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A STRANGE DEATH by Hillel Halkin

A STRANGE DEATH

A Story Originating in Espionage, Betrayal, and Vengeance in a Village in Old Palestine

By Hillel Halkin

Pub Date: June 1st, 2005
ISBN: 1-58648-271-8
Publisher: PublicAffairs

Long-winded, thoughtfully meandering tale of the repercussions of a WWI spy ring on a Palestine village.

Israeli journalist Halkin (Across the Sabbath River, 2002) unearthed this story in his backyard more than 30 years ago, when he and his wife bought land and built a house in the former farming village of Zichron Ya’akov. In the late 19th century, Zichron—supported and designed by Baron James de Rothschild during the first wave of Jewish immigration to Ottoman-ruled Palestine—was also home to the Nili ring, a shadowy pro-British group operating against the oppressive Turks. Very gradually, Halkin embarks on the details of the affair he uncovers in conversations with lively, irrepressible local residents. Before Britain’s conquest of Palestine in 1917, the Jewish settlers, afraid for their survival upon hearing of the 1915 Armenian massacre, decided to help keep the British informed of Turkish maneuvers. Zionists Aaron Aaronsohn and Avshalom Feinberg; Aaron’s sisters, Sarah and Rivka; and a “picaresque rover,” Yosef Lishansky, organized a ring that traded intelligence for British gold, which they dispensed to the Jews of Palestine to keep them from starving—or talking. A dragnet was thrown, however, and the spies were arrested and tortured, most notably Sarah, who before shooting herself managed to write an accusatory farewell letter that seemed to name her informers and urge revenge. In fact, Perl Appelbaum, one of four women who probably informed on the ring in order to save the community from Turkish retribution, died under suspicious circumstances that perhaps involved poison, or at least that’s what Halkin concludes after tortuous wanderings through stories within stories by survivors who like to embellish.

Everyone here spins good yarns, rendered in lovely prose, but the book’s hefty size pads a pretty skimpy adventure.