turkish defenses were weakest. They could provide the intelligence vital to such an attack; they knew the Palestinian terrain and the roads, down to the goat paths.
But first the three Jews had to make contact with the British in Egypt, which could only be done by a hazardous crossing of the Sinai Desert or by sea. Alexander and Rivka set off on donkeys for Beirut from where they planned to sail to Egypt. Since Rivka would most likely be gone a long time, she and Absalom called off their engagement.
Months went by with no word from Alexander and Rivka, who had been unable to rouse British interest in their plan. The two went on to the United States to raise money for the Jewish communities in Palestine. Frustrated, Absalom set off for Egypt through the Sinai Desert disguised as a Bedouin – over Aaron Aaronsohn’s vehement objections.
* * * * *
Sarah’s train trip took her across the Anatolian Plateau, where she passed columns of emaciated Armenian men, women, and children; Turkish soldiers kicking, beating, and shooting stragglers; and packs of dogs fending off vultures to feed on decomposing bodies. In that journey, Sarah had a vision of her own people’s future under Ottoman-Turk rule that would haunt her for the rest of her days.
Sarah was met by her brother Aaron near Haifa in mid-December 1915. Sarah was a hardy Palestinian settler but she was in a state of near-hysteria over what she had witnessed. Aaron, perhaps mindful of his sister’s condition, waited a week and then told Sarah what had happened to Absalom.
He had been caught by a Turkish patrol only a few miles from the Suez Canal. The Turks, believing Absalom was a spy, tortured him but he did not give them any information. Now Absalom was writing French poetry in his jail cell in Jerusalem while waiting for a trial and then execution by German forces in the Ottoman Empire, a close ally of Germany.
Far better than her brothers and Absalom, Sarah understood the Turks must be driven from Palestine. Otherwise, she said, “They may yet do to us what they have done to the Armenians.” So she told her brother that she would join his spy ring, in effect, taking Absalom’s place.
* * * * *
In January 1916, Aaron Aaronsohn made a deal with Djemal Pasha, the military governor of Syria. He would assist Djemal in eradicating the latest outbreak of locusts, but, he said, he could not do it without the help of his valued assistant, Absalom Feinberg, and, most inconveniently, the Germans were about to try him as a spy and then hang him due to some misunderstanding.
Absalom was released and he and Sarah, joyfully reunited, set out for Damascus to meet with Aaron.
It was decided that Aaron would try to reach England where he hoped his reputation would gain him a hearing at the highest levels of British intelligence about their plan for a British attack on Palestine.
Sarah returned to Zichron because, with Aaron gone, she had to run the spy network. Spy rings need passwords and the word “NILI” was chosen, from a passage in I Samuel, “The Eternal One of Israel does not deceive” – in Hebrew, “Netzach Yisrael lo leshaker” the acronym of which, NILI, became both a password and ultimately the name of Sarah’s intelligence network.
The NILI spies were amateurs, mostly young men in their 20s. Complicating Sarah’s job was the fact that, not only was she in love with Absalom but at least three of the NILI spies were in love with her. Sarah was part love object, part matriarch, and part spy goddess to a group of unruly young men who openly acknowledged that without Sarah they were lost.
Sarah and Absalom had no way of knowing that, in fact, Aaron had made it to England, and was now in Cairo. In January 1916, the ever restless Absalom and another NILI spy, Joseph Lishansky (also in love with Sarah), put on Bedouin clothes and headed into the Sinai Desert with a Bedouin guide.
Near El Arish on the Mediterranean coast, their guide abandoned them and they were ambushed by armed Bedouins. Joseph was hit in the leg and Absalom mortally wounded. Joseph crawled to Absalom, who managed to raise his hand and point at the horizon. Joseph hugged and kissed him, and then got up and ran, but was hit in the shoulder. He got away from the Bedouins before falling and losing consciousness. An Australian patrol found him and he was evacuated to Port Said.
Some days later, a British officer came to Aaron’s hotel in Cairo. “One of your men came across the desert.” Aaron made it to Port Said on the Mediterranean that night and was taken to see a badly wounded Lishansky, who told Aaron what had happened to Absalom.
