Sarah Aaronsohn (5 January 1890 – 9 October 1917) was a member of Nili, a ring of Jewish spies working for the British in World War I, and a sister of notable botanist Aaron Aaronsohn. Sometimes she is referred to as the "heroine of Nili."
Sarah Aaronsohn was born and died in Zichron Yaakov, Israel, 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 in December to escape an unhappy marriage.
Decision to spy
On her way from Istanbul to Haifa, Aaronson witnessed the Armenian Genocide. In her testimony, she describes seeing hundreds of bodies of men, women and babies, sickened Armenians being loaded onto trains and a massacre of up to 5,000 Armenians by bounding them to a pyramid of thorns and setting it alight. Since her trip to Haifa, any allusions to Armenians got her into a fit of hysteria. According to Chaim Herzog, Aaronsohn decided to assist British forces after she witnessed the Armenian genocide by the Ottomans in Anatolia.
Aaronsohn, her brothers and sister Aaron, Alex, and Rebecca Feinberg-Aaronohn also their friend Absalom Feinberg formed and led Nili, the spy organization. Aaronsohn oversaw operations of the spy-ring and passed information to British agents offshore. When Aaron Aaronsohn was away, she headed the spy operations in Palestine. Sometimes she travelled widely through Ottoman territory collecting information useful to the British, and brought it directly to them in Egypt. In 1917, Alex urged her to remain in British-controlled Egypt, expecting hostilities by Ottoman authorities. She nevertheless returned to Zichron Yaakov to continue Nili activities.
Discovery and death
In September 1917, the Ottomans caught her carrier pigeon with a message to the British and decrypted the Nili code. In October, the Ottomans surrounded Zichron Yaakov and arrested numerous people, including Aaronsohn. After four days of torture, she managed to shoot and kill herself with a pistol concealed under a tile in the bathroom to avoid further torture and to protect her colleagues.
Because of the Jewish views on suicide, Aaronsohn was forbidden from being traditionally buried in a Jewish cemetery. However, refusing a Jewish burial for a Jewish war hero was naturally unpopular. As a compromise, a small fence was placed around her grave in the cemetery (symbolically removing her grave from the surrounding hallowed ground). Aaronsohn's mother wished to be buried beside her daughter; upon her death, the fenced in section was expanded to accommodate them both.
- Sarah Aaronsohn (Jewish Virtual Library, based on New Encyclopedia of Zionism and Israel, ed., Geoffrey Wigoder, Copyright 1994 by Associated University Press, The Jewish Agency for Israel and The World Zionist Organization.)
- Herzog, Chaim (1989). Heroes of Israel. Boston: Little, Brown. ISBN 0-316-35901-7.
- Bartov, Mack, Omer, Phyllis (2001). In God's Name: Genocide and Religion in the Twentieth Century. Berghahn Books. pp. 274–275. ISBN 1-57181-214-8.
- Armenian Genocide Research - The First World War : A Complete History
- Auron, Yair. The Banality of Indifference. 2001, page 179-80
- Kahana, Ephraim. Historical dictionary of Israeli intelligence. 2006, page xix
- (Hebrew) שרה אהרנסון Sarah Aaronsohn (izkor.gov.il)
- Prof. Billie Melman, Sarah Aaronsohn (Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia, Jewish Women's Archive)
- Biography on MyJewishLearning.com