If German Jewry had any doubts about its fate under the Nazis, they were settled on November 9 1938, Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass. Hundreds of synagogues were destroyed, thousands of businesses ruined and tens of thousands of Jewish men sent to concentration camps. Much worse was to come.
Kristallnacht was also the trigger for Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz, a young German refugee, to write Der Reisende (The Passenger), a novel that he completed in barely four weeks.
Born in 1915 to a mixed-faith family, Boschwitz escaped to Sweden with his mother in 1935, studied in Paris, then moved with her to Britain just before the outbreak of war. It was here that Der Reisende — a contemporaneous, fictionalised account of Nazi Germany, with the pace of a thriller was published in English in 1939 under the title The Man Who Took Trains — before being largely forgotten.
In 2015, Reuella Schahaf, Boschwitz’s niece, contacted a German editor named Peter Graf to tell him that the original manuscript of the book was in the archive of the German National Library. With the support of Boschwitz’s family, Graf edited the manuscript and Der Reisende was finally published in its original German in 2018. A new translation of that text has now been published by Pushkin Press as The Passenger.
Set in the immediate aftermath of Kristallnacht, the novel follows Otto Silbermann, a German Jewish businessman who criss-crosses Germany on trains in an ultimately futile attempt to outrun the Nazis. Sometimes he hides in plain sight, sometimes he lurks in cheap hotels or scurries across the Belgium border at night, before being turned back by Belgian border guards. Silbermann is a well-rounded character — a veteran of the first world war, he cheated on his taxes and bought a prime building cheaply during the Weimar era’s hyperinflation — and as the pressure builds, he becomes increasingly neurotic while experiencing intermittent bursts of courage and humanity.
At times The Passenger reads as though a painting by the German anti-Nazi artist George Grosz has been turned into words, the text almost vibrating with fury at the lies, theft, murder and betrayal. It is also a highly accomplished work, filled with vivid characterisation, sharp dialogue and intensely observed scenes.
Silbermann’s interaction with Gustav Becker, his business partner and old army comrade, is especially well drawn. Becker still feels some residual loyalty to Silbermann, but he is a Nazi and eventually, inevitably, he abandons him. “Why are you so intent on becoming a scoundrel?” asks Silbermann. “It doesn’t suit you at all.” To which Becker snaps back: “A person only gets one chance in life. And I’ve never had one! So now I have to take advantage of it.” Becker’s steady moral collapse, we understand, is a metaphor for that of Germany itself.
After the outbreak of war, Boschwitz and his mother were interned in Britain before being sent to Australia. In 1942, Boschwitz, then 27, was allowed to return, but the troop ship on which he was travelling was torpedoed and he lost his life. This English edition, skilfully translated by Philip Boehm, is a fitting memorial to a writer of great insight and talent — and an important historical work that vividly recreates the terror experienced by Jews in 1930s Germany.
The Passenger, by Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz, translated by Philip Boehm, Pushkin Press, RRP£14.99, 288 pages
Adam LeBor is the author of ‘Hitler’s Secret Bankers: How Switzerland Profited from Nazi Genocide’
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