Nabokov’s Jewish Family
A friendship with an ambassador reveals the great writer’s surprising relationship with Israel
As a boy, Levavi ended up with his mother in Kharkov. The other members of the family were scattered on both sides of the battle line. The city changed hands three times, and each time the change was invariably accompanied by a Jewish pogrom. The Levavi family lived not far from the headquarters of the White Army command staff. Arieh would run around in the yard with a little toy pistol that he had, and the Cossacks, not knowing he was a Jew, would pretend to be scared when they saw him. After some time, his father finally found his wife and son in Kharkov and sent them on to Danzig. No visa was required to enter the Free City of Danzig in the 1920s, and access to it remained relatively open. For this reason, Danzig quickly became an important Jewish center. For those who were not able to obtain a passport valid for entry into Switzerland, where the international Jewish congresses were held, Danzig was where Zionist gatherings were arranged. During the war, Danzig maintained its neutrality. Levavi finished high school there and obtained a Bachelor of Science degree in math and physics at Heidelberg University.
Levavi made it to the Middle East in 1932. For a moderate bribe, his father had finagled a Polish passport, which allowed him to obtain a certificate for entry into Palestine. According to this passport, our protagonist was named Lev Grigorievich Leibman. Three years later, Levavi defended his master’s thesis in philosophy at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
As a Palestinian national, he went on a semi-secret mission to Nazi Germany for almost two years, from October 1936 to June 1938. This occurred during the brief period when Hitler was imagining a strategic partnership between the Third Reich and the United Kingdom, perhaps even involving the Soviet Union. By using these conflicting interests, the Zionist Histadrut was able to obtain six visas from the German authorities that permitted holders of a British Palestine passport to move about Germany unhindered. One of these six visas was given to Arieh Levavi. The group was mainly engaged with arranging emigration (aliyah) of German Jews to Palestine. After the adoption of the Nuremburg Laws in 1935, the Nazis set about beginning a policy of planned exile of Jews from Germany. A few years still remained before the large-scale physical destruction. The German authorities and representatives of the Jewish Yishuv in Palestine both participated in creating a situation in which Jews, leaving their property behind, left their country. “The visas were issued for six-month periods,” Levavi recalled, “and they had to be extended each time. For some reason they refused to return my papers in June 1938, and then Kristallnacht happened in November of that year. By that time I had already left Germany.”
At the end of World War II, Levavi fought against the fascists in Italy as part of the British Army in Europe. After the declaration of the State of Israel, he took an active part in developing its foreign policy and rapidly ascended the diplomatic service hierarchy.
At the dawn of diplomatic relations between Israel and the Soviet Union, Levavi worked from 1948 to 1950 at the Israeli embassy in Moscow. The minister plenipotentiary to the Soviet Union at the time was a 50-year-old named Golda Meir. Levavi initially served as the first secretary of the embassy and later as an adviser to the “iron lady.” In 1954, Levavi was appointed minister plenipotentiary of Israel to the Yugoslav government and, in 1958, ambassador to Argentina. He served two terms with Israeli delegations to the United Nations.
He hit his first professional snag in May of 1960, when Adolf Eichmann was captured in Buenos Aires. Abba Eban, then minister without portfolio, was in Argentina making an official visit to the country, and Mossad agents spirited Eichmann back to Israel using Eban’s plane. As reported in Levavi’s obituary, when local authorities summoned him to provide an explanation, he was forced to send a telegram to his Argentine colleagues that, while it held to all the rules of diplomatic protocol, was absurd to the point of fantasy: “The Government of Israel was not aware of the arrival of Eichmann in Israel because the secret service did not notify the government of this fact.” As the former Israeli ambassador to Peru, Nathaniel Lorch, remarked, “In relations with Latin American countries, what was terrible was not so much the lying, but the fact that it was not coordinated.” Levavi was declared persona non grata and immediately deported from the country. It was later discovered that in 1938 the papers expelling the young Palestinian emissary from Germany had been signed by none other than Adolf Eichmann. The circle was complete.
After returning home from his work abroad, Levavi became the director-general of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In the late 1960s, doctors determined that he had heart disease. The patient was advised to seek work in a calmer position. “ ‘If you continue to work at this pace,’ ” he said he was told after the consultation, “ ‘your life will be extremely interesting, but extremely short.’ ”
“I went to Golda and honestly conveyed to her the specialists’ opinion. By that time,” he added with a smile, “I had already earned my way to the maximum pension.” When Levavi was offered the opportunity to head any of the vacant Israeli emissary positions in the world, he found an ineluctable choice standing before him. Rejecting a number of large and prestigious countries, he chose quiet and beautiful Switzerland.
He made the right choice—certainly for his health. The Swiss air and the efforts of European doctors cured Levavi, and the years of his life abroad from late 1967 (right after the end of the Six-Day War) to January 1975 were no less significant, and perhaps more so. In particular, he would become acquainted with Vladimir Nabokov.
The reason for Levavi’s first visit to the writer, sequestered in his luxury hotel, was his idea to invite Nabokov to visit Israel as part of the cultural program. Letters indicate that, at least in principle, Nabokov agreed almost immediately to make the voyage. There are a total of three known letters from Nabokov to Levavi. The ambassador himself had forgotten about them entirely until I offered him published copies in a volume of Nabokov’s correspondence.
In a letter dated Dec. 31, 1970, Nabokov thanked Levavi for the invitation and added that he would be delighted to visit Israel sometime around April of 1972, justifying the delay by his need “to go this spring on a business trip to New York for the opening of a musical made of one of my novels.” Nabokov was referring to the 1971 staging of Lolita, My Love in Philadelphia and Boston, which he never did actually see. He was diverted from his journey to the New World by the failure of the musical (a “nice little flop,” Nabokov seemingly indifferently jotted down in his diary). As Brian Boyd writes in his biography, the time Nabokov saved by doing this was spent on the new novel Transparent Things, which he was working on in those months.
“I would be very pleased to discuss matters at your convenience, particularly if you and Mrs. Levavi happened to be again in Montreux,” Nabokov wrote on New Year’s Eve 1971. The suggestion of visiting Montreux was evidently not just a stock phrase hung there haphazardly. After reaching a formal agreement, when matters related directly to the visit could, it seemed, be put off quite naturally for a year, the relationship between Levavi and Nabokov instead developed at an unexpected pace.
A Yale president’s forebear was an enigmatic and pro-Christian member of the famed rabbinic dynasty