The Passenger by Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz

Translated by Philip Boehm

Reviewed by Gill Davies

This is an important republication of a novel which first appeared eighty years ago under a pen name and in translation as The Man Who Took Trains. Its publishing history is both poignant and remarkable. Ulrich Boschwitz was born into a middle class, secular German-Jewish family in Berlin in 1915. He was raised by his mother after his father’s early death and both worked in the family business until the Nazi boycott made that impossible. They left Germany in 1935, living in Sweden, then Norway where Boschwitz’s first novel was published when he was only 22. For the next few years he lived and studied in France and Belgium while completing this, his second novel, then called The Traveller. With war imminent and the persecution of Jews increasing, Boschwitz and his mother moved to England. (The Register of 1939 shows they were living in a boarding house in Primrose Hill Road, Camden. She is described as an artist, he as a writer.) As anti-German feeling increased in Britain and war was imminent they were both interned with other “enemy aliens” on the Isle of Man. Like some other young refugees, Boschwitz was then sent to Australia in 1940 on the transport ship Dunera –  which was later notorious for the shocking treatment of passengers by British troops. After two years in Australia he was allowed to return to England. Tragically, the ship he sailed on was torpedoed by a German submarine and Boschwitz was killed. A typescript of the un-revised version of the novel was discovered many years later. It has been edited and was published in German in 2018.

The Passenger is set in 1938, at a key point in the Nazi’s aggressive persecution and systematic removal of Jewish citizens. It tells the story of Otto Silbermann, a prosperous, middle-aged businessman in Berlin forced to sell his company to his “Aryan” partner and and his flat to an acquaintance who takes the opportunity of his desperation to effectively steal it from him. He needs to sell his house and transfer his business so that he and his wife can leave the country and go to join their son in Paris. But they can’t get travel permits and find themselves trapped in a nightmare situation. His sister telephones to say that her husband has been arrested and their flat ransacked. With this fate awaiting them, his non-Jewish wife goes to the safety of her brother’s house – but he is a party member and there is no place for Otto.

Bewildered by the news of the fate of his fellow Jews and almost unable to believe what is happening to him, Otto is forced to go on the run. His one advantage is that he doesn’t look Jewish so he can move about without being questioned or attacked. So he becomes a displaced person in his own country, travelling by train with no destination other than to keep moving, holding on to the illusion of control and freedom. He carries his money in a briefcase that becomes an emblem of all that he is trying to hold on to as his world disintegrates. He meets men and women, soldiers and civilians, fellow Jews on the run and even one or two people who try to help him. The conversations he has take us to the heart of Germany in 1938. The people he encounters are a cross-section of the nation:  party members; bureaucrats; collaborators; ordinary people pretending nothing bad is happening. We see a population being steadily incorporated into the system. His emotions encompass fear, guilt (as he seeks to avoid contact with Jewish-looking people in case it reflects on him) and despair.

There are too many Jews on the train, Silbermann thought. And that puts every one of us in danger….if you didn’t exist I could live in peace.

The central character is not heroic. He is a man of his generation, a veteran of World War 1, secular, private, trying to ignore the storm clouds billowing around him.The narrative uses Otto’s point of view to make the reader share the dreadful estrangement and powerlessness he feels. There is a Kafka-like quality to his horror at discovering that his respectability counts for nothing and that he is reviled and persecuted for something he has no control over. At times, like Kafka, the bizarreness of the everyday can even seem humorous. The rituals of buying tickets, entering compartments full of strangers, repeating journeys and getting nowhere become more and more futile and absurd. The author has a remarkable ability to get inside the consciousness of a man very different from himself:  a dull, respectable businessman, with a limited imagination who can’t understand what has happened to him. He finds himself playing chess on a train with another traveller, a Nazi. He thinks that he is “a real human being despite his party badge. Maybe things aren’t all that bad. People with whom you can play chess, and who can lose without being offended or insolent, are hardly robbers and killers.” The irony of this is plain. But it also shows just how easy it was for ordinary people to delude themselves about the coming genocide. And how “kultur” seemed to them unlikely to produce barbarism. Indeed, the novel was written before the intensification of the holocaust, and its portrait of the turning point is prescient and chilling. This is an extraordinarily mature, insightful and original novel, and all the more remarkable in coming from such a young author.

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Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz, The Passenger, translated by Philip Boehm (Pushkin Press, 2021). 978-1782276845, 255pp., paperback.

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