Translated from German by Phillip Boehm
As established during my recent read of Mephisto, some saw what was coming and others did not. Like Klaus Mann, Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz left Nazi Germany in the early years. He was living in Britain when he wrote The Passenger in just four weeks following the outrage that was Kristallnacht.
Boschwitz’s protagonist, Otto Silbermann was not blessed with the foresight to leave. A WWI-veteran, recipient of the Iron Cross, now wealthy businessman and married to a Christian German, Silbermann, with his Aryan looks, considered himself an upstanding citizen, assimilated and safe. The moment when alarm bells should have rung – the moment when the J was stamped into his passport – has passed some time before the opening of the novel. Yet he stayed. But now reality is biting, and the opening chapter sees him haggling with a prospective purchaser over the price of an apartment building. Time is running short, very short. Brownshirts are in the building, and Silbermann is their target. He only just manages to conclude the deal – at a very knocked down rate – and escapes with 200 Reichmarks in his pocket via the back door.
Thus ends chapter one.
It’s not much to survive on, and this pressing need for money (Money means life, especially in wartime. A Jew in Germany without money is like an unfed animal in a cage, something utterly hopeless.) is what drives him to jump on the next train to Hamburg in pursuit of his business partner, Becker. When they finally meet – not in Hamburg, but back in Berlin – Becker holds all the aces, fleeces him, but parts with enough cash to give Silbermann hope that the odds might just be beaten.
It’s a long shot. Neighbouring countries have closed their borders to German Jews. Besides he will be arrested and sent to the camps by German border guards. He had been waiting for his son to organise visas for him and his wife to go to Paris. A wait in vain. His only chance is to cross the border illegally. An attempt is made to cross into Belgium. But Silbermann is to find that the money he thinks will guarantee a new life proves to be useless. He is consigned to travelling on trains; a man with his suitcase, crisscrossing Germany to the extent that he knows the national timetable by heart. It’s a nightmarish odyssey of Kafkaesque proportions, if you will. Silbermann is banging his head against a border that just will not open, and his increasing desperation is palpable. Yet, unlike Kafka’s castle, which admittedly I flung at the wall in frustration, I turned Boschwitz’s pages rapidly. As others have pointed out, The Passenger has a real Buchanesque flavour.
On his travels, Silbermann meets a broad section of the German population. They’re not all Nazis, some are prepared to help, some freely, others not. Significantly in his interactions with others less fortunate than himself, Silbermann preserves his humanity though the society in which he finds himself considers him less than a gutter rat.
This version of the novel is not that which Boschwitz left behind. The recently rediscovered German edition has been edited by Peter Graf. The whys and wherefores are recorded in his afterword together with a note that Silbermann’s story, surreal as it may sound, includes real experiences of Boschwitz’s relations. Exile unfortunately did not prevent the author from becoming another victim of the Nazis. War in 1939 made an enemy alien of him in Britain, and he was transported to Australia. In 1942 he was allowed to return, but he died when his ship was torpedoed by a German submarine. He was only 27 years old.