Historic Aerial Shots of Land of Israel Revealed

It was 1937 and publisher Salman Schocken was looking for an original gift for his friends. The result: 40 spectacular photographs capturing the cities and landscapes from the skies.

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Deep within the archives of the National Library of Israel, an unmarked cardboard box wrapped in fine linen contains 40 high-quality aerial photographs taken of pre-state Israel. A yellowing piece of paper sits atop the photos, with a brief inscription in Hebrew and German revealing the story behind their production.

Aerial photo of Jerusalem in 1937. Salman Schocken’s new home and library is on the right-hand side. Click to enlarge

The photography project was the result of a unique collaboration between a successful publisher and one of Israel’s greatest photographers. The goal was to produce the first-ever set of aerial photographs of the Land of Israel taken for nonmilitary purposes.

What does the yellowing inscription tell us, and who are the men who created this unique album just over 80 years ago?

Against the backdrop of the violence of the Arab Revolt in Israel and Hitler’s edicts in Germany, a celebration was held in Jerusalem on October 23, 1937, marking Salman Schocken’s 60th birthday. On the second floor of his library, a building that had been planned by renowned architect Erich Mendelsohn, Schocken gathered a small group of colleagues and peers. A tough and powerful businessman, Schocken had few real friends but many wanted to extend their best wishes to this affluent man who was a patron of Hebrew literature and who had brought together the greatest creative minds in the burgeoning local Jewish community.

Jerusalem’s Old City in 1937. Click to enlarge

Schocken’s public status in pre-state Israel was at its height. He held senior positions at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Jewish Agency and he had just purchased Haaretz – one of the most important dailies in the Land of Israel, which his son, Gershom Schocken, would then edit for 50 years. Salman Schocken devoted most of his energies toward cultivating original and innovative cultural experiences – first and foremost through his collection of Schocken Books.

Author S.Y. Agnon headed a group of writers who “adopted” and looked out for Schocken, who in turn generously supported them. Haim Hazaz, Shaul Tchernichovsky and other artists received handsome stipends from him in exchange for exclusive rights to their work.

While Schocken’s endeavors on behalf of literature are well-known, little has been written about his initiative to photograph Israel from the skies. Schocken’s collaboration in 1937 with Nachman Shifrin, owner of the Orient Press Photo Agency, left a unique mark on Israeli photography.

Photographers Making Aliyah

Just four years prior to the collaboration, Nachman Shifrin sold his large press photo agency in Berlin and immigrated to the Land of Israel along with one of his best photographers, Zoltan Kluger. Four months after Hitler came to power, Nazi restrictions on the activities of Jewish photographers had led Shifrin to the conclusion that he must get out of Europe. He also understood that the national institutions needed professional photographs for the developing publishing industry.

Tel Aviv. Click to enlarge

Shifrin was a talented entrepreneur and a shrewd, resourceful businessman. What he was not though, was a photographer. He entrusted the photography know-how to Kluger, a modest and highly skilled photographer from the Hungarian city of Kecskemet, who had worked in Berlin since the 1920s.

The technical and artistic quality of Kluger’s work led him to become the preferred photographer of Keren Hayesod and the Jewish National Fund soon after his arrival in pre-state Israel in November 1933.

Shifrin and Kluger’s immediate success did not prevent them from seeking out new, additional ventures even though this created ill will from other photographers in the field, but a new wave of immigration from Europe (the Fifth Aliyah) included a large group of photographers, some of international renown, which led to greater competition among the photographers.

Aerial photo of the power station at Naharayim in 1937. Click to enlarge

Shifrin grew concerned by the other photographers’ complaints that Kluger was enjoying too much exclusivity in working with the national institutions. This led him and Kluger to seek other ways to showcase their superiority in the field including the daring venture they pursued that would literally allow them to look down upon their rivals.

Bird’s eye view

So who came up with the actual idea of taking the aerial photographs? Could it have been Kluger, who had served as a photographer in the Austro-Hungarian air force in World War I? Or was it the exuberant entrepreneur Shifrin who first thought of it? Or, perhaps it was Schocken who was widely known for his original ideas in the field of advertising. The answer remains unclear.

