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The Ambassador by Yehuda Avner (z"l) and Matt Rees

{The following is the prologue to and first installment of The Ambassador, by Yehuda Avner (z”l) and Matt Rees}



Berlin, 1934


One last concert, then he would leave for Palestine. He passed the main façade of the hall on Bernburgerstrasse and entered the Philharmonic by the stage door. “Herr Gottfried,” the commissionaire said. It was all he ever said. Not “Guten Abend” or “Heil Hitler.” But perhaps this time he spoke with a questioning tone, his head drawn back in surprise. Wili Gottfried raised his violin case in salute. The instrument was a gift from the Countess, in her family almost since Stradivari constructed it in Cremona in 1719, during his “golden period.” In Gottfried’s hands it was played as never before. He was the golden period of this violin’s long life. So far.

He found Furtwängler in his dressing room, sitting on a turquoise satin couch in the soft glow of a chandelier. He set down the violin case. “Guten Abend, maestro.”

The great conductor’s high, receding forehead gleamed with sweat. The face he showed to Gottfried contorted with mortification. He lifted a sheet of paper and handed it over. The Reich Music Chamber, a section of the Propaganda Ministry under which the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra operated, informed him that he was barred from further performances in Germany as violin soloist, a role he had filled many times over the previous decade. The order was signed by Minister Josef Goebbels.

Gottfried’s scalp prickled with sweat under his glistening black hair. His deep eyes of coppery brown teared up. He was about to leave Germany anyway. But he didn’t want it to be this way.

“Pull yourself together, Gottfried,” the conductor barked. He was narrow-shouldered and his chin was weak, but his resolve was superhuman. Furtwängler lowered his voice to a whisper, as if exchanging confidences. “We live in astonishing times, do we not?

I tried to save you. I said to Goebbels you are the best there is. There is a hemorrhage of Jewish musicians from Germany. I told him it has to stop.”

“He likes to see the blood flowing.”

The Maestro leaned his head against the back of the couch and closed his eyes. “He said a Jew is a Jew.”

Rage rumbled through Gottfried’s soul. Like his music it conjured for him vistas unseen by those less capable of deep feeling. “You are the world-acclaimed master of the German orchestral art, the greatest conductor of our age. You have but one choice. You must resign.”

“Are you mad?” Furtwängler’s face flushed with anger. “Do you forget who you are talking to?

“I am talking to the one conductor in Germany that Hitler himself would never dare cross. Or are you merely an entertainer hired by the Führer for his amusement?”

“No man talks to me like that.”

“But it would appear that the Nazi superman does.”

“I tried to save you, Gottfried. I was sick to the stomach after my meeting with Goebbels. But my responsibilities are different than yours.”

“It’s the difference in our religion, not our responsibilities, that’s at issue here.”

“You can take your violin and a suitcase and play as soloist with the orchestras of London, Paris, Vienna. You can make your own orchestra in Palestine, for God’s sake. I must remain here in Berlin, to protect German music and musicians as best I can. You were simply too prominent to be passed over. I may be able to retain some of my other Jewish musicians, because they’re less well-known.”

“So the obscure among the Jews are safe in the second violin section? For how long?” Gottfried kicked at the leg of the sofa. Furtwängler shuddered at the impact.

“You were going to Palestine after this evening anyway.”

“I will show those bastards.” Gottfried muttered almost to himself. “I’ll give them a performance they’ll never forget tonight.” Furtwängler shook his head. “You still don’t understand, Gottfried. It’s over. This order applies immediately. Weber will stand in as soloist for tonight’s performance.”

“Weber? So much for protecting German music. That ham-fisted—” Gottfried halted. “Oh, I get it. He’s a Nazi. That’s why he’s taking over. Damn you, Furtwängler.”

He went to the door. In a funereal whisper, he spoke to the conductor, though he didn’t turn to face him. “You tried to save me, but you couldn’t because Wilhelm Furtwängler is no longer a free man. He is in the power of Hitler’s goons. They can do to you what they like.”

Furtwängler caught him by the sleeve. “Promise me you will play here in Berlin again. One day. I need to know that it is possible. So that I can go on. In spite of all this—this horror.”

The conductor’s sudden desperation made Gottfried pause. Furtwängler was a good man, committed to art and the joy it carries within it. When he was forced to bend his art to the demands of bad men, evil truly had taken over. “The horror is barely begun, Maestro.”

“Then it’s still more important for me to hear it from you. Say you will come back.”

Gottfried felt a power in himself that usually came over him only when he held his bow vibrating against the strings of his violin. Furtwängler must have seen it on his face, because he recoiled slightly. “I will return. I will make them listen to the soul inside me, and it will show them the emptiness of their pitiful, ugly world.”

