By Rabbi Jack Riemer/JNS.org
There is a game that all of us have played at some time in our lives. We ask ourselves: What would my life be like if I had gone to this school instead of that one, or if I had married this girl instead of that one?
In their newly published book “The Ambassador,” authors Yehuda Avner and Matt Rees play that game with modern Jewish history. Avner—who died earlier this year, and was a speechwriter, secretary, and advisor to five different Israeli prime ministers—recalls having heard former prime minister (and more recently president) Shimon Peres say at a Yom HaShoah memorial meeting, “Can you imagine how different our history would have been if the Jewish state had come into being 10 years earlier than it did?” This exciting novel answers that question.
The authors imagine David Ben-Gurion (Israel’s first prime minister) in the mid-1930s willing to deal with the devil and to take in as many German Jews as they were willing to release. But when Poland falls, and more Jews come under the control of the Nazis, the Israeli government realizes that the Nazis no longer intend to release Jews but are planning to destroy them. At this point, the Israelis realize that they can no longer work with the Nazis to obtain exit visas for Jews, but must take bold action if they are to rescue them. Israeli intelligence obtains a copy of the minutes of the Wannsee Conference, where the decision to destroy the Jews is made. They arrange to have Adolf Eichmann, kidnapped and they bring him to Cairo for a meeting with President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minster Winston Churchill so that they can use him to persuade these two leaders about the severity of the Jews’s plight. They convince them to bomb the railroad tracks that lead to the Nazi concentration camps, and they even persuade them to permit Israeli pilots to participate in the raids. Many Jews perish in this version of history, but not nearly as many as actually perished in the real-life Holocaust.
Against the backdrop of these negotiations, the authors weave together several adventure stories. In one scene that sounds more like a cowboy story than conceivable history, the Israeli ambassador drives into Auschwitz, disguised as Eichmann, and rescues his wife just as she is about to be killed. And in another subplot, Wilheld Gottfried—the violinist of the Berlin Symphony Orchestra and later the violinist of the Israeli Philharmonic—reveals himself to his son, a high-ranking German army officer who, when he finds out who he really is, turns against the Nazis and leads a rebellion. After the war, Gottfried’s son becomes Germany’s ambassador to Israel.
There are some pages in this novel that remind me of the quip that was once made about the Leon Uris novel “Exodus.” Someone called it a “Middle Eastern Western.” This book, too, strains credibility on several occasions. The idea that Eichmann could be kidnapped and brought before Churchill and Roosevelt to convince them of how desperate the Jewish situation was, the idea that someone could break into Auschwitz disguised as Eichmann, and the idea that a high-ranking German officer could turn out to be the son of a Jewish father (and that this knowledge would move him to switch sides)—it all seems to be a bit far-fetched.
But if you can put aside these melodramatic events that strain credibility, you have an exciting and fast-moving page turner that is a pleasure to read and that makes us wonder what might have been, “if only….”
Rabbi Jack Riemer is a frequent book reviewer for journals of Jewish and general thought in America, Europe, and Israel.
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