For all my love of time travel and exploration of whether or not we could or should alter the past, I’m surprised I don’t read more fiction in the category of alternative history. Perhaps I will now, after reading The Ambassador (The Toby Press), a novel by the late Ambassador Yehuda Avner and award-winning novelist Matt Rees.
Set mostly in the late 1930s with World War II as its backdrop, The Ambassador imagines the impacts on Europe’s Jews had Israel been established in 1937, as opposed to 1948, when the Peel Commission recommended to the British cabinet to establish a Jewish state. The novel’s main character is Dan Lavi, a young diplomat sent by Ben Gurion to Germany to serve as the fledgling nation’s first ambassador to Berlin. Dan’s there with his wife Anna (an American) and Shmulik, who masquerades as part of the diplomatic team, but is really in Berlin on behalf of the Mossad.
The characters, their dialogue, and even the actions they take that veer from historical events come off realistic and plausible. I was caught up in Dan’s conflict once in Berlin as he struggles between proper diplomacy and his clear distaste for Nazi politics.
“The words of the Old Man, Ben-Gurion’s nasal Polish accent echoed in Dan’s mind, the order delivered in between reports from Shmulik on the first maneuvers of the War of Independence.
‘You will sup with the Devil, Dan. You will do everything the Devil requires. Whatever it takes, you will maintain the transfer of Jews from Germany to Israel.'”
The transfer of Jews from Germany is, in fact, Dan’s primary goal in Berlin. He is there, as he argues repeatedly, to “secure as many Jewish lives as we can.” He does so by working with and catering to the ego of Sturmbannfuhrer Adolph Eichmann, who serves (in this alternative reality) as head of the “Central Office for Jewish Emigration” offering Israeli visas to Europe’s Jews under the controversial “Transfer Agreement.” In this 1938 Berlin, Jews are permitted to leave the country, hundreds per day, for Israel. The Israeli Embassy’s main purpose is administrative, filling out and processing applications of families requesting exit. On the side, however, Shmulik and his Mossad team are investigating rumors of a “final solution” for the Jews, and recommending plans of action to Ben Gurion.
Most interesting to me — especially as a fan of time travel — was watching the story unfold and witnessing how some decisions in this alternative reality led the Jews to the exact same fate they met in our current reality, and how other actions managed to transform a people’s destiny. Less interesting to me were a few brief distracting side stories (based on some historical truth) of lost love and family secrets; though not distracting enough to take away from the main plot.
Any fiction pertaining to the Holocaust is potentially contentious. Still today, there are debates about who, if anyone, has the right to construct fictional tales set in or during the Holocaust. In the preface to The Ambassador, Avner writes “I fought in the war that established Israel. I worked decades in the highest circles of the Israeli government with every Prime Minister up to Rabin’s second term and as Ambassador to Britain and Australia.” One wonders if Avner is not attempting to stave off those critics of Holocaust fiction with this list of credentials. Whether or not he was, it certainly lends credibility to the story and his right to tell it.
“I sat among the crowd commemorating Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Day, as then-Prime Minister Shimon Peres addressed us. More precisely, he apologized to them. The ones taken by Hitler. ‘We were 10 years too late,’ he said.
And I thought, ‘What if we hadn’t been.'”
The Ambassador will be available in bookstores September 1, 2015.
This review was made possible by The Toby Press with an Advanced Reader’s Copy.