The conductor released his arm. Gottfried walked slowly down the corridor. When he passed the silent commissionaire and went onto the bustling street, he was no longer in Berlin. He exited into the desert glare of midday in Palestine. The sidewalk, slippery with ice, seemed to crunch under his feet like the dry dirt of the Judean hills.

But he was not there yet.

His deposit was paid for a reservation by train from Berlin to Athens, and for a berth on a passenger-cargo ship to Haifa. His one obstacle: the contents of the crate containing his belongings had to be approved by a dozen government departments, and he still lacked one stamp. The Gestapo’s form warned that “No items of particular value may be taken out of Germany. Failure to comply will be met with the severest penalties.” There followed a long list of the prohibited categories, one of which was “Musical instruments of antique quality, design and value.”

Gottfried assumed that even the former travelling salesmen and beer-hall waiters who now staffed the state security police would have heard of Stradivarius. He could try to sell it. It was worth millions. But he couldn’t take the money with him even if he found someone who’d give him a good price. And who was he kidding? He’d rather have surrendered one of his kidneys than abandon the instrument. Still he couldn’t allow himself to include it on the Gestapo manifest.

He had put off a decision on the violin because he had thought there was one last concert to play. As he walked home, he felt the energy that gripped him in the final moments of his encounter with Furtwängler. He passed the glowering, dark windows of the Gestapo building on Prinz Albrecht Strasse and in an instant he knew what he would do. He hustled home.

He rushed through his hall and down the kitchen steps into the garden with the Stradivarius in his arms. He hid it in a pile of junk in the shed. Then he climbed up to the attic and took down the violin he had used as a student at the music conservatory years before. He dusted it off, tuned it, and hurried with it to the study. He laid it on his desk by the music stand where he always practiced.

The inspector from the Gestapo arrived with the packers the following lunchtime. Gottfried’s hand shook as he turned over the detailed list of the possessions he wanted shipped. It included his unexceptional violin.

“Show me the violin,” the Gestapo man demanded.

Gottfried led him to the study. The man took out a torch and inspected the violin’s interior. He noted the seal of manufacture on the slip of paper pasted inside the instrument. He wrote down the make and date on the form. “It can go,” he said.

The chief packer tied up the violin case with heavy string and wedged it firm with towels and linens into a tea chest which he marked with red chalk, “Number 3.” By late afternoon everything but the books in the study was packed. The Gestapo officer instructed the removers to cease work. He checked the French windows leading from the study onto the small garden terrace to make sure they were locked, pocketed the key, and sealed the study door to ensure there would be no tampering with the items already stowed away. The rest could wait until the morning.

As soon as darkness came, Gottfried went to the garden shed and retrieved his Stradivarius. He brought it back inside the house, opened the small window in the toilet, and wormed his way through the ivy that covered it out onto the terrace. He found himself before the French windows of the study. Gottfried took a spare key from his pocket and entered.

The air was rank with the sweat of the packers and the metallic scent of the Gestapo man’s cigarettes. Gottfried laid the Stradivarius on the floor. He took a pair of pliers from his pocket. Carefully he extracted the nails from the lid of tea chest “Number 3.” His hands trembled as though he were an ill-worked puppet. He took out the towels and the linens, and removed the cheap violin from inside the crate. He set to work at duplicating the knots tied around the violin case, cinching them over the Stradivarius and cursing as they fell away, loose and clumsy. He thought perhaps he simply wouldn’t get it done, so little feeling did his adrenaline allow him in his fingers.

He reached for the technique that brought him quiet before his concerts. He hummed Mozart’s violin concerto in A, and it was as though the bright, sweet adagio refrain with which the soloist enters went straight to his furthermost nerve endings. Within a few minutes the Stradivarius was bound just as the other violin had been. Gottfried repacked the other contents of the crate. He hammered down the nails to the beat of the Mozart concerto.

He left as he had entered. He took his student violin to the basement and watched it burn in the furnace of the central heating system.

Next morning the movers finished packing swiftly. The Gestapo man sealed the crates, and a horse cart rattled them away to the railway sheds.

That evening Gottfried arrived at the Anhalter Station, Berlin’s gateway to the south. He stumbled through the crowds that headed for the trains to Dresden and Münich. He tried to soothe himself with the Mozart concerto again, but he found he could no longer summon a single tune to his lips. He knew the scores of hundreds of violin pieces, concertos and sonatas, waltzes and minuets, but they fell silent, subdued by the discordant babble of the metropolis that refused to bid him farewell. At the sixth and final platform the train for Athens awaited him. After the Greek capital, he would board a ferry to Haifa. To Israel. He struggled along to his carriage, his mouth dry, his ticket fluttering in his hand.

He found his seat. It was occupied. He fought for the breath to speak, to correct the error of the man sitting there. Then he saw that it was the Gestapo officer.

