Following our visit to the Mizgaga Museum and the coast of Dor, my father and I continued on towards Zichron Ya’akov, just a few minutes away. We entered the town from the north, climbing slightly in elevation – Zichron Ya’akov being at the southwestern corner of the Carmel range. Founded in 1882 by Romanian immigrants, the Baron Edmond James de Rothschild took administrative and financial charge in 1883 in building a proper town – one of the first agricultural colonies established in the Holy Land. Zichron Ya’akov translates as the “Memorial of Ya’akov”, referring to the Baron’s late father James (Ya’akov) Mayer de Rothschild, a powerful banker and the founder of the French branch of the Rothschild family.
In 1885 Baron Rothschild created modern Israel’s first winery, the Carmel Winery, which we passed on drive through the town. Today there several wineries in Zichron Ya’akov and neighbouring Binyamina, including the Tishbi Winery which I had the pleasure of visiting, also opened under the patronage of the Baron. We briefly drove through the northern section of the original town before parking next to the First Aliyah Museum, which, unfortunately, is closed on Sundays. We continued on foot, heading to the heart of the old town. Filled with quaint charm, even just walking down the street feels like an adventure. Before long we came upon Bet Knesset Ohel Ya’akov (“Tent of Jacob” in English), a synagogue built in 1884 by Baron Rothschild in honour of his aforementioned father. The synagogue was locked at the time we happened upon it, so we were unable to gaze upon the beautiful white marble interior.
Turning the corner onto HaMiyasdim (Founders) street, we began the town’s “Midrachov” of old house, quaint shops and welcoming restaurants and cafes. This main street, pedestrians only, was designed by the Baron’s city planners and the flanking houses were built inspired by French architecture.
Being as that some 20% of Zichron Ya’akov’s residents are “Anglos”, we heard quite a lot of English as we strolled down the street taking in the sites. There is one structure dating back to 1891 called Benjamin’s Pool, a fountain of sorts with a large arched facade complete with a small aqueduct stretching out behind it to supply drinking water for the residents. At the time of our visit we saw some restorative work being done.
At the next corner we found Beit Aharonson (alternatively, the Aharonson House) which holds the NILI Museum. Entering the grounds, we browsed the museum’s house of artefacts and exhibitions concerning this mysterious NILI I knew nothing about. Somehow, in the annals of modern Israel’s history, the incredible tales of the NILI spy ring have been overlooked by most, but deserve more coverage. Set in WWI, the NILI espionage network relayed important information to the British, concerning Ottoman troop numbers and locations among other sensitive information. Originally known as “Organisation A” by British Intelligence, the Zichron Ya’akov-based group adopted the name NILI, the English equivalent for the Biblical acronym “Netzach Yisrael Lo Yishaker” which translates as “The Eternal One of Israel shall not lie…”. Founded by locals Sarah, Aaron and Alex Aaronsohn as well as Avshalom Feinberg, the network reached some thirty secret members in its prime. Due to Aaron Aaronsohn’s position as regional agronomist and world-famous botanist, the members who worked with him on fighting ravaging locusts were allowed to travel freely and were thereby able to make detailed reports on the Turkish strategies and troop deployment – often using the Jewish Agricultural Experiment Station in Atlit as their headquarters.
With the British closing in, coming from Egypt and Sinai, the Ottoman Empire was at risk of losing their control over the Holy Land that they’ve had since 1516. NILI used two main methods of relaying information to the British. The first was Monegam, a boat disguised as a cruise ship which approached the coast near Atlit and NILI operatives physically went to the boat to deliver.
Once this became too risky, due to the Turkish suspicions and the threat of German submarines, NILI began with their second method, carrier pigeons, which flew their Atlit – Port Said route with coded messages attached to their legs. At one point communication between NILI and the British was lost and so two key members, Avshalom Feinberg and Yosef Lishansky, decided to go to Egypt themselves to reestablish contact. Disguised as Bedouins, the two ran into actual Bedouins in the desert and were attacked. Avshalom was mortally wounded and left to die while Yosef managed to escape injured, and eventually reached Egypt. Remarkably, Avshalom’s body was found in 1967 after the Six Day War. An IDF officer was told by local Bedouins that a certain lone palm tree was known as the “Jew’s Grave” and after a careful excavation Avshalom’s bones were discovered, the tree having grown from a date in his pocket fifty years back.
Shortly after Avshalom’s death, in 1917, one of the the pigeons accidentally landed in the pigeon coop of the Turkish governor of Caesarea and, after decrypting the message, one NILI member was captured and tortured. He gave up names and information which led to more arrests and more torture. Suddenly, British gold coins were found in the Ramle market and NILI began to collapse. Sarah Aaronsohn was arrested and tortured and, surprisingly, allowed to return home under armed guard where she wrote a suicide note and, taking a concealed pistol out of a secret door-frame compartment, shot herself in the bathroom. It took her four days to succumb to her wound but she persisted in taking the fall as head of NILI in hopes to spare others. With NILI disbanded, many of its members already dead, Aaron Aaronsohn met an untimely death in 1919 when his plane fell out of the sky somewhere near Boulogne, France. His body was never recovered. Despite NILI’s short-lived operation and their somewhat controversial methods, they were instrumental in securing British victories in numerous battles for the Holy Land which eventually led to the British conquest. We watched a short film about NILI and the Aaronsohn House before taking a guided tour of the two original houses on the property.
We saw both the secret door-frame compartment (as can be seen above) and the secret trapdoor, delightful old spy tricks. After taking leave of the residence, we continued on down the street until we reached the arched entrance of the original town and Zichron Ya’akov’s cemetery. Entering, we found the old graves of some of the NILI members including Sarah Aaronsohn which is surrounded by a little wrought iron fence.
After spending a while at the cemetery, deep in thought, we attempted to visit the Visitor Centre but we found that it was closed. We headed back up the cobbled main street and perused the restaurants along the way. Suddenly my father decided that he’d rather get hummus at the famous Hummus Eliyahu in nearby Yokneam. So, with our minds freshly stuffed with fascinating information and our legs slightly sore from all the walking, we left Zichron Ya’akov the way we came. There is still so much to be seen, so there will definitely be a sequel, but there is only so much that can be done in one day. That’s all for now.