Sarah Aaronsohn (1890-1917) was born in Zikhron Yaakov to a Romanian-Jewish family which had settled in the Land of Israel during the First Aliyah to co-found a moshav. The moshav was later financed and supported by Edmond James de Rothschild (who renamed it Zikhron Yaakov after his father). Aaronsohn studied languages, and could speak Hebrew, Yiddish, Turkish, French, Arabic, and English. She married a wealthy Jewish-Bulgarian businessman and lived with him briefly in Istanbul. When the marriage unraveled, Aaronsohn returned to Israel. During her journey, she personally witnessed the horrors of the Armenian Genocide, and was deeply affected by what she saw. This inspired her to work against the Ottoman Turks, both to stop what was happening to the Armenians, and to prevent the same happening to Jews, as was rumoured at the time. Aaronsohn and her siblings started the NILI spy ring to supply important information to the British. (NILI stood for the Biblical words Netzach Israel Lo Ishaker, “the God of Israel does not lie”, from I Samuel 15:29.) Their spy ring grew to include 40 operatives, making it the largest British spy network in the Middle East during World War I. The information they provided was so vital that General Allenby later admitted he would not have been able to liberate the Holy Land without it. And without Allenby’s conquest, there would probably not have been a State of Israel (at least not so soon). Aaronsohn was also in charge of taking care of the Jews expelled from Haifa and Tel-Aviv by the Ottomans. At one point she worked with Lawrence of Arabia, and many believe the “S.A” to whom he dedicated his book The Seven Pillars of Wisdom is Sarah Aaronsohn. Unfortunately, the Ottomans caught one of Aaronsohn’s carrier pigeons to the British and arrested her shortly after. She was gruesomely tortured for days, refusing to give any information and insisting that she was the sole spy, thus saving the lives of many others. While being transferred to a different torture chamber, she asked to stop at home to change her tattered and blood-soaked clothes. Aaronsohn managed to get a gun and shoot herself in the head. She survived the blast, and suffered for another four days before succumbing to her injuries. In her suicide note, she wrote that she hoped the blood of martyrs like her would one day be avenged, and that her work would speed up the establishment of a Jewish state. History has shown that it certainly did. Aaronsohn was hailed as a new “Joan of Arc”, and is one of Israel’s great heroines.
Shulamit Cohen (b. 1917) was born in Argentina and raised in Jerusalem with her twelve brothers and sisters. Her father was from a wealthy Egyptian-Jewish merchant family, and her mother was the daughter of a prominent rabbi in Jerusalem. In 1936, the family experienced severe financial strain, and Shulamit’s father arranged her to marry Joseph Kishak-Cohen, a wealthy businessman from Beirut. Shula moved to Lebanon, and had five kids by the time she was 24. One day in 1947, she overheard people discussing military activities against Israel. Shula recorded the information in a letter to the Haganah, which was fighting for a Jewish state in Israel, addressing it to her brother in Jerusalem. Five weeks later, an agent of the Haganah’s secret service contacted her. For the next 14 years, Shula worked as an Israeli spy in Lebanon. Her work consisted of two major goals. The first was to gather intelligence about Arab military activities, which she was able to do by getting herself into Lebanon’s high society, including the home of the prime minister, who considered her like one of his own daughters. The second was to help smuggle Jewish families fleeing persecution in the Arab world, particularly from Syria. Over the years, she helped countless families find safe passage to Israel. Shula communicated with the secret service using invisible ink, under the code name “Pearl”. She was first caught for smuggling in 1952. Pregnant at the time, Shula was taken to jail just three weeks after giving birth, and spent 36 days in confinement. She continued her clandestine activities for another 9 years before things got too dangerous and she moved to Rome for three months. Upon her return in 1961, she was immediately arrested for espionage. The trial went on for several months during which she was brutally tortured. She was initially sentenced to death by hanging, but the verdict was softened because she was a mother of seven. Her sentence was reduced to 20 years of hard labour. During the Six-Day War in 1967, Israel captured Lebanese citizens, and used them in a prisoner exchange for Shula and a captured Israeli pilot. Shula has lived in Israel ever since, and still volunteers at schools and IDF bases, despite her advanced age. Two of her sons have high-ranking roles in the Israeli government. A book about her story has been published, called Shula: Code Name The Pearl.
UPDATE: Sadly, Shula Cohen passed away in May of 2017.
Words of the Week
Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm. – Winston Churchill
Secret Agent Krystyna Skarbek – the inspiration for James Bond’s Vesper Lynd
Maria Krystyna Janina Skarbek (1908-1952) was born in Poland to a Catholic father and a Jewish mother from a wealthy family. From a young age, Maria enjoyed horse-back riding, skiing, and extreme physical activities. At 22, her father died and her mother’s family wealth ran out. Skarbek got a job in a Fiat dealership but fell ill from the fumes. To regain her health, she returned to the slopes and spent the majority of her time skiing and hiking. With the outbreak of World War II, Skarbek fled to London and enlisted in the British Army. She found her way into the Secret Intelligence Service and was sent to Hungary for “espionage, reconnaissance and sabotage”. From there she re-entered Poland by hiking across the mountainous border. Skarbek first attempted to save her mother from the Nazis, but her mother refused to leave and was killed in a camp. Skarbek’s main work was to organize the transfer of vital intelligence reports out of Warsaw to the SIS. (One of these correctly revealed Germany’s planned invasion of the USSR, of critical importance to the Allied victory). She also assisted in smuggling weapons and exfiltrating key military personnel. Arrested by the Gestapo in 1941, Skarbek bit her own tongue until it bled, then pretended to have virulent tuberculosis and used the cover to escape her captivity. She made her way through the Balkans to Turkey, then to the SIS headquarters in Egypt. Upon arrival, she was suspected of being a counter-spy secretly working for the Germans! Thankfully, she cleared her name and returned to work. In 1944 she was posted in France under the name ‘Madame Pauline’. Here were some of her most infamous missions, including demolishing bridges and infiltrating a Nazi prison to save her commanding officer. After the war she was awarded with an Officer of the Order of the British Empire and France’s Croix de Guerre. However, she was dismissed from service with only a month’s salary and left alone in Cairo. She slowly rebuilt her life as Christine Granville. Sadly, in 1952 she was assassinated in a hotel room. Skarbek’s story inspired Vesper Lynd, the original ‘Bond Girl’ in Ian Fleming’s first 007 story Casino Royale. Many consider her Britain’s first female secret agent.
Words of the Week
God transforms spirituality into physicality; the Jew makes physical things spiritual. – Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov