Library > Reading Corner > N.I.L.I's Story Told Through the Diary of the Man Who Gave It Its Name

N.I.L.I's Story Told Through the Diary of the Man Who Gave It Its Name

Levi Yitzchak Schneersohn is not the first name which enters our minds when we hear the name N.I.L.I, but his diary gives us a glimpse into the activities of the first Jewish espionage organization in the Yishuv

 

It was on a December night in 1914, several months after the First World War began raging through Europe, that a group of young people from Hadera, a Moshava that was part of the Jewish Yishuv, went on a nighttime trip to the beach. "Suddenly Yocheved Madorsky cried out that something had got into her eye," Levi Yitzchak (Lowa) Schneersohn writes in his diary. "Dr. Glicker was also with us and he treated her eye by the light of a pocket flashlight which my brother Mendel happened to have with him." The light from the flashlight aroused the suspicion of several nearby Bedouins, and they approached the group, who greeted them.

The entire meeting lasted no longer than a few short minutes. The Jewish youngsters offered cigarettes to their guests, who happily accepted them and parted from them a short while later. The event is unlikely to have left an impression on its participants, if not for what took place a few days later.


Levi Yitzchak (Lowa) Schneersohn 


On Saturday, January 18, 1915, a delegation from the Ottoman government, made up of a unit of mounted riders and masses of furious Arabs, entered Hadera. The delegation first separated the Arab laborers from the Jews of the Moshava. The head of the delegation, Sheikh Abu-Hantesh then began to interrogate the laborers about the secret intelligence activities the members of the Moshava have been carrying out with the British army.

 

As the investigation proceeded, the Sheikh's frustration from the responses he received grew, and the questions were replaced with shouts and blows. During the exchange it became clear to the members of the Moshava that the Ottoman delegation saw the pocket flashlight the doctor used to check Madorsky's eyes as proof which aroused their suspicions about a connection between the members of the settlement and the British. Even after the delegation was disbanded, following intervention of a senior Arab who passed by, tempers did not subside.

 

A few weeks later, a Turkish officer appeared in the Moshava and arrested 13 of its members, including Levi Yitzchak, his brother Mendel and their close friend Avshalom Feinberg. This was a turning point in the lives of Levi Yitzchak and his friend Feinberg, and they discussed the possibility "of concrete help to the English, who are going to liberate the Holy Land." What exactly should they do, the pair did not know. ​

 

At the end of March 1915 Feinberg first raised the plan he had previously kept to himself. He did so before Schneersohn and their mutual friend by the name of Aaron Aaronsohn. "There is still no clear-cut plan" Schneersohn wrote in his diary, but "Avshalom already knows. He will travel to Egypt. He will reach English headquarters. He will tell them: Listen gentlemen, we are a group of young Jews, who are familiar with all the roads in Israel, we will help you!"

 

Almost five months passed until Feinberg managed to carry out his plan and board an American refugee ship on its way to Egypt. In the meantime, life on the Moshava settled into a worrying routine: the farmers worked in the fields, the Turks continued to sniff around, occasionally bursting into the Moshava to confiscate the farmers' weapons. Feinberg returned in November with glad tidings: the British accepted his proposal and will make contact from now on at Atlit Beach.

A month passed, then two months and there was no sign the British intended to keep their word. The unpleasant silence led Feinberg to concoct a new daring plan: to contact the British through Sinai. It was only though Aaronsohn's efforts that Feinberg was released after being caught on the way.

The women of the city didn't stop there; they introduced other initiatives – distributing clothes to children in collaboration with the city committee and women of Haddasah, helping the hospital staff and taking thousands of orphans under their wings – first in an orphan assembly and later by bringing them to attend classes they arranged.

1915 passed with no practical success, and 1916 began with even more worrying news.

 

Massacre of the Armenians, Oppression in the Land of Israel

Sarah Aaronsohn, Aaaron's sister, returned at the beginning of 1916 from Constantinople in Turkey to the Land of Israel with the terrible news: the enormous Armenian massacre committed by the Ottomans. A terrible fear spread through all the listeners: would the Jewish Yishuv suffer the same fate? The fear encouraged Feinberg, Schneersohn and the Aaronsohn siblings to redouble their efforts to contact the British.


