100 Years Ago, a Jewish Heroine Became an Early Martyr for Human Rights

Witnessing the Armenian genocide, Sarah Aaronsohn became a spy and helped the British defeat the Ottoman Empire

October 11, 2017 (released October 11, 2017)
Source: Tablet Magazine

By Liel Leibovitz

When I was in the fourth grade, my class went on a field trip to Zichron Ya’akov, to visit the home of a woman named Sarah Aaronsohn. She, we were told, was a great Jewish heroine, although the particulars were left deliberately vague. She was some sort of spy, our teacher told us cryptically, and she died for our country.

That she did, exactly one hundred years ago this week. But her bravery remains singular, and her story, sadly, too rarely told: Aaronsohn was a committed feminist, a proud Zionist, and a witness to genocide who refused to remain silent in the face of atrocity.

She was born in 1890 to Romanian immigrants who, as Zionism’s earliest adherents, helped found Zichron Ya’akov. Growing up, she learned how to farm, how to ride horses, and how to shoot guns. In 1914, she married a wealthy merchant named Haim Avraham and followed him to Turkey, where he did business. But, unsatisfied with merely being someone’s wife, she left him and set out to return home to her parents’ farm. What she saw on the way changed her life.

“In front of her very eyes, she saw the Armenians being tortured by the Turks,” her brother, Aaron, wrote in his diary. “She saw hundreds of dead Armenians, lying on the ground, unburied, devoured by wild dogs.”

These sights shook her to the core. She vowed to fight the Turks by whatever means necessary, and sought to aid the British in their war against the Ottoman Empire. Her timing was perfect: Her brother and his friends had just started an underground movement dedicated to this very idea. Entitled NILY—Hebrew acronyms for Netzach Israel Lo Yeshaker, or The Eternal One of Israel Will Not Lie—the group was a spy ring that collected information on Ottoman military movements in Palestine and delivered them to the Brits. At first the handoff was done by hand, with one of the group’s members swimming to a small yacht off the coast of Atlit, delivering his information, and receiving funds collected by American Jews to help the starving and embattled Jews in the Eretz Yisrael. Soon, however, the Turks began to suspect that something was afoot, and warned Palestine’s Jews not to meddle in the war lest they meet the same fate as the Armenians. Most were cowered by the threat, but not Aaronsohn and her fellow fighters. With the coastline now closely watched, they switched to homing pigeons. The system worked well, until it didn’t: In September of 1917, one of their birds was intercepted.

A NILY member was arrested and badly beat. Aaronsohn’s British contacts advised her to leave Palestine immediately, and offered her a ride on a boat. She refused, saying she wouldn’t leave until she could guarantee safe passage for all of her friends. A few weeks later, on the eve of Sukkot, Turkish soldiers stormed Zichron Ya’akov. They arrested Aaronsohn, and, for four days, severely tortured her. She said nothing, betraying none of her friends. Finally, the Turks had had enough, and they informed Aaronsohn that she would be transferred to Damascus and promptly hanged there. Calmly, she asked for permission to stop by her house, bathe, and put on fresh clothes for the journey. The Turks, suspecting nothing, allowed it. Hidden above the door in her bathroom was a gun; as soon as she was alone, Aaronsohn grabbed it and shot herself.

She didn’t die immediately. For three days, she bled to death in a hospital bed. Her final letter, written hastily as the Turkish soldiers were breaking down her door, asks simply that her death be avenged. On October 9, 1917, she passed away at 27. Two months and two days later, the British general Sir Edmund Allenby rode into Jerusalem, giving Aaronsohn’s sacrifice its proper coda and proving once again that there is no limit to what a person might achieve when she refuses to remain silent in the face of terror.