- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 18, 2005


By Hillel Halkin

PublicAffairs, $26, 388 pages

Almost 60 years before Hillel Halkin moved from the United States to Zichron Ya’akov in Israel in 1970, the idyllic Mediterranean town was in its heyday. Funded by the largesse of Edmond de Rothschild and fueled by his utopian plans, prosperity came early to what Mr. Halkin wryly calls the “little outpost of Frenchdom in the Levant” — but not without hardship.

As a European sponsored Jewish settlement in Ottoman Palestine, “one of the first Jewish farming colonies established [there] toward the end of the nineteenth century,” many of the colonists were suddenly thrust into roles they were ill-equipped to manage. Some had never farmed before. Crops did poorly. And soon “all were sick with dysentery from contaminated well water and malaria from the mosquitoes that infested the swamps between the Carmel and the sea.”

Preceding Theodore Herzl’s Zionist forays into the region by almost a decade, the town’s 350 colonists had arrived from Romania in the summer of 1882 and before long “fruit trees were planted on hill sides; grapevines were ordered from France.” There was prosperity. Mr. Halkin writes that “by the eve of World War I, [the town] boasted three streets; nearly one hundred buildings (including a hospital, a bank, and a first sea-view villa, built by a wealthy Jewish couple from England; running water; a stagecoach service to Haifa and Jaffa; one automobile owner; two licensed bottlers of seltzer water; and one thousand inhabitants … .”

Times were good. However, as Mr. Halkin notes, “[t]hen came the world war, bringing the collapse of the Ottomans and an episode called the Nili Affair and no one envied Zichron any more.”

“A Strange Death” is a curious hybrid. At first glance, it is a book that has all the markings of a memoir, beginning with Mr. Halkin’s recollection of his return to Israel with his wife Marcia and their chance discovery of Zichron Ya’akov as an affordable place to live during a real estate boom that began at the height of the 1967 war.

It is also a compelling history of a time in Israel’s past when relations with Arabs seemed relatively good and the Promised Land, was just that, a land full of promise and opportunity. In vivid, almost poetic prose Mr. Halkin captures the beauty and call of the land, placing important events in context between world wars and competing visions for the region.

It is also a detective story proceeding from Mr. Halkin’s chance discovery of a book called “Sarah, Flame of the Nili” in which the life of Sarah Aronsohn and her work with within the Nili spy ring in 1917 raises questions that continue to plague the town to this day.

“Nili” was a Hebrew acronym from the biblical verse netsach yisra-el lo yeshaker, “the destiny of Israel doth not lie,” which was the code name of a pro-British spy ring that operated against the Turks, who had entered the war on the side of the Germans. “Organized and run by Jews from Zichron and the vicinity, the ring functioned from late 1916 until the following autumn. Its main activity was gathering intelligence on Turkish defenses against the British army, then inching its way eastward from Egypt across Sinai.” The spy ring was led by a passionate Zionist named Aaron Aaronsohn who believed that “spying for the British could lay the groundwork for post-war English-Jewish collaboration.”

It took a year for the spies to establish a network of agents, among these Aaron’s beautiful 24-year-old sister Sarah, and a young man rumored to be in love with Sarah named Josef Lishansky.

All goes well for a time, but soon Mr. Halkin writes “half of Jewish Palestine, it seems, knows of the ring’s existence and it is only a matter of time before the Turks find out.” He adds, “Leaders of the Jewish community, terrified of a fate like the Armenians’, threaten the Nili ring with dire consequences unless it disbands.”

And before very long, during, the harvest festival of Sukkot, the Turks cordon off Zichron Ya’akov. “Arrested and tortured, Sarah obtains permission to return home for a change of clothes, takes a hidden pistol and kills herself. The other ring members are transferred to a prison in Nazareth.”

The capture of the spies and their treatment by the inhabitants of Zichron Ya’akov as they are marched through the streets of the town is at the root of the detective story, and is the powerful force that drives the book along.

Why did Perl Applebaum turn in the spies’ ringleader to Turkish authorities? Who were the other women who seemed to take pleasure in the capture of the spies? Did Sarah utter a plea for revenge? Is it true that the four women came to unhappy ends? Is there anyone alive who really knows what happened? Are they reliable?

Though Mr. Halkin has arranged this book to answer all of these questions, his discussions with the aging inhabitants, some of whom were part of the original Romanian influx into the town, raise more questions.

Mr. Halkin is, among other things, a first-rate detective. He ventured into old houses and barns, a cemetery, a Palestinian refugee camp and other places to find clues as to what happened or people who knew things who might talk. There were people who claimed to have secrets or who did not. Some who had secrets talked, some did not. Some changed their stories. There are numerous colorful characters, and in this tiny town with its quirks and grudges Mr. Halkin seems to have had conversations with them all.

But the character to whom Mr. Halkin returns again and again is Yanko Epstein, who is the director of the town’s historical museum. Though he seems to know more than what he reveals, he keeps Mr. Halkin guessing at every turn. And though he seems to be a gentle, almost comic figure what he appears to know is anything but. From him, Mr. Halkin seems to get the best picture of what happened to Sarah in her final days. His depiction of brutality of the Turks when they came for the Nili lingers long after the pages of this book are closed. Apart from her sad fate, and the fate of others, one image that stays is that of how the father of Re’uven Schwarz, one of the spies, was forced to march through the town calling “Re’uven, where are you?”

And though Yanko Epstein who reveals just how meanspirited Tsippora Lerner, Adele Goldstein and Gita Blumenfeld were to the spies as they were marched through the town, there are questions even he will not or cannot answer.

This book is an extraordinary achievement, a testament to what binds a people together and how fragile those bonds can be.

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