LONDON — Veteran diplomat Yehuda Avner knew he wasn’t well, and went to see his doctor. He wanted one last throw of the dice – and, in an extraordinary way, he achieved it from beyond the grave.
The Manchester-born octogenarian had already completed one highly well-received book of non-fiction, “The Prime Ministers,” which was turned into two successful films. It was an account by the ultimate insider of all the Israeli prime ministers for whom he had worked – from David Ben-Gurion when Avner was a young man, to Menachem Begin, who famously called Avner “my Shakespeare.”
Now Avner, who became Israel’s first British-born diplomat to return to his country of birth as ambassador, wanted to try something different.
The idea came to him while attending a Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony on Mount Herzl after his 1995 retirement from service as Israel’s ambassador to Australia. Avner has recounted that during interim prime minister Shimon Peres’s address, he apologized to the Jews who had been taken by Hitler, saying: “We were 10 years too late.”
And upon hearing Peres that day, Avner thought: “What if we hadn’t been?….”
What if, Avner wondered, Israel had been created in 1937, rather than in 1948? What if the recommendations of Britain’s Peel Commission had been accepted, and that Israel had existed before the Nazi Holocaust? Could Jews have been saved?
This was the counter-factual idea which Avner eventually took to his publisher, Matthew Miller. But realizing that he probably did not have the energy to complete the project himself, Avner agreed to Miller’s idea to introduce him to the thriller writer Matt Rees, former head of Time magazine’s Jerusalem bureau and a prize-winning fiction novelist.
Speaking from Luxembourg, where he has recently relocated with his American-born wife Devorah and their two children, Rees recalls his first meeting with Avner in Jerusalem.
“He had just seen his doctor that morning before our meeting. He was told he had about three months to live,” says Rees.
But rather than this devastating news putting paid to the project, it only galvanized the pair and spurred them on to complete “The Ambassador,” in which the eponymous diplomat becomes Israel’s representative in Nazi Germany, engaged in a desperate struggle to get the Jews out of Hitler’s clutches.
If Avner had a pressing reason for wanting to write with a collaborator, so too did Rees. The author of a successful series of books featuring an unlikely Palestinian sleuth, Omar Youssef, and two other standalone novels, Rees was finding writing a lonely and stressful process which was becoming “less and less pleasurable.” So when Matthew Miller suggested that they work together, Rees, who is originally from Wales, leapt at the opportunity.
“From the start,” says Rees, “I told Yehuda, this is your book. He had written some bits and pieces of a version, but he didn’t really have the experience of writing fiction. I knew how to structure it, to make it a thriller. But I said, if you don’t like something, we’ll take it out. And sometimes he would say, ‘Oh, that’s too James Bond-ish,’ so we’d change it.”
So a couple of times a week, Rees would go to Avner’s apartment in Kiryat Wolfson, just across from the Knesset, and the two would kick around ideas. Often this would segue into reminiscences by Avner about people he worked with during his long career, giving Rees the nuts and bolts of character to write up. After they’d plotted the next stage of the story, Rees would write up more pages and they would dissect the material on his next visit to Avner’s home.
Even though Israel exists in this parallel world, there is still an overwhelming sense of menace and evil, with impossible choices facing Israeli diplomats in Hitler’s Germany. Collaborate, to get as many Jews out of the country as possible? Or use the embassy in Berlin as the headquarters of armed resistance? There are no easy answers.
The ambassador of the novel is called Dan Lavi. Rees says the character – who he is sure is an Action-Man version of Avner – was always going to be called Dan, but he had a different surname.
“I said that we should have a name which reflected Yehuda’s background, so we chose Lavi for the kibbutz of which he was a founder member in 1949. It was only later, at [his] shiva, that I realized that Yehuda’s son is called Dan,” says Rees.
From the start Avner and Rees got on like a house on fire, having “the best fun,” laughing and joking. Though death lurked in the background, it never occurred to either man to stop working. In fact, says Rees, “Yehuda was never more alive or engaged than when we were writing the book. And his family was happy that we were doing it, they felt it was good for him.”
Early on in the novel there is an extraordinary scene in which Ben-Gurion faces off against Hitler. Just reading it – even though we know it is fiction – sends shivers up the spine.
“We had a real problem,” says Rees, “in how to handle Hitler in the book. We couldn’t do it because we couldn’t connect on any human level. But then we began to think about what kind of leader he was, and Yehuda started to talk about the time he spent working with Ben-Gurion. So we decided, let’s put them together – and it was a very good way of contrasting the styles of the two men. And we also wanted to have someone who could – believably – tell Hitler he was going to fail. And that person had to be B-G.”
But even though the book is fiction, Rees and Avner were careful in how they presented events.
‘We didn’t want to negate the Holocaust or have our hero do impossible things to change history’
“We never wanted to say, ‘Oh, Israel was founded, so there was no Holocaust.’ We didn’t want to negate the Holocaust or have our hero do impossible things to change history,” says Rees.
Yehuda Avner died on March 24, 2015, aged 86. He lived to see the book completed – and, extraordinarily, in his last two weeks of life he and Rees plotted out their next collaboration, another counter-factual novel. Its hero is the adult son of Dan Lavi, and ponders what would have happened if Israel’s 1981 attack on Osirak, the Iraqi nuclear reactor, had failed.
“Yehuda had no energy to write but the ideas still were pouring out of him,” says Rees. “He was Begin’s close adviser when Osirak was bombed, so he was well placed to say what might have happened had the operation been unsuccessful.”
Even though his collaborator has gone physically, Rees is sure Avner is still around, metaphorically prodding him to continue. Rees is even pondering a third counter-factual novel which could feature the next generation of fictional Israelis, facing new challenges to the Jewish state. And for himself, he feels he has got his creative mojo back. That day in the publisher Matthew Miller’s office, says Rees, was a game-changer.
“The Ambassador,” by Yehuda Avner and Matt Rees, was published in the US in September and in the UK in October. Matt Rees will be in the UK for Jewish Book Week in February to talk about the book and the questions it raises about Israel and the Holocaust.