What is known is that Schocken was the key figure in the initiative to hire a civilian aircraft and document pre-state Israel from above for the first time. Until this initiative, aerial shots had been take only for military use, through the auspices of the German and British Air Force during World War I. Schocken was able to hire a private plane through Aviron – the first “airline” in pre-state Israel – and let Kluger work his magic.

The photographer’s aerial shots did not disappoint. Kluger took stunning pictures of the Judean Desert, the Jordan Valley, Tel Hai, Deganya, Ein Harod, Beit Yosef, Tirat Zvi in the Beit She’an Valley, and the coastal communities – most notably Tel Aviv.

Aerial photo of Nahalal in northern Israel. Click to enlarge

All of these images were novelties in the pre-state Israel photo album, but the crowning glory of the collections was Kluger’s aerial shots of Jerusalem.

In a gesture (or perhaps in response to a specific request) to the project’s patron, Kluger photographed Schocken’s home and library – the luxurious buildings designed by Mendelsohn on the outskirts of Talbieh that had been inaugurated shortly before the photos were taken.

One of the most amazing details in the Schocken house imagery is the private pool and the surrounding landscaped garden, designed by a gardener brought in from Germany specifically for the task.

These photographs are important documents for the study of the Jewish portion of Jerusalem during the Mandate era. There are also marvelous aerial shots of Mount Scopus which include the original National Library of Israel housed in Wolfson House.

Belated thanks

Jewish philosopher Martin Buber once said, “The older we get, the greater becomes our inclination to give thanks, especially heavenward.”

Schocken, an admirer of Buber’s, also adopted this worldview and wished to thank his many well-wishers. The process of sending out his thank you gifts was largely delayed – thanks in large part to the publisher’s meticulous attention to detail – but Kluger’s aerial shots were eventually gifted.

The series of high-quality silver prints were mounted on cardboard and packed carefully inside a box. Schocken then added a page of writing in both German and Hebrew: “I am pleased to send you, albeit belatedly, a collection of aerial photographs of the Land of Israel as a reciprocal gift for the generous present I received from you in honor of my 60th birthday.” Beneath the dedication, Schocken added a few words in German in his own scrawl and signed it.

The careful production of the photos (which only added to the time delay) would have been quite an expensive endeavor. Schocken, a sensible businessman who was always careful with his money, produced a limited number of the albums that contained 40 hand-selected images. He also produced two mini-albums, which contained a smaller collection of six to 12 photographs apiece. Several copies of these albums are now preserved in the National Library of Israel archives. A few albums also lie in the personal archives of some of Schocken’s close associates.

The advent of World War II led to restrictions on civil aviation in pre-state Israel, and aerial photography was banned. Consequently, the Schocken, Kluger and Shifrin project ended up being the sole nonmilitary documentation of the country for many years.

Even today, 80 years later, the collection’s beauty and quality continues to amaze and inspire us.

The Crusader castle of Atlit in 1937. Click to enlarge


Aerial photo of Mount Scopus in Jerusalem. click to enlarge ‬

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A Year After the Balfour Declaration and Still No State?

A letter sent by a soldier in the Jewish Legion in 1919 gives us a glimpse into the depression and despair felt by the youth of the Land of Israel at the end of the war which "liberated" the Land of Israel from Ottoman oppression.

17 year old Moshe Feldstein arrived in Israel in 1913. Life in the undeveloped poverty-struck country was certainly not easy for a young man who came from the Ukraine, but these conditions did not prevent him from taking part in building the Land, and when the time came – from enlisting to defend and liberate it from the Ottoman Empire.

Together with six of his fellow laborers from the “Rehovot Group”, Feldstein was one of the first recruits to the Jewish Legion in the Land of Israel. Like the majority of soldiers in the Jewish Legion, Feldstein did not see any actual battles.


In 1919, Feldstein sent a letter to another enlisted friend named David Zonenstein. The war had ended a year earlier and Feldstein, who was stationed in Rafah, found himself predominantly bored. His letter is a fascinating historical document – testimony from a critical period in the history of the Jewish Yishuv. But before we peek into the soul of a soldier in the Jewish Legion at the end of the First World War, we should first clarify what this Legion was and who enlisted in it.

