There was a risk that the story of this book might overwhelm the story in the book – its origin tale is quite something. It was written in a four-week fever immediately after Kristallnacht, the pogrom in November 1938 that signalled the lethal nature of the Nazi intent towards Jews. The author was a 23-year-old German Jew who had got out three years earlier, making his way to England via Sweden, France, Luxembourg and Belgium.
His name was Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz, and though he published an early version of his novel in England and France, few noticed it. Once war broke out, he was deemed an “enemy alien”, interned along with thousands of other Jewish refugees on the Isle of Man. From there he was deported to Australia, interned again in a prison camp in New South Wales before finally being redesignated a “friendly alien” and allowed to return to England in 1942. He was on a troopship heading back when it was torpedoed by a German submarine, killing him and 361 others. More than 70 years later, the original German manuscript for The Passenger turned up in a Frankfurt archive, allowing an editor to revise the novel in line with instructions Boschwitz had conveyed in letters to his mother. It’s the translation of that new text that has been lovingly published by Pushkin Press.
Compelling though the real-life tale is, it’s surpassed by the story between the covers. The central character is Otto Silbermann, a successful, slightly self-satisfied businessman in Berlin who finds his world collapsing in the hours that follow the night of broken glass. He is Jewish, but until now that had been an incidental fact. There’s nothing visibly Jewish about him, he tells us often; his wife is not a Jew. Rather, this is a label the new rulers of the country are insistently imposing on him and which he cannot escape: it is the J stamped in his passport.
From the start, the pressure on him is intense. It comes in the form of violence, as brownshirt thugs pound on the door of his home forcing him to flee into the night, and in the chillier shape of former business associates who, spotting an opportunity, push him to sell the building he lives in for a knockdown price or else rob him of his rightful share of the company he built. In this new climate, even those who once professed friendship or loyalty shun the person marked with the scarlet letter J.
Silbermann becomes a man on the run, hopping on and off trains criss-crossing Germany. At first, each journey is part of some vague strategy for survival – at one point he tries to make an illegal break across the border into Belgium – but soon there is no real destination, only desperation and eventually disintegration: he is forever travelling but going nowhere. There is tension, as Silbermann seeks to dodge those who might check his papers, relying on his Aryan looks to blend in as fellow passengers greet him with a “Heil Hitler!”, but there is also the surreal, thickly claustrophobic atmosphere of an actual nightmare – a man repeating the same move over and over again, his goal permanently out of reach. The result is a story that is part John Buchan, part Franz Kafka and wholly riveting.
It is also uncannily prescient. “Perhaps they’ll carefully undress us first and then kill us, so our clothes won’t get bloody and our banknotes won’t get damaged,” he writes. “These days murder is performed economically.” That reads like a premonition, not only of the process that would come nearly four years later, as Jews were stripped naked before entering the gas chambers, but also of the Nazi determination to extract every last pfennig from their victims, even pulling gold teeth from the mouths of the dead.
There is similar foresight in Otto’s lament: “No one resists. They all cringe and say: we have no choice, but the truth is they’re happy to go along because there’s something in it for them.” It’s as if Boschwitz foresaw the complicity of the millions who were bystanders to the wickedness that took place right in front of them. The novelist’s rebuke is not confined to Germans or those who lived under Nazi occupation, but extends to the free world who kept their gates shut to Jews in mortal need of refuge. “Where would I go?’ he says to a woman who naively suggests he simply leave the country. “No place will let me in.”
Boschwitz was a shrewd observer of his time, but his story still resonates nearly a century later when antisemitism is on the rise once more and the exclusion of those who are different remains a pernicious constant across the globe. Besides, some of his insights are timeless. In a remark that will surely chime with members of any minority, Otto notes that any flaws he might have, any misdeeds he might have committed, are taken as evidence of the supposedly inherent defects of his group. “I don’t have the right to be an ordinary human being,” he says. “More is demanded of me.”
The Passenger is a gripping novel that plunges the reader into the gloom of Nazi Germany as the darkness was descending. It deserved to be read when it was written. It certainly deserves to be read now.
The Passenger by Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz, translated by Philip Boehm, is published by Pushkin (£14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.