“Guten abend, Herr Gottfried.” The secret policeman stood and leered. “Come with me, please.”

They knew. Gottfried was sure of it. They had found the Stradivarius, seen through his deception. He would never reach Palestine. It was the Prinz Albrecht Strasse torture chambers for him, then Dachau.

He trailed the Gestapo man across the concourse into the freight annexe. Three warehouse hands waited impatiently by Gottfried’s crates.

“I cannot let it go, Herr Gottfried,” the Gestapo officer said. Gottfried stared. Perhaps if he confessed, the Nazi would shoot

him and all this suffering would simply be over. His jaw shook. He couldn’t speak.

“You have failed to pay certain charges due to the Reich, Herr Gottfried.” The Gestapo man rubbed his hands and opened his palms.

Gottfried shook his head. “I—I don’t—”

“He wants his bribe,” the youngest of the warehouse hands called out. The others smiled. “Come on, pay him. We were sup- posed to knock off shift ten minutes ago.”

Gottfried pulled out his wallet. He fumbled for his last 25

Reichsmarks, about enough for a good bottle of wine. The Gestapo man sneered and twitched his fingers. He wanted more. Gottfried stammered, “I have no other money. It’s all been—”

“All been what?” The Gestapo man was close, cigarette breath and a bratwurst belch in Gottfried’s face.

He would’ve said stolen, because such was the process of emigration for a Jew even after only one year of Hitler’s rule. Taxes and levies and duties. Whatever they were called, they were no different from the greedy hand the Gestapo man extended now.

“Open that box.” The officer pointed at the young warehouse worker and then at one of Gottfried’s crates. “Number 3.” Gottfried sensed his lungs seizing up, his heart thundering.

“What for? It’s been checked, Kumpan.” The worker grinned insolently. Kumpan was what Communists called their buddies. The Gestapo man was the one who sent Communists to the concentration camps. “Take his overcoat or something, if he doesn’t have any cash. You don’t need to be shy about it. He’s only a yid.”

“Open it.”

The worker shrugged and set to work on the seals of the crate with a crowbar. “I’m supposed to meet a girl, you know. You’re going to let a few marks come between a man and some nice ass?”

“Shut your face.”

The worker mumbled something, just as the lid of the crate lifted. The other men laughed loudly. They went silent as the Gestapo officer came toward them.

“What did you say?” he growled. “You wanted it open. It’s open.”

“Repeat what you said.” He poked the worker with his finger, then gave him a harder shove with his clenched fist.

The young man wasn’t going to back down now. One of the other workers reached to restrain him, but he shrugged free. “I said, that thing below your hat is proof that not everything with two cheeks is a face.”

The Gestapo inspector laughed. He stepped back from the worker, shaking his head, acknowledging the low wit of the remark. The young man grinned at his comrades and relaxed. He had put one over on the secret policeman.

In a flash the officer seized the crowbar from the man’s hand. He swung it hard into the worker’s jaw, and again into the back of his skull, short vicious, frenzied blows. The man dropped to his knees. The Gestapo officer hammered the end of the bar down on the crown of his wavering head. The bone crunched like an egg under a spoon. A spray of gore squirted across Gottfried’s pine crate.

Panting, the Gestapo man snarled at the other workers. “Shut this crate, you pair of shits.” He tossed the bloodied crowbar inside with the unseen Stradivarius. Gottfried reached for the wall for sup- port, quivering and faint. The Gestapo man grabbed the thin wad of Reichsmarks from him. “Go on, fuck off. Before I decide it was you who killed this shitty Commie.”

Gottfried rushed back to his compartment. His stomach churned and his guts felt like flames. He threw himself into the bath- room, dropped his pants and sat on the toilet just before he truly lost control of himself. As the train jerked into motion, he wept and drained his bowels. After a few minutes, he cleaned himself up and went to his seat.

The ticket-collector entered before they were out of the Berlin suburbs. He took Gottfried’s ticket and frowned.

My God, what now? Gottfried thought.

“Are you hurt, Mein Herr?” the conductor asked. Gottfried shook his head.

The railway man gestured to his face. “You’re bleeding, Mein Herr.”

Gottfried snatched his handkerchief. He rubbed at his face.

The linen came away smeared with the blood of the man the Gestapo killed.

Ambassador Yehuda Avner (Z”L)
Matt Rees

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AMBASSADOR YEHUDA AVNER (d. March 2015) served as advisor and English speechwriter to several Israeli Prime Ministers and as an Israeli Ambassador and Diplomat. He was the author of the bestselling memoir The Prime Ministers, also published by The Toby Press. MATT REES is an award-winning novelist and author. As a foreign correspondent he reported for various newspapers from across the Middle East. He blogs and podcasts at The Toby Press publishes fine writing on subjects of Israel and Jewish interest. For more information, see