Sarah Aaronsohn

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Sarah Aaronsohn

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.[1] Sometimes she is referred to as the "heroine of Nili."[2]

Early life[edit]

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[edit]

On her way from Istanbul to Haifa, Aaronson witnessed part of the Armenian genocide. She testified to seeing hundreds of bodies of men, women, and babies; sickened Armenians being loaded onto trains; and up to 5,000 Armenians massacred by being bound to a pyramid of thorns then set alight.[3] Since her trip to Haifa, any allusions to Armenians got her into a fit of hysteria.[3] According to Chaim Herzog, Aaronsohn decided to assist British forces after she witnessed the Armenian genocide by the Ottomans in Anatolia.[4]

Spy ring[edit]

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[edit]

Sarah Aaronsohn's (right) and her mother's graves at the Zikhron cemetery in Israel

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.[5][6] According to Scott Anderson, in his book Lawrence in Arabia, Sarah shot herself in the mouth on Friday 5 October 1917. "Even this did not end the torment of Sarah Aaronsohn. While the bullet destroyed her mouth and severed her spinal cord, it missed her brain. For four days she lingered in agony." (died 9 October 1917.) [7] In her last letter, she expressed her hope that her activities in Nili would bring nearer the realization of a Jewish national home for the Jews in Eretz Israel.

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).

See also[edit]


  1. ^ 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.)
  2. ^ Herzog, Chaim (1989). Heroes of Israel. Boston: Little, Brown. ISBN 0-316-35901-7. 
  3. ^ a b 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. 
  4. ^ Armenian Genocide Research - The First World War : A Complete History
  5. ^ Auron, Yair. The Banality of Indifference. 2001, page 179-80
  6. ^ Kahana, Ephraim. Historical dictionary of Israeli intelligence. 2006, page xix
  7. ^ Anderson, Scott (2013). Lawrence In Arabia: War, deceit, imperial folly and the making of the Modern Middle East (First ed.). New York & Canada: Doubleday. 

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