- - Sunday, November 27, 2016



By James Srodes

Counterpoint, $24, 203 pages

By Joseph C. Goulden

In more than half a century of reading intelligence literature, seldom have I encountered an operative with the raw courage of Sarah Aaronsohn. Whatever spy tradecraft the woman knew was self-taught. She had to contend not only with hostile neighbors, but with Turkish security officers who delighted in fashioning new and gruesome ways to torture adversaries.

Ms. Aaronsohn’s story is grippingly told by James Srodes in an account that also explores, in brisk and incisive language, a phase of World War I that hisorians tend to skim past — the attempts of Kaiser Germany and allied nations of the Ottoman Empire to seize the Suez Canal, cutting Great Britain’s lifeline to India and the East.

The hamlet of Zichron Ya’akov was a prosperous farm village just south of Haifa in a land then known as Syria-Palestine, populated chiefly by Jewish immigrants from Europe. Among them was the Aaronsohn family from Romania. Patriarch Ephraim was a staunch Zionist bent upon creating a Jewish homeland. He was also a skilled agronomist, a talent shared by elder son Aaron.

Survival meant coaxing a living from dry land; Aaron’s discovery of a wheat variety suitable to the climate brought him international fame, and the attention of the Rothschild family, major Zionist benefactors. The Rothschilds lavishly supported Aaron’s research, evoking jealous among fellow residents.

Born in 1890, Sarah was a village beauty. “With a high, proud bosom and small waist, Sarah’s firm stride testified to her long girlhood spent as an active horsewoman.” Romance eluded her there was an early love with a villager — as did marriage to an older city merchant.

Back in the village, she was drawn into a multi-party struggle for power that defies brief description — a political mishmash involving Germans, the Turks, various Arab groups and (briefly) the French, over British-controlled Palestine-Syria. The Aaronsohn family cast its lot with the British, fearing being put under anti-Semetic German rule.

Their chief adversary was an especially barbaric Turk governor named Pasha Ahmed Djamal. His hatchetman, intelligence chief Aziz Bek, “exceeded his master in the studied art of cruelty.” To root out opposition in both the Jewish and Arab communities, his thugs swept through Palestine-Syria, impressing young men into the Turkish military, and destroying any means of livelihood, even small farms.

The Aaromsohn family, led by patriot Ephriam and son Aaron, took the lead in establishing an intelligence network to alert the British on Turkish military activities. Sarah served as a clearing house for information.

An early spying coup, ironically, was made possible by a severe locust infestation. The Aaromsohns and other villagers worked with Turkish soldiers to dig a huge pitch into which locusts were bulldozed and covered, in hopes the infestation could be curbed.

The Jews quietly gathered a wealth of information all the while — “the order of battle, the size and number of weapons, and especially hints as to the plans of the Turjkish attack on Suez,” all of “vital importance to the British planners In Cairo.”

Resultantly, Djamal Pasha’s attack on Suez was a “shambles from the start,” with broken vehicles, dead livestock and faltering troops” scattered over a long trail.

The band of Jewish spies eventually encompassed some 75 persons. Sarah’s chief role was that of coordinator: to assemble intelligence into a form in which it could be passed to Cairo. One mode was carrier pigeons. Recruits mapped roads, bridges and fortifications. Written messages were encrypted from keys employing Hebrew.

At its peak, the network had agents throughout the Turkish regime — clerks, telephone operators, physicians even a code clerk, the ultimate source for any intelligence apparatus. As Mr. Srodes writes, “No general even went on the attack with a better grasp of the enemy and his strength.”

Handling all this information took toll of Sarah, who suffered bouts of malarial fever and malnutrition. But she persevered, despite her knowledge that Turkish counterintelligence was tightening its vise on her group, torturing members into naming names.

Eventually, she heard the inevitable night-time knocks on the door, and delivery into Turkish hands. She was forced to watch the brutal torture of her father and a brother. And here emerged the ultimate act of bravery. “Instead of meekly denying all knowledge, Sarah taunted them. She alone was responsible for the spying and she would live to see all of them destroyed for their brutal tyranny and persecution of the Jews.”

I shan’t describe what happened to Sarah the next three days. Through her torment, she shouted defiance. “You are murderers, blood-thirsty wild animals. I, a weak woman, decided to defend my people lest you do to us what you did o the Armenians.”

A museum in Sarah’s village honors her “life and heroic deeds,” whose “courage and leadership made her a woman ahead of her time.”

Disclosure: Mr. Srodes and I have been friends since the late 1960s. Friendship aside, his book is an engaging five cloak/ five dagger read.

Joseph C. Goulden is the author of 19 non-fiction books.

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