Slipping out of town for a couple days to gain perspective and shift work gears is not what Otto Silbermann was doing in the 1938 novel THE PASSENGER by Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz.
If the German names and time period suggest this book is about the final ride to the gas chamber you’ll be relieved (as I was) that it isn’t. Not exactly. The end of the novel (spoiler alert) leaves it up to you to decide whether Otto is put in a boxcar like livestock bound for the slaughterhouse or locked in a looney bin. This story is about a businessman running from the Third Reich and looking for an escape route.
Written in 1938 by a 23 year old literary genius the narrative begins the day after sturmfuhrers swept Berlin arresting Jewish men. Our beleaguered hero escapes his apartment through the rear stairwell and flees to the railroad station, catching the first train to anywhere.
Boschwitz gives us the paranoid inner monologue of a respected and law-abiding citizen who is suddenly deemed a criminal only because he’s a Jew. Every person who looks at him, every time he speaks, he worries he is about to be betrayed and sent to a concentration camp.
Because the author wrote this novel in 1938 there is no revisionist history in the telling. The businessman is denied an exit pass to another country – no country will admit him. He illegally crosses the border to Belgium and is immediately returned to Germany despite his pleas for mercy and claims for asylum from the fatal fate he knows awaits him at home. He cannot smuggle money across the border because he’d be arrested and sent to a concentration camp. He cannot arrive in another country without money because no one will hire him without a worker’s permit.
He is trapped in the Third Reich. His only solution is to impulsively buy train tickets to destinations he immediately regrets.
THE PASSENGER is a psychological mystery thriller, driven by the doubts and poor decisions consuming a previously rational successful merchant. In other words – this story could be about you or me if we were in his place or our place were transformed by MAGA zealotry.
Boschwitz borrows lightly from his family story for the novel though he was trapped the year after its publication. He had safely emigrated to London but as a German he was sent to an abusive penal colony in Australia. His method of escape was to enlist in the British armed services to fight Japan. En route to training his ship was torpedoed by a u-boat. He perished with 361 others in 1942.
The manuscript for the book along with Boschwitz’ intended revisions was believed lost with the ship. Recently the German publisher Peter Graf discovered an original manuscript and based on notes from the author’s family published the revised edition in 2018. The English translation by Philip Boehm is published in the US. I found the novel at my local library.
We reflect on late 1930s Germany and wonder why the Jews and gay men and Roma didn’t just get out. How stupid must they have been to believe nothing as horrific as a holocaust could happen in cultured Germany. THE PASSENGER puts all our Monday night coaching to shame. It is relevant today for those of us targeted by white nationalists. We assure ourselves nothing like that could happen here. There are too many of us, there are so few of them. A bit of fact finding reveals the Nazi Party was the minority political group when it manuevered into power.
As much as I love riding trains I don’t want to re-create THE PASSENGER. This novel is a must-read.