Archive for the ‘Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz’ Category

The Passenger

June 28, 2021

There is nothing that sets a bibliophile’s pulse racing like a rediscovered, or discovered, novel. Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz’s The Passenger is a little of both. Written in England in 1939 in the space of four weeks, it was granted an initial publication though, as Andre Aciman points out in his introduction, “barely noticed.” Boschwitz, interned as an ‘enemy alien’ on the outbreak of war, was later deported to Australia where he began the process of rewriting the novel, sending the first part back to his mother in England with a fellow prisoner. She never received this, and Boschwitz’s own return to England was ended by German torpedoes in 1942. He had, however, outlined his intentions for the novel in a letter, and this informed the editing of his original manuscript when it was discovered in an archive in Frankfurt, the result of which was finally published in Germany in 2018, and now arrives in English translated by Philip Boehm.

The Passenger gives us a contemporaneous account of the treatment of Jews in Germany in the aftermath of Kristallnacht in November 1938 when the repression Jews had suffered since 1933 became overtly violent: nearly 100 Jews were killed, and 30,000 Jewish men were arrested. The passenger of the title, Otto Silbermann, has so far remained largely unaffected by Nazi oppression, due partly to his wealth, and partly to his non-Jewish appearance:

“I’m living as though I weren’t a Jew, he thought, somewhat incredulously, For the time being, I’m simply a well-to-do citizen – under threat, it’s true, but as of yet unscathed.”

Silbermann, however, is aware of the threat. He has made the general manager of his business, Becker – an old comrade from the First World War – a partner in an attempt to protect his assets, and sent him to Hamburg to raise money. Becker declares himself a National Socialist, putting his long-standing friendship with Silbermann down to the fact that “for me you are a man – a German man, not a Jew.” This supposed declaration of ‘solidarity’, however, implies that a Jew is neither German, nor a man. Silbermann is also selling his house for much less than it is worth in order to realise the cash he might need to escape, but as the potential buyer, Findler, tells him:

“I’m taking the shack of your hands, and if I don’t then the state will. And they won’t give you a lousy pfennig.”

It is while negotiations for the house sale are ongoing that his sister phones to tell Silbermann that his brother-in-law has been arrested. Even at this point, his reaction is disbelief:

“But it can’t be! People don’t just go hauling off respectable citizens from their homes! They can’t do that!”

The fact that Silbermann is such an unlikely outlaw creates a blackly comic drama at the centre of the novel. Even as the police are at the door, he is reluctant to escape. Findler attempts to stall them, but such is their instinct for violence he is immediately assaulted even as he reaches for his party badge.

Silbermann escapes into a changed world. His lawyer as well as his brother-in-law have been arrested. He enters a hotel and the manager refuse to shake his hand and indicates he is no longer welcome:

“You are an old and dear guest of the hotel. But… you understand? It isn’t my fault, and things surely won’t stay this way, but…”

And so begins Silbermann’s time as a passenger, in constant motion around Germany but unable to escape. He follows Becker to Hamburg to ensure his money is safe, but Becker, like Findler before him, seizes his chance to cheat Silbermann, claiming half the amount. Silbermann is no longer a friend and comrade but “a nervous little Jew quivering over his money.” Despite this, Silbermann now has forty thousand marks, but even his wealth is of little use to him:

“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.”

Silbermann is on the run, but he does not know where to run to. He criss-crosses the country in trains in a perpetual motion in an attempt to delay his inevitable capture. The life of a fugitive is completely alien to him:

“…now I have to head to the border… I’ve never been capable of that sort of thing, I simply don’t know how. Secretly slipping past the guards… All I want is to live in peace and earn my bread…. The border! Me, sneaking over the border – my God!”

Boschwitz sustains the tension throughout, using the train, with its combination of movement and captivity, to capitalise on Silbermann’s increasing anxiety. Every carriage he enters, every stranger he meets is a potential danger. Journeys which begin purposefully, become an end in themselves. Though the novel is written in the third person, it frequently transitions into first person as we share Silbermann’s racing thoughts. This makes The Passenger as gripping as any thriller, but its everyman protagonist is not the exception, but the reality for thousands of Jews around the country. The novel relays that experience as vividly and urgently as it must have felt at the time it was written, and we can be thankful that it has finally found itself in the hands of the readers it deserves.