“For our nation and our land”: From the Zion Mule Corps to the Jewish Legion

The first incarnation of the Jewish Legion was given a singularly unimpressive name. It was known as “The Zion Mule Corps”. At the end of the first year of the “Great War”, Joseph Trumpeldor and Ze’ev Jabotinsky, from their place of exile in Egypt, came up with the concept of the battalion. When the idea began to take shape, the pair disagreed about the extent of the achievement. Trumpeldor was satisfied, Jabotinsky – much less so.

The Zion Mule Corps Camp in Alexandria, Egypt. A picture from 1915. The picture was taken from the National Library’s photograph collection

Jabotinsky fought for the establishment of a Jewish combat military legion for over two and a half years. In contrast to the Zion Mule Corps who were stationed in Gallipoli and had combat service support roles, Jabotinsky envisioned a Jewish battalion which would fight and liberate the Land of Israel itself.

In August 1917 some of Jabotinsky’s demands were accepted, when he was one of the founders of the first Jewish Battalion of the British army. The British army’s capture of the south of the Land of Israel in December 1917 provided him with the impetus he was waiting for. From January 1918, multitudes of young men from the Land of Israel enlisted in units which were given the name “The Jewish Legion”. But even now, when the waves of enthusiasm from the Balfour Declaration and the surrender of Jerusalem had not yet subsided – the enthused soldiers’ dream did not materialize. Three different units were established: British, Land of Israel and American. With the exception of the conquest of the Um Al-Shart Bridge in the Jordan Valley, the legion’s soldiers carried out a series of combat service support roles – mainly guarding prisoners of war and non-combative patrolling.

And what is in the letter?

Letters distributed to the soldiers in the Jewish Legion, the letter contains a map of the Land of Israel and a reduced size map of Jerusalem, together with a portrait of Herzl and his famous saying.
The original postcard

The letter begins with the really important information: “I am healthy and am in Rafah. I currently work in the library.” After these two lines, the idyllic description ends – “Our mood is dejected”, writes Feldstein.

Despairing and depressed, the soldiers discussed the possibility of writing a memorandum about “the declaration which they just made and which they are postponing from day to day and not fulfilling.”

What declaration is Feldstein referring to? It is likely that this was the Balfour Declaration, judging from a sentence he wrote on the side of the letter “There is a cartoon which shows Balfour. He is asked: ‘What’s new with the declaration you gave to the Jews?’ Balfour sits down and replies: ‘My mistake…'”

This assertion is nothing less than astonishing – less than two years have passed since the Balfour Declaration guaranteed that “His Majesty’s Government view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people” and the entire country was now under the control of the British Army. Despite these historic developments, the youngsters in the camp in Rafah had totally detached themselves from the waves of enthusiasm which swept through the entire Jewish world.

Did they express a prevalent feeling in the Yishuv at such an early stage of British rule in Israel, before the Mandate had even been firmly established? Or should the reason for their doubts be attributed to another cause? Feldstein’s letter does not provide an answer to this historical question, but we can postulate.

Visualize a group of young Jews, full of purpose and with a sense of mission who go out to battle in order to free the parts of the Land of Israel still awaiting liberation. Fast forward a few months until the “Great War” ends, now, after its end, we find them scattered in camps far from home – with no state or even a single heroic tale to impress the girls back home. Little wonder they were dejected.

The Story of the Jerusalemite Women Who Saved Their Sisters from Prostitution

The end of the First World War left Jerusalem devastated and impoverished. Hundreds of women from the Jewish Yishuv were compelled to find work in prostitution.

At the end of the First World War, the city of Jerusalem was left devastated and impoverished. Life in the shadow of deprivation, destitution, and unemployment compelled many women of the Jewish Yishuv, some of them young girls, to work in prostitution. While the city’s Jewish committee wasted its time on discussions on searching for a culprit, the city’s women rolled up their sleeves and set about diminishing the terrible phenomenon. Despite the opposition and derision that surrounded them, it was their actions that practically eradicated prostitution from Jerusalem.


“The Female Jerusalemite Pioneer” an article in “Chadashot Ha’Aretz” from August 21, 1919


“In the month of February,” reads the short news bulletin published on August 21, 1919, “twelve young unemployed girls aged 12-14 began to work in a vegetable garden under the supervision of a professional laborer.” The seemingly innocent article concealed more than it revealed.

