Author chronicles Zionist woman’s spy ring during WWI

By Repps Hudson, Special to the Jewish Light

“The Woman Who Fought an Empire: Sarah Aaronsohn and Her Nili Spy Ring” by Gregory J. Wallace, University of Nebraska Press, 293 pages, $32.95

On June 28, 1914, a Serbian nationalist named Givrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, presumed heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and his wife, in Sarajevo.

That single violent act kicked off World War I and pulled in the vast, decaying Ottoman Empire based in Constantinople (now Istanbul), which covered the Levant, the Arabian Peninsula and the eastern end of North Africa. Thus, the Ottomans entered the war on the side of the Triple Alliance of Italy, Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. 

The defeat of the Ottomans in November 1918 by the combined forces of Britain, France and the United States meant the end of Turkish rule for that vast territory. And that meant millions of ethnic and religious groups and tribes fell under the control primarily of Britain and France in the eastern Mediterranean. 

Beth Shalom Cemetery ad

Years before Britain was fighting Turkish forces throughout the area that would become the mandate of Palestine and then Israel, Jews who had fled pogroms in Eastern and Southern Europe were settling along the Mediterranean coast in what is known today as the First and Second Aliyot (1882-1914).

Among them was the family of Sarah Aaronsohn from Romania. Sarah was born in Palestine in 1890. Her father, Ephraim, and mother, Malka, had six children. Backed by the wealthy benefactor of Jewish settlement, Baron Edmond de Rothschild, the couple and other Romanian Jews settled in an area along the Mediterranean coast south of Haifa.

In his introduction, Wallace, a former federal prosecutor and human rights activist in New York City, describes Sarah, the protagonist in this fascinating and exhaustively researched story, this way: 

“Sarah Aaronsohn is the curative for the damaging Mata Hari stereotype of women spies. [Mata Hari was killed by a French firing squad in 1917 for spying.] She was the intelligent, beautiful, brave, willful sister of an equally willful world famous scientist [the botanist, agronomist and Zionist Aaron Aaronsohn], and the skilled leader of a mostly male spy ring at a time when women held an inferior status in society. Her cloak-and-dagger exploits played an important role in the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the outcome of World War I.”

When war broke out in 1914, Sarah was married to a man many years older, Haim Abraham, and living in Constantinople. They did not seem to have a happy marriage. A formative moment in Sarah’s decision to spy for Britain came when she became homesick and left Constantinople by train to return to Zikhron in northern Palestine. Today the town is Zichron Ya’acov, about 20 miles south of Haifa. 

During the long train trip to see her family in 1915, Sarah witnessed Turkish troops carrying out what has become known as the Armenian genocide, in which the Ottoman and later Turkish government murdered between 1.5 million and 2 million Armenians.  

The Armenians’ fate made Sarah into an even more determined Zionist.

After she saw what the Turks had done to the Armenians, she had no illusions that similar fate could await the Jews who had moved to their ancestral home.

“Sarah’s train crossed the Anatolian Plateau,” Wallace writes. “A traveler on such a trip ordinarily saw only scenic vistas: vast steppes, wheat fields, ancient stone walls, and terraced valleys. But on this train, Sarah stared out the window at burning villages; heaps of bodies on both sides of the tracks; emaciated Armenian families staggering in the roads with Turkish soldiers kicking, beating, and shooting the stragglers; and packs of dogs feeding on the decomposing corpses of dead Armenians.”

At first, the British could not believe that Sarah and her Jewish allies were to be trusted. Eventually, however, the British came to value the information the Nili spies provided in Turkish troop movements. 

By the summer of 1917, Wallace notes, Sarah’s intelligence reports had allowed Britain to gain air superiority over the Sinai east to Jerusalem. A German report notes that “the mastery of the air has unfortunately for some weeks completely passed to the British.” And that meant the British could conduct air reconnaissance with its biplanes and win battles against the Turks in areas around Gaza.

By the fall of 1917, the Turks had discovered and begun destroying the Nili network. 

When Sarah was captured, she knew she was going to be tortured to give up the names of the Nili spies. She was sure the Turks would apply falaka, beating the soles of her feet until they were bloody and she could stand and walk only with nearly unbearable pain. She also witnessed the beating of her father and a brother. 

At one point, after being whipped, Sarah said: “You — go and tell your Turkish dictator that you can crush my body, but you can never rule my soul….You Turks, your time is up. This country is our homeland and it shall be ours.” 

As she was being tortured in almost unimaginable ways, one Turkish officer is reported to have said, “She is a worth a hundred men.” 

Sarah never broke, despite her pain and degradation.  She found a way to write a final note that described how to care for the families of the Nili spies.

Eventually, she was able to find a small pistol with which she shot herself in the mouth, which apparently caused the bullet to lodge in her spine and paralyze her arms and legs. She lived four more days, dying on Oct. 9. 1917. 

“She hadn’t told the Turks anything,” Wallace writes. “Sarah Aaronsohn was twenty-seven years old.”

Like much of this book, Wallace’s description of the torture of Sarah and her allies was taken from private collections of letters, notes and interviews as well as books and articles about this period. In places, it is difficult to read because of its intense description. Basing a book of this type on primary documents gives the narrative the feel of journalism, which brings it to life on the page.

However, sometimes the details of names and places are confusing, even wearying. Photographs, maps and a list of the main characters in this drama very much help us to understand this compelling story of heroism.

Repps Hudson is a freelance journalist and adjunct instructor who lives in University City.