By Yehuda Avner and Matt Rees
Yehuda Avner – who died March 24, 2015 at age 86 – was an Israeli diplomat who served as ambassador to Britain, Ireland and Australia. He also worked closely with five Israeli prime ministers – with Golda Meir and Levi Eshkol as a speechwriter and secretary, and with Yitzhak Rabin, Menachem Begin and Shimon Peres as a high level adviser.
Not long before he passed away, he worked with crime novelist and journalist Matt Rees to create The Ambassador, a fascinating and compelling “what-if” historical novel that examines what might have transpired had the Peel Commission – the royal commission on the British mandate in Palestine – report of 1937 recommending the partition of Palestine been acted upon at the time. According to Rees, the book was completed just two weeks before Avner’s death.
In The Ambassador, the State of Israel comes into existence and wins its War of Independence while Hitler and the Nazis were already in power in Germany, but before they launched the Second World War and built the death camps of the Holocaust.
Avner and Rees use a combination of real and fictional characters, and real and fictional events, to tell a story of what might have happened in the late-1930s and through the Second World War years to the Jews of Germany and to the Jews of the countries occupied by the Nazis after the start of the war. The authors weave fact and fiction so skillfully that readers can’t help but be caught up in the suspense of the tale.
Founding Israeli prime minister David Ben-Gurion – based, of course, on Israel’s real founding prime minister – sends Dan Lavi, the book’s fictional title character, to Berlin as the nascent Jewish state’s ambassador to Nazi Germany. The Jews of Germany were already suffering enormously from Hitler’s state-sanctioned anti-Semitism, and Lavi’s most important mission was to arrange for as many Jews as possible to leave Germany for Israel. The Nazi functionary with whom he must deal to gain approval of each Jewish departure from Germany for Israel is none other than Adolf Eichmann.
One of the most chilling scenes in the novel comes near the start of the war when Hitler summons Ben-Gurion to Berlin. Ben-Gurion is warned, in no uncertain terms, that if Israel wants to maintain Jewish emigration from Germany, the Zionist state must remain neutral. Otherwise, Hitler tells Ben-Gurion, “I shall have to find some other solution, one with greater finality.”
Meanwhile, the ambassador’s efforts to curry enough favour with the Nazis that they would continue to allow Jews to leave is put in jeopardy by Shmulik Shoham, the Mossad station chief working in the basement of the Israeli embassy, who is determined to execute a plan to assassinate Hitler.
There are any number of subplots running through the novel. Among them is a relationship between Wilhelm Gottfried – a celebrated German Jewish concert violinist who had escaped Germany for Mandatory Palestine in the early days of the Nazi regime only to return with the ambassador as a high level Israeli embassy official – and Countess Hannah von Bredow, a German aristocrat. (Although fictionalized in this story, Countess Hannah von Bredow was a real person. A granddaughter of former German chancellor Otto von Bismarck, she was involved in anti-Nazi activities in Germany during the war.)
Eventually, the infamous Wannsee Conference takes place, and the Nazis’ plan for the extermination of European Jewry is put into action. The novel builds to its climax as the ambassador and a surprising ally begin a covert and very daring mission to stop the Holocaust and rescue the ambassador’s wife who had been taken by the Nazis and sent to Auschwitz.
Avner’s deep understanding of history and the machinations of diplomatic intrigue and Rees’ skill as a compelling novelist come together to make The Ambassador a gripping and fascinating story.