Once again, it was Feinberg who took matters into his own hands. This time, he decided to make his way to Constantinople. Upon arrival, he received an urgent telegram from Aaronsohn instructing him to rush back to Israel: on March 16, 1916, the British had made contact on the Atlit Beach.


Sarah Aaronsohn in the agricultural experiments station in Atlit, it is not known what year the picture was photographed. The picture was taken from "Beit Aaronsohn – N.I.L.I Museum"

With a vague promise to make contact again, the members of the organization began to gather all the information they could about the Ottoman army's movements, its level of preparation for a British attack and its future plans regarding the Land of Israel.  The success of the secret organization, which was soon joined by Sarah Aaronsohn and other friends, actually caused great frustration. "If this material was given to the British, it would be of substantial help to them in beating the Turkish army fast," Schneersohn overly estimated the achievements of his organization in mid-May 1916.

 

The members of the organization ran out of patience at the end of May 1916 and Aaaron Aaronsohn decided to travel to Constantinople, from where he would travel to England via Berlin. "The plan is to take me along as his secretary," Schneersohn wrote on the page in his diary dated the end of May 1916. "Although only God knows how I will explain my journey at home." Fortunately for him, his father chose not to challenge his son and accepted his explanations with a blank face.

The pair reached Constantinople at the beginning of August. Schneersohn's reception when he descended from the train proved to be a preview of what awaited him in the Turkish city: the clerk refused to authorize Schneersohn – who was using an alias – to enter the city. After threats from Aaronsohn and numerous thoughts and considerations from the clerk, he came to like the idea, "and when he received baksheesh [a bribe] his thoughts became clear and he allowed us to continue on our way."

In Constantinople, Schneersohn attempted to maintain his false identity, Mr. Chaim Cohen – Aaronsohn's clerk. It was not always easy. The hotel the pair stayed in was "a center for people from the Land of Israel. All the young people from Jaffa who study in the officials' school near the city come here." There were also several familiar faces who could have mistakenly disclosed Schneersohn's true identity.

In testimony from his diary dated the end of August Schneersohn relates about one such incident. "This morning, Dr. Rupin entered the hotel, saw me, recognized me, greeted me heartily and said: "How are you Mr. Schneersohn?" Without batting an eyelid, I replied: "I am Chaim Cohen". Dr. Rupin didn't flinch. He smiled and immediately corrected himself: "How are you, Mr. Chaim Cohen?" We chatted a little. I didn't ask why he had come. I also did not tell him anything."

Schneersohn's experiences in Constantinople show the sometimes amateur behavior of the organization he and his friends established. His alias was not revealed, but as he did not have any official documents, he was not allowed to continue with Aaronsohn to Berlin. Aaronsohn had to carry on alone, and Schneersohn worked to obtain a permit to return to Israel – a mission which proved to be complex in its own right.

Personal secretary and transcriber of manuscripts for Dr. Rupin, vendor of matches on street corners – the refugee did all sorts of jobs to avoid using the last few coins he had left for his journey home. With Dr. Rupin's help, Schneersohn managed to catch a military train to the Land of Israel as the servant of a German officer, Mauer Klein. With a new red tarbush on his head, Schneersohn finally set out for home.


With Mauer Klein on the way to the Land of Israel, documented in Levi Schneersohn's diary

Back in Israel

At the agricultural experiments station established by Aaronsohn in Atlit, which served as the organization's base, Schneersohn discovered that Feinberg had disappeared after setting out once again to the Sinai Desert on his way to British controlled Egypt. Schneersohn did not share his feelings with his friends, but was sure that Feinberg had met with disaster. 


"I am lying on the sofa in Avshalom's room. My friend, my friend!" Levi Schneersohn hides from the Turks in the Feinberg house

The connection with the British was re-established in February 1917. At ten o'clock in the morning, after the "Managam" intelligence ship transmitted the agreed-upon signals, the members of the organization split into two groups and went out to the Atlit beach to meet their contact people. That night, Baruch Rav and Yehuda Maldin returned with "A terrified, confused and half-crazed person", shaking from fear and cold.

A warm blanket, steaming cup of tea and the friends gathered around him encouraged him to stutter, with a mouth reeking of alcohol, "Aaronsohn…ship…come…Reuven…where is Chaim Cohen? … come…", and while stammering, he pulled a medallion out of his pocket and gave it to Sarah".


Sarah recognized the medallion, testimony in Levi Schneersohn's diary

 

Sarah recognized her brother Aaron's medallion and realized it her brother who sent the mysterious man sitting before her. Once the mysterious man recovered from the whisky the British had fortified him with, he identified himself as Leibel Bernstein – a former soldier in the Zion Mule Corps who joined the British intelligence.

The friends tried to help him to return to his ship with the information they had gathered, but the tempestuous sea led him returning to the station an hour later – this time naked and shuddering with cold – and begged them not to let the Turks discover him.

The connection was renewed on February 28, and Schneersohn was the first to alight on the deck of the British ship to the encouraging cries of Aaron Aaronsohn – "Come up, come up: you are standing on English ground, and are a free man!". Schneersohn requested to know what had befallen Avshalom.

He did not receive an answer until the following day. "Avshalom was killed in the desert" was all Aaronsohn told his friend. He was unable to respond – not with tears, nor screams, he sat "like a rock", indifferent to the passage of time.


The shock of the discovery is clearly expressed in the diary

After he recovered, Aaronsohn and a British officer asked Schneersohn: "Lowa, perhaps you know what name is suitable for our affair?" It took Schneersohn a few seconds to understand. The solution was provided by an old habit of Schneersohn's – he took the Bible he carried with him everywhere out of his pocket, opened it at random, pointed at a line without looking and counted seven lines down "Netzach Yisrael Lo Yeshaker {The Eternity of Israel will not deceive}", or in an acronym – N.I.L.I.

The British officer, who heard the name, smiled teasingly at the pair and said in English: "Oh, how nice. She must be a lovely girl, this Nili".

 

A memo a few pages long about recruitment to the NILI organization

The End

From that moment and until the spy network was discovered in September 1917 following the capture and torture of one of its members, Na'aman Belkind, Schneersohn served as the contact officer between the members in Atlit and the British. He spent most of his time on the ship, or in various bases in Egypt – deciphering and translating the reports supplied by the members in Atlit. Even after Belkind's capture, the residents of Atlit refused to escape on the intelligence ship.

They initially believed they would manage to arrange for the prisoner's release (they did not know that Belkind had broken in the interrogations he underwent, until it was too late for them). Additionally, they were afraid that them leaving would bring disaster upon the Jewish Yishuv.

In early October 1917, the Ottoman Army surrounded Zikhron Ya'akov and arrested many Nili members. Among them, Sarah Aaronsohn. After days of torture, she shot herself, making sure she would not reveal anything about Nili, its activities and members. She lay dying for three days before she finally passed away. During investigations in Nazareth, the body of Nili member Reuven Schwartz was found hanging in the detention cell. Yosef Lischinsky, another member of Nili, managed to escape the Ottoman army for 20 days. We was eventually captured and was hung together with Na'aman Belkind on December 16, 1917, in Damascus.

A letter in the Schneersohn archive attests to the attitude toward the members of the organization after they were discovered. When the surviving members of N.I.L.I were revealed they received negative treatment from most of the Yishuv, who saw them as impetuous youngsters who had endangered the entire Yishuv. The letter was sent in 1919 to Dr. Chaim Weizmann, and relates the story of the ring and lists the names of its members. We do not know if Schneersohn and his surviving friends received a response from the head of the Committee of Zionist Delegates in Israel.

It was the British army which recognized the organization's contribution, and awarded most of them various honors. Schneersohn copied the certificate of appreciation he received into a notebook.


 

 

The transcription of the certificate of appreciation Schneersohn received, from one of his many notebooks kept in the Levi Schneersohn collection

It was not until the 1960's that attitudes toward the N.I.L.I organization changed. Two events brought this change about: the discovery of Avshalom Feinberg's corpse in Sinai after the Six Day War, and the public discussion in the wake of the discovery. In the same year, 1967, the book "From the Diary of a NILI Member", based on Schneersohn's diaries, was published.

Levi Yitzchak Lowa Schneersohn died in 1975. His personal archive was donated to the National Library a year later.

The article was written with the help of Ivgi Slutzk, the archive department of the National Library.