What distinguishes The Passenger, the newly rediscovered 1938 novel by the German Jewish author Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz (1915-1942), from so many other fictional accounts of the Holocaust? To begin with, it is so viscerally absorbing that as I turned each page I shuddered, as if from the same chill breeze felt by the novel’s main character, the assimilated Jewish businessman Otto Silbermann, in his desperate attempt to flee Nazi Germany. Indeed, the gem-like precision of Boschwitz’s writing evokes, as few other books have, the anxiety and terror with which the once-prosperous Silbermann awakens to his new status as hunted prey in the Third Reich.
This stunning immediacy is no accident; it is a product of the book’s historical circumstances. Boschwitz opens his tale in Berlin, on the morning of November 10, 1938, the date now known as Kristallnacht, “the night of shattered glass”—the brutal anti-Jewish pogrom that swept through Germany at the instigation of the Nazis. Writing just after the event itself, and completing his manuscript within a mere four weeks, Boschwitz did not so much rip the details from the headlines—the wanton destruction of Jewish property, the seizure and transport to concentration camps of all Jewish males—as capture with precision the psychological splintering of whatever wistful hope of co-existence may have remained among a Jewish community already battered by Hitler’s increasingly vicious campaign against them.
By that time, Boschwitz, who was born in Berlin to a well-to-do Jewish father and Christian mother (according to Nazi law, he was thus Jewish, even if according to Jewish law he was not), had already woven his own route to safety, immigrating to Sweden (where his first novel, The People Outside, was published under a pseudonym in Swedish translation) and from there to Oslo, Paris, Belgium, and Luxembourg. Sources differ as to the exact dates of these comings and goings, and it’s unknown whether they were precipitated by a lack of official papers, the constantly changing political leanings of each country as war approached, plain bad luck, or most likely a combination—the very same factors that confronted Silbermann in his odyssey. And so it’s hardly a stretch to hear echoes of Boschwitz’s own wanderings in the rhythms of the wheels that transport the increasingly agitated Silbermann from one dead-end train or bus or smuggler’s route to another. And it’s equally impossible to shake the cruelly ironic undertow of war that engulfed both Boschwitz and his novel after he debarked to what he finally hoped was safety, in England, in early 1939.
With his manuscript providing an unnerving, no-holds-barred account of the Nazi regime’s escalating war against the Jews, publication in Germany was not an option. But his book was soon translated into English, quickly published that spring in Britain as The Man Who Took Trains, and issued the next year in the United States as The Fugitive. But despite its positive reception, it did nothing to sway either government to open its gates to more Jewish refugees. Meanwhile, with fear of German spies roiling Britain, Boschwitz and his mother were themselves imprisoned as German enemy aliens on the Isle of Man. Soon after, Boschwitz was deported to an internment camp in Australia.
He nonetheless managed in his two years there to write another novel, which, he told his fellow prisoners, he considered his best work yet. Alas, we’ll never be able to judge for ourselves. In the fall of 1942, he boarded a ship heading back to Britain, where he planned to join a military-intelligence unit. A German U-boat torpedoed the ship, and Boschwitz was among the 362 passengers who drowned. His new manuscript, which he had wrapped around his body for safekeeping, was never recovered.
All the more reason to be grateful for the rescue from obscurity of The Passenger by the German publisher and editor Peter Graf. His interest had been piqued after Boschwitz’s niece, Reuella Shachaf, contacted him in 2015. Her mother, Boschwitz’s only sibling, had left Germany in 1933 and ultimately settled on a kibbutz in Israel. But the family had never forgotten Ulrich—or his novel. Had Germany? As Graf soon discovered, The Passenger had yet to be published either in its original language or in the author’s country of birth. In fact, even in the decades after the war, and despite the book’s strong endorsement by the Nobel Prize-winning German author Heinrich Böll (1917-1985), German publishers had rejected it.
Graf sought out the sole existing original manuscript, which had since the 1960s been archived in a museum in Frankfurt. Riveted by the book, he gained permission from the family to edit it according to notes Boschwitz had left behind, and to proceed with publication. In addition to appearing in German, The Passenger has now been translated into nineteen languages, including Hebrew. Philip Boehm is responsible for the elegant new rendering into English.
The Passenger is thus doubly remarkable both as a work of literature and as a manuscript whose own history bears witness to the traumas it documents. We first meet its protagonist, Silbermann, proud Berliner and decorated World War I veteran, at a café breakfast with Becker, his wartime buddy, long-time employee, and a respectable Nazi party member with whom the Jewish businessman has just become, as Silbermann euphemistically puts it, “partners.” For the moment, Becker—who jovially proclaims “for me you are a man—a German man, not a Jew”—allows him his illusion. But both know that Becker has now become the sole owner of the firm, having bought it at a bargain from his former boss in the wake of anti-Jewish legislation that had forced Silbermann to sell.
Lingering at the café after Becker boards a train to Hamburg to complete a deal that in former times he himself would have transacted, Silbermann ruminates on the casually malicious anti-Semitic comments he has overheard just that morning. His interior dialogue becomes increasingly obsessive: a never-ending examination of the unanswerable question of how and why the single word “Jew” has come to define him, someone with no relationship to Judaism beyond his birth. “I’m something different because I am a Jew,” he thinks. “What am I, really? A swearword on two legs. . . . I no longer have any rights, and it’s only out of propriety or habit that so many act as though I did. . . . I’ve been officially degraded, but the public debasement has yet to take place.”
When he arrives home, though, he quickly realizes that this process, too, has begun. An Aryan associate has stopped by to make an insultingly discounted bid for his elegant, art-filled apartment—an offer both know that Silbermann, as a Jew no longer permitted to own property, will be unable to refuse. His sister then telephones with the alarming news that the police are going house to house, arresting all Jewish men. His wife, who is not Jewish, urges him to leave. Just as the police arrive to cart him away, Silbermann scurries out the back door.