Jerusalem is left desolate

The First World War years were especially trying for the city of Jerusalem. Despite being captured by the British with not a single shot fired, the rule of the new empire on the block was preceded by four long years of suffering and poverty. The Ottoman Empire, which made little effort to develop the Land of Israel, considered the Jews of the Land – especially the new immigrants who were not citizens of the Empire – a potential fifth column. The population of the Jewish settlement in Jerusalem dwindled during the War and had halved by its end.

On December 9, 1917, the Ottoman troops began their panicked retreat from Jerusalem. General Allenby, commander of the battle for the Land of Israel, arrived two days later and was greeted with much ado. The city officially surrendered to the British Empire. The exultant cries with which the British Army was received did not stop the continued suffering of the city’s residents (primarily the women).


A parade of Jewish volunteers to the British army, Jerusalem. From: The Land of Israel at the End of the First World War, A Photograph Album in the National Library of Israel collection

The War Against Prostitution

Intense hunger and poverty were prevalent in the Jewish neighborhoods. There were over 3,000 orphans in the community of 26,000 people. Life in the shadow of deprivation, destitution, and lack of employment, compelled hundreds of women from the Jewish Yishuv, including young girls, to work in prostitution. They crowded together in the brothels established in Nachalat Shivah and Batei Miland (with the knowledge and approval of the British rulers). British soldiers who settled in Jerusalem were their main consumers.

The Jewish leadership of the city was well aware of the plight of the women working in prostitution, which became one of the main ordeals of the city’s Jewish residents: it was mentioned briefly in City Committee meetings in March 1918, and an entire sitting was dedicated to the topic in June. The identity of the girls and women who worked in prostitution was not the focus of these discussions. Instead, emphasis was placed on the damage caused to the neighborhoods by the objectionable occupation, and lengthy discussions about the impurity which defiled the holiness of the city’s Jews.

While the Jewish Committee in Jerusalem wasted its time on discussions focused on searching for culprits to blame, the women of the Jewish community instituted a series of flash initiatives to reduce prostitution in the city: firstly, they delivered evening classes to women to keep them away from work during “business hours”, and organized professional courses for young girls. The courses aimed to provide them with an education and alternative ways of earning a livelihood which had not been available to them.


“Evening lectures in Jerusalem”, an article in “Chadashot Ha’Aretz” from July 1, 1919. Despite the lack of mention of the activities of the “Women’s Societies”, they were the ones to push for the opening of evening lectures for orphans, both male and female.

When they saw that their endeavors bore fruit, the women of the community worked to involve the British Army authorities and the Jewish Committee of the city as well.


“A new weaving factory”, a product of the pressure the women of the city placed on the military ruler (who was the one who authorized the existence of the brothels). An article in “Chadashot Ha’Aretz” from July 17, 1919

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 Hadassah, 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.

A bi-lingual poster published a year later, in November 1918, demonstrates the manner in which both the Zionist leadership in the Land of Israel and the Ashkenazi committee in the city viewed the phenomenon. The poster quotes the Head of the Zionist Delegates in the Land of Israel, Dr. Chaim Weizmann:

“Dr. Weizmann informs us of the saddening fact that due to the difficult conditions in the Land of Israel, prostitution and drunkenness developed in Jerusalem, there are five hundred Jewish prostitutes in Jerusalem alone, who lack desire to work in the factories and earn money easily.”


Dr. Chaim Weizmann’s speech, a copy from the Die Zeit newspaper published on 2nd Kislev 5678 (November 6, 1918). From the archive file of “The City Committee for the Ashkenazi Congregation”

A vocal protest was organized in the Meah She’arim Yeshiva. Its goal was not to protect the women who had deteriorated to their current state against their will, but rather a vigorous denial of the evil fabrications disseminated by the Ashkenazi Committee.

The express prohibition against operations of the brothels in Jerusalem was only taken in September 1919. Many months had passed since the women of the various societies active in the city approached the military ruler – Colonel Storrs. It was thanks to the prompt action of the women of Jerusalem, who refused to look away and refused to blame the women working as prostitutes, that the phenomenon was almost completely destroyed even before the brothels in the city were finally ordered to close.


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.

לוי יצחק (ליובה) שניאורסון. התמונה לקוחה מתוך "בית אהרנסון – מוזיאון ניל"י"

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.


The Levi Yitzchak Schneersohn Archive has been reviewed and described thanks to the generous support of The Leir Foundation.