So much has been written about Hitler’s Germany that it’s easy to forget that much of it is non-fiction. The Passenger is a rare exception: it’s a novel and written during the Third Reich, in late 1938, in the horror and chaos following Kristallnacht (The Night of Broken Glass), when the Führer’s thugs smashed their way through Jewish homes, shops and offices in a chilling prologue to the Holocaust and the Final Solution. Not that the author Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz was actually in Germany at the time; he had escaped in 1935, but there is no doubt that he knew the terror and travails his fellow Jews were suffering, as their lives and businesses were trashed. The first version of The Passenger was published in English and French after he arrived in Britain in 1939. It attracted little attention. This new translation of The Passenger is from his original manuscript, which was lost for seventy years and first published in Germany three years ago.
The novel doesn’t reveal the ultimate fate of its protagonist, Otto Silbermann: it doesn’t need to. It describes just the few days of his life post-Kristallnacht, as he criss-crosses Germany by train in search of whatever sanctuary he can find. It’s an eloquent, appalling and moving testimony to the Jewish plight, some of which the author Boschwitz must himself have experienced when he fled Germany. Like Boschwitz, we read that Silbermann does not look Jewish and is married to a Gentile, though he’s never made any secret of his racial origins and his friends and associates have always accepted him for what he is, a successful businessman: ‘for me, you are a man – a German man, not a Jew’ affirms his business partner Becker, a self-proclaimed Nazi. Indeed, Silbermann worries more about Becker’s business acumen than his politics. But in the twenty-four hours after Kristallnacht, with Silbermann on the run, Becker performs a volte face:‘don’t be coming to me looking for sympathy … you may have shrewder heads but we have harder fists and we’re in the majority.’ Another businessman insults Silbermann by saying: ‘It’s Jewish blood that’s bringing the German people together.’ As he flees his Berlin flat, Silbermann mutters ruefully: ‘[I’m] a swear word on two legs.’
In spite of such clear evidence, Silbermann at first fails to understand the true extent of what is happening to the Jews and sees it only as his own problem: ‘They have declared war on me personally … and right now … I’m in enemy territory.’ He sets out for Hamburg, and encounters a man on the train with a gold Nazi Party badge and they play several chess matches; Silbermann wins hands down but they part good friends and he muses: ‘That was a real human being despite his party badge. Maybe things aren’t all that bad … sooner or later they’ll leave us alone again.’ Just a day later, he’s assailed by the realisation that he’s been a fool, that he must in fact leave Germany completely, but he is soon complaining: ‘There are too many Jews on this train … and that puts every one of us in danger … if you didn’t exist I could live in peace.’ Briefly back in Berlin before the next leg of his increasingly erratic flight, he alienates a Jewish friend he meets by chance on the street, whose loudly shouted greetings and conversation risk identifying him, Silbermann, as a Jew. Spurred on by fear, the wheel of exclusion has now come full circle.
Silbermann is a very modern paradigm of the ‘wandering Jew’, driven hither and thither by indecision, panic, hope and the unpredictable winds of misfortune – devoid of any real strategy for survival. Racially a Jew (with a red ‘J’ in his passport), but in appearance an Aryan, as he ducks and weaves to avoid having his papers checked, he gradually realises that he no longer belongs in Germany, or anywhere else: ‘To make it out of here you have to leave your money behind, and to be let in elsewhere you have to show you still have it.’ Every train journey he takes somehow makes his future less certain and leaves him further away from his intended destination; each trip destroys another of his delusions about his home country.
In so many ways, The Passenger is also a story not just of then, but of now, as anti-Semitism and the ritual proscription of minorities rise again. Boschwitz, writing in 1938, foresaw the events of the war years, as millions of Germans wilfully ignored the reality and terror of the extermination camps. He draws us deep into the bleak, distorted society of pre-war Germany, where even his wife’s family – who have taken her in – deny Silbermann refuge. The original publication of the novel in English and French had very few readers; it behoves us all to read it now. The fact that The Passenger entered the Sunday Times Bestseller top ten means that we are and it is hitting a nerve.
Back in 1939, having left Germany and arrived in the UK after four years travelling through Sweden, France, Luxembourg and Belgium, Boschwitz’s treatment by the British was hardly exemplary: he was interned as an enemy alien, then deported to Australia, in what was in effect a twentieth-century version of a convict ship, and every bit as grim and violent as its predecessors. When he was finally given permission to leave his Australian prison camp in 1942 and return to the UK, his transport ship was torpedoed by the Germans. The real-life ‘passenger’, Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz, perished along with all the others. A lesson for us all. He was just twenty-seven years old.
Reviewed by Max Easterman
by Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz
Newly translated by Philip Boehm, with a Preface by André Aciman and an Afterword by Peter Graf
Published by Pushkin Press (2021)
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Max Easterman is a journalist – he spent 35 years as a senior broadcaster with the BBC – university lecturer, translator, media trainer with ‘Sounds Right’, jazz musician and writer.
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