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An Uncanny Prophecy of Our Time

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Donald Weber reviews Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz’s The Passenger.

The publication of Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz’s harrowing novel, The Passenger, with a new translation from the original German by Philip Boehm, is a major literary event.  Written in the weeks following Kristallnacht, in early November 1938, when Boschwitz was just 23, The Passenger offers an intimate portrait of Jewish life in pre-War Nazi Germany at the onset of dehumanization, before the Reich imposed the yellow star. According to Adam Freudenheim of Pushkin Press, who will publish The Passenger in the UK (the novel first appeared in the UK in 1939 as The Man Who Took Trains, written under the pseudonym ‘John Grane’), ‘It is a major rediscovery–pretty extraordinary. It feels like a breathless suspense novel in a way, and yet it’s also got shades of Kafka because it’s so absurd.’  

What remains unsettling in The Passenger is how Boschwitz anticipates the magical thinking of Germany’s deeply-assimilated Jews, feeling more ‘German’ than ‘Jewish,’ rationalizing their relation to the so-called ‘homeland.’ In this respect, The Passenger dissects how the Jewish psyche, at the threshold of annihilation, woke up to the Nazis’ murderous plans and sought to escape a looming, horrific fate.

Boschwitz filters this intra-psychic drama through the figure of Otto Silbermann, the representative of German-Jewish consciousness in The Passenger.  Middle-aged, a veteran of World War I, a wealthy businessman, married to a non-Jew, his ‘Aryan appearance enables Silbermann to pass as ‘German.’  Yet as the novel opens Silbermann is beginning to sense that his stable world is turning upside down. Talking with his business partner Becker, Silbermann feels a palpable, unsettling shift in the atmosphere.  Becker betrays a false empathy, masking anti-Semitic profiling, regarding Silbermann’s behaviour as a ‘Jew’: ‘If you were a Jew like other Jews,’ Becker remarks, ’a real Jew, in other words, then you might have kept me on as general manager, but you never would have made me your partner!’ An even nastier observation immediately follows from a waiter, who confesses to Silbermann (noting that ‘’Silbermann had none of the features that marked him as a Jew’, ‘’The best would be … if Jews had to wear yellow bands on their arms. Then at least there wouldn’t be any confusion’. 

Shocked by the waiter’s nationalist desire for racial clarity–an ominous foreshadowing of the Reich’s murderous dream of racial purity–Silbermann feels an assault on his humanity, the piercing of his dignity. ‘They have declared war on me, on me personally,’ he reflects; ‘and right now I’m completely on my own–in enemy territory’. Displaced in his own country, his face now exhibiting ‘some excessive tension’ (p. 17), Silbermann begins to fathom the dangerous situation, even for non-identifying Jews like himself. He returns to his apartment, looking for his wife, only to find the ‘large front-hall mirror had been shattered’ — his own personal Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass. Angry and disillusioned, Silbermann contemplates his new, unwanted condition–his status as a Jew suddenly unmoored, made homeless, about to enter a surreal landscape made famous by the acid ironies of Kafka: ‘And the earth really is shaking,’ Silbermann reflects, ‘but only under us’.     

Boschwitz’s relentless narrative in The Passenger charts Silbermann’s increasingly futile attempts to escape the spatial boundaries imposed on Jewish movement in his now alien, and alienating homeland. Reminiscent of Art Spiegelman’s depiction of his father Vladek in Maus, Boschwitz’s Silbermann is in constant motion, on the run, crisscrossing Germany with a heavy suitcase and a briefcase stuffed with money, arriving and departing from train station to station in search of…somewhere to rest his persecuted soul. ‘Where shall I go?’ Silbermann asks. ‘Where can I go?’ ‘I simply have to run, run, run’ he tells himself; eventually, Silbermann recognizes the futility of his efforts, that there is no exit, only immobility: ‘Now I’m not really travelling, I’m merely moving’. Like Vladek after the War pedalling for his life on a stationary bicycle, Silbermann, despite his constant running, remains in place, trapped in a Germany obsessed with its Jewish citizens, bent on degradation and, eventually, mass murder.

Reading The Passenger, we follow Silbermann in transit, on a journey into darkness and, ultimately, madness.  As he rides the iron tracks of Germany to nowhere, Silbermann meets other fellow travellers.  In one particularly moving exchange, he encounters Lilienfeld, a poor Jew ‘with dismal eyes’, who voices a profoundly chilling insight, still unavailable to Silbermann, and prophetic of the Jewish fate at mid-century. ‘No one wants to have anything more to do with you,’ Lilienfeld reflects. ‘And now? Now you’re just air, and bad air at that!’ ’You start smelling meanness everywhere’. Riding the trains, Lilienfeld envisions, uncannily, the looming smokestacks of Auschwitz.

The MV Abosso. Photo: wrecksite.eu

In his Preface, André Aciman speaks of the ‘flawlessly penetrating’ power of The Passenger. Boschwitz’s achievement is even more remarkable in light of his biography. His Jewish father converted to Protestantism and died before Boschwitz was born; his gentile mother converted to Judaism; his sister later embraced Judaism and settled in Israel in 1933. Boschwitz never identified as a Jew. Constantly moving, the family lived in Sweden, France, Brussels, and England. Deemed a ‘friendly alien’ in England during the War, Boshwitz was deported to an internment camp in Australia. He died on October 29, 1942, along with 362 other displaced souls, when the ship the MV Abosso, returning to the UK, was torpedoed by a Nazi U-Boat. Boschwitz was just 27. In transit his entire life, Boschwitz’s own story and devastating novel speak powerfully to the present–an uncanny prophecy of our own time marked by migration, by refugees, above all by the degradation of humanity in flight, searching for a place to call ‘home.’    

The Passanger by Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz; Philip Boehm, trans.; André Aciman is published by Metropolitan Books, priced, $24.99.

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Donald Weber writes on Jewish American literature and popular culture.  His current project is a book on OTD cultural expression titled "On and Off the Derech: A Family Story."  He divides his time between Mohegan Lake, NY and Brooklyn.
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