At a meeting with one of his British intelligence contacts, a Major Wyndham Deedes, Aaron broke down, weeping over his lost “brave knight.” Deedes, an outwardly dry, hard man, consolingly spoke of the young English soldiers dying in Europe. He assured Aaron the British would send a spy ship to obtain the intelligence gathered by the NILI ring. It had cost the life of Absalom Feinberg, but the connection between the NILI spy ring and British intelligence had finally been established.
Sarah only learned of Absalom’s death in March 1917, when Lishansky, now recovered from his wounds, returned from Egypt. Lishansky, in love with Sarah, the man who had left Absalom dying in the desert, had to tell her what happened. Afterward, those around her noticed the good spirits with which she endured the frustrating months of trying to contact the British, were gone. She wrote Aaron a letter: “It’s terrible, terrible, and there’s no comfort.”
Now, however, with the connection to the British in place and Sarah leading, the NILI spy ring came into its own. Its field of operation was all of Palestine and even extended as far as Damascus. Sarah and Joseph Lishansky, traveling by horse-drawn carriage, made long journeys, briefing the NILI members in place, recruiting new ones, and taking notes on everything of military significance (“On the way from Athlit to Haifa, we met the Arab military coastguards, patrolling, not on the coast, but on the highway!”).
Sarah, who looked like an ordinary matron in a white blouse and blue suit, bribed her way into Nazareth, where she discovered a large arms dump in the courtyard of the Carmelite Sisters convent.
Sarah had not told the NILI spies of Absalom’s death for fear of demoralizing them. Instead, she concocted a story that Absalom was in England training to be a pilot. A NILI operative in southern Palestine, Naaman Belkind, suspicious of Sarah’s story, had to know for himself what had happened to Absalom. Belkind set out for Egypt via the Sinai Desert but was caught by the Turks, who tortured and broke him.
* * * * *
On October 2, Turkish soldiers and secret police surrounded Zichron. Armed with lists of names, they arrested Sarah. They tied her to a fence and whipped her, beat her badly, twisted her flesh with tongs, burned her palms, and pulled out her hair and fingernails, but she gave them no information.
She shouted at the Turks in French, in Arabic, and in Yiddish: “You won’t get anything out of me. You think that because I’m a woman, I’ll be weak. I decided to defend my people lest you do to us what you did to the Armenians.”
Impressed, a Turkish general said, “She is worth a hundred men.”
The Turks prepared to transfer Sarah to Nazareth. Likely unsure how much longer she could hold out, Sarah requested and received permission to go home to change her blood-soaked clothes for clean ones. A rope was tied around her neck and, led like a dog by Turkish soldiers, she walked unsteadily into her home on badly swollen legs.
Inside, the rope was untied and she went into the bathroom, closing the door behind her. The Turkish soldiers heard the sound of water running from a faucet. Then a shot rang out from the bathroom. The soldiers broke the door open, looked in, and one bolted out of the house, shouting “doctor, doctor.”
A Zichron doctor appeared with his medical bag. “I found Sarah lying unconscious on the floor of the bathroom,” he later wrote. “Blood was coming out of her mouth.” He gave her a caffeine injection and she came to.
“I beg you, kill me…I can’t suffer any longer.”
The bullet from the gun, which Sarah had long ago carefully hidden in the bathroom for just such an occasion, had passed through her mouth and hit her spine, paralyzing her. She lived in agony for another four days, pleading for someone to put an end to her life, sometimes hallucinating, mumbling about the Armenians, asking that those attending her care for her father.
Finally, on October 9, 1917, Sarah died.
At some point before shooting herself, Sarah had found a way to write a note. “Remember to tell those who come after us what we went through. We have died as warriors and have not given way…They’ve come. I can’t write anymore.”
Aided by the vital intelligence furnished by Sarah and her NILI spy ring, the British drove the Turks out of Palestine, which set the stage for the later creation of the state of Israel. The remains of Absalom Feinberg were found in the Sinai Desert after the Six-Day War of 1967 and he was given an Israeli state funeral with full military honors on Mount Herzl. Attending was Absalom’s one-time fiancée, Rivka Aaronsohn, now old and frail. She had never married.
The Aaronsohn family home in Zichron Yaakov is now a museum. Sarah Aaronsohn is buried in the Zichron graveyard but because she had committed suicide, a fence was erected to segregate her grave from the others. Sarah is considered to be Israel’s Joan of Arc.