Today Zichron Yaakov is a beautiful small city, known for its shops and history. But at one time, it was known to the British as the home of a small organization of Jewish spies in World War I, centered on the Aaronsohn family. Their story is one of great bravery and tragedy.
When Malka and Fishel Aaronsohn made aliyah to the land of Israel in 1882, much of it was unsettled and wild. The leaders of their group bought a large tract of land in Zamarin from an Arab landowner who lived in Beirut. They thought the land was lush and fertile, but reality was different and it grew very little. Starvation and malaria killed many of the young children.
At that time, Baron Hirsch, a rich German philanthropist, established farming communities in Argentina and the United States for Jews from Eastern Europe. His agent in the land of Israel offered the Zamarin settlers money to go to Argentina or back to Romania. The story has two versions: in one the men answer, in the other version Malka Aaronsohn does. But the words are memorable, “We will eat rocks before we go back.”
Their reply so impressed the agent that he gave them access to free medical care in Haifa and enough money to feed them all for several months. He also told Baron Edmond de Rothschild, the French banker and philanthropist, about their plight.
Rothschild bought the land from the farmers in exchange for financial support, farm equipment, medical care, and agricultural management. As with other places in the country that Rothschild financed, he renamed it for one of the members of his family. Zichron Yaakov means “the memory of Jacob,” in memory of his father.
Rothschild paid for Aaron, the Aaronsohn’s oldest son, to study agronomy at a French University. Aaron’s international reputation was secured when he found strains of triticale, the ancestor of today’s wheat. He then established a research station in nearby Atlit. Aaron’s assistant was Avshalom Feinberg. Both Aaronsohn daughters fell in love with Avshalom, and he became engaged to the younger one, Rivka. Her sister Sarah then married a Turkish Jew and moved to Turkey. The marriage was not a success, and she returned to Zichron Yaakov a year later.
In 1915, the Turkish government asked Aaron to head the fight against an invasion of locusts. In working as a Turkish official, he witnessed the government corruption and Turkish oppression of minorities throughout the Ottoman Empire.
By now World War I had begun. Sarah had seen the suffering of the Armenians and feared the same would happen to the Jews. She and Avshalom convinced Aaron to join with them and form a clandestine group to gather information about the Turkish army and pass it on to the British. They called the group NILI, taking the name from a phrase in the first book of Samuel: Neztach Yisrael Lo Yishaker—the eternity of Israel will not be falsified, or, the Eternal One of Israel will not lie.
At first the British did not trust Aaron. Why would this important Turkish official spy on his own government? But they grew to trust him and found the information valuable.
Usually the information was passed to a British ship which periodically anchored off the Mediterranean coast at Atlit. But in 1917, the ship did not show up. Avshalom Feinberg decided to take the information to the British in Egypt himself. Bedouins attacked and killed him in the Sinai. Bedouins attacked and killed him in the Sinai.
When a pigeon carrying a message was found by the Turks, NILI was exposed. Sarah was arrested and tortured. When told she was to be moved to jail in Damascus, she asked to go home and change her clothes. They took her to Aaron’s house and allowed her to enter alone. Afraid she might betray the others under further torture, she took Aaron’s pistol from its hiding place and killed herself.
Aaron continued to help the British until he died in a plane crash over the English Channel in 1919.
The three pink stucco houses in the Aaronson courtyard have been turned into a museum dedicated to the history of NILI. The first house holds an exhibit of photos of the area and the family. Several frames exhibit pressed specimens of the triticale Aaron discovered. Downstairs we viewed a film on the history of NILI, which was very well done, using a combination of photographs and actors. A tall bookcase, full of thick volumes labeled “Do Not Touch” was built into one wall. Most of the books were records of Aaron’s agricultural work. I would have loved to look into one to see the details of what he had done day to day, but I doubt I would have understood his notes. English was not yet the international language of science. He would have been more likely to write in French, the language he was educated in, or Hebrew or Arabic, the languages his associates spoke.
Across the courtyard stands Malka and Fishel’s house. It was built in 1884, and probably enlarged later to the size it is today. Although Malka had died before WWI, Fishel lived here until his death at age 92 in 1939. All the furnishings in the Aaronsohn homes are original, from the dark red patterned rugs to the china on the shelves of the heavy dark wood cabinets. The table is set with white flowered china, as if the family is expected to come in for dinner any minute. As we walked through the dining room, several people said, “That looks just like my grandmother’s china!”
Across the courtyard, we went into Aaron’s house, built for him by his parents twelve years after their own house. The major difference between the two houses is that his house has a bathroom inside. The guide opened a small panel next to the door to show us the compartment where Aaron hid his pistol.
Aaron spoke, and read, fourteen languages, and had owned books in almost all—30,000 books in all. Although much of his library was been lost, 5,000 books remain. They stand in packed bookcases in every room.
The last room before the exit is the bathroom, the room where
Sarah shot herself. It is a large stark room, containing only the bathtub, sink, and toilet. But at the end of the 19th century, it had been a great luxury.
NILI disappeared with the deaths of its leaders. But its legacy lives on, because its work helped the British defeat the Ottoman Turks. The British paved roads, built sewage systems, and modernized Palestine. In thirty years of rule, the British accomplished more good than the Ottomans had in their 300 years.