He is now a Jew on the run. But where can he go? “Ten minutes ago it was my house that was at stake, my property. Now it’s my neck.” At least, he consoles himself, his nose appears Aryan enough to let him pass as a non-Jew. Except when those who already know him recognize him. Seeking refuge at a familiar hotel, the once friendly manager shows him the door. He tries another hotel, where he himself self-consciously rebuffs an old acquaintance, fearful that his own Jewishness will be given away by his friend’s large nose. And then what will happen? With chillingly uncanny foresight, he predicts the fate that within the next few years will become reality: “Perhaps they’ll carefully undress us first and then kill us, so our clothes won’t get bloody and our banknotes won’t get damaged,” he thinks to himself. “These days murder is performed economically.”
It is at that point that he becomes the Passenger, a traveling dead man riding the rails back and forth from one German city to another, occasionally stopping to reconnoiter what, if any, possible moves remain that might grant him freedom. Clearly, he’s a strategic thinker; playing chess with a party official with whom he shares a compartment during one train ride, he trounces his adversary one match after another with ease. But his schemes for escape lead nowhere beyond the next train ride. “I’m not really traveling, I’m merely moving,” he admits to himself. Several train trips later, in the wake of a failed attempt to cross the border from Germany into Belgium, he begins a flirtatious conversation with an elegant and sympathetic Aryan woman, in which he discloses that he has given up on any plan. “I’ll just keep going,” he confides. “Beyond that I don’t know. I’ll keep traveling, keep going farther until they pounce, until some SA man stops me. They’re the ones who set me in motion and they’ll be the ones who bring me to a halt.”
Throughout, Silbermann’s claustrophobic interior monologue oscillates rapidly from manic hope to grim acceptance, from irrational denial to exhausted futility. And whatever the mood, he cannot escape his preoccupation with the Jews. (Or is it the Nazi preoccupation with the Jews that he cannot escape?)
In one moment of frenzied rage, his ruminations become an inward rant:
There are too many Jews on the train, Silberman thought. And that puts every one of us in danger. As it is I have all of you to thank for this: if you didn’t exist, I could live in peace. But because you do, I’m forced to share your misfortune! I’m no different from anybody else, but maybe you truly are different and I don’t belong to your group. I’m not one of you. Indeed, if it weren’t for you, they wouldn’t be persecuting me. I could remain a normal citizen. But because you exist, I will be annihilated along with you. And yet we really have nothing to do with one another!
And then the next moment, his explosion spent, Silbermann turns to momentary introspection, before twisting back again:
He considered such thoughts undignified but couldn’t help thinking them; . . . it’s easy to get infected with the general opinion. . . . In his normal state [he] was not one of those tragicomic figures known as Jewish anti-Semites. But at the moment he was so worked up he wasn’t thinking clearly, and he viewed the sheer existence of his coreligionists as an insult.
In passages such as these, Boschwitz, via Silberman, captures one of the vilest aspects of the virus of anti-Semitism: its ability to infect the minds and self-perceptions of Jews themselves. Even before this infection reaches the protagonist, we have been shown how it spreads, as one Gentile after another reveals himself, sometimes with painful awkwardness, sometimes with shameless bluntness, to be unwilling to endure the risk of helping a Jew—or, as in the case of Silbermann’s partner Becker, all too eager to take advantage of Jewish vulnerability.
Describing Silbermann’s situation (and his creator’s) it is impossible not to think of the word “Kafkaesque,” even if, for all Jews caught in Hitler’s maw, the experience was no metaphor, but an everyday reality. The Passenger, for this reason, has little in common stylistically with Kafka’s stories. Rather it strikes me more as a meeting of the psychological terror found in the Expressionist painting and film of the 1930s and the realism of the artistic movement known as New Objectivity (Neue Sachlichkeit), associated with such writers as Alfred Döblin (best known for his 1929 novel Berlin Alexanderplatz) and Hans Fallada (No Man Dies Alone).
To my mind, it is this mixture that gives The Passenger its unsettling atmosphere. Boschwitz details with utmost specificity the material trappings and décor of Silbermann’s life, whether he’s at his home or eating at cafés or aboard the trains. The familiarity of his surroundings, perhaps, allowed Silbermann to downplay the sinister social and political transformations that had engulfed the country before the book’s action begins. That is, until Kristallnacht, which Boschwitz also renders with descriptive particularity. It’s the juxtaposition, and the clash, of these two different realities that propels Silbermann into the uncanny state of panic that comes to the surface as the book goes on.
Silbermann, who considers himself a man of business, who operates by logic and reason, finds it impossible to fathom the irrational wellsprings of German anti-Semitism. Thus when he decides to return briefly to his apartment to search for his wife (she has gone to live with her brother, a Nazi party member at whose home Silbermann is not welcome), what shocks him most is not the wrecked furniture, slashed paintings, and shattered objects the Nazis have left in their wake. He isn’t so much disturbed by the violation of his property, but by the fact that, rather than loot or steal his valuable possessions, the trespassers had chosen instead to destroy them. But if not theft, what other motive could these Nazi officers have had for such an attack? “Hate?” he asks himself incredulously. “They don’t even know me.”
Nor did they feel they needed to; such is prejudice that a label, a stereotype alone, will suffice. When I came to the book’s final page, I could not escape the thought that The Passenger had time-traveled from the past as a cautionary tale for the future. Amid our own era’s rising anti-Semitism, and the refusal of many intelligent and well-informed people to recognize it for what it is, Boschwitz maps out the challenges, and the dangers, that never disappear.