Days after the night of broken glass

How do individuals behave when they’re discriminated against for no fault of their own? How does a country react when those in power are determined to enforce a cruel partisan agenda? What is the price paid for such degradation?

These are the questions at the heart of Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz’s novel, The Passenger, which attracted little attention when it was originally published in the UK in 1939. Three years later, the author became a casualty along with hundreds of others when a ship he was travelling on was torpedoed by a German submarine. He was only 27.

Earlier this year, a new edition of his book appeared, revised by Peter Graf and translated into English by Philip Boehm. This time, the reception was a great deal more enthusiastic. As critic Jonathan Freedland has commented, “It deserved to be read when it was written. It certainly deserves to be read now.”

The Passenger is set in 1938 and deals with the fate of Otto Silbermann, a well-off Jewish businessman in Berlin who is among those facing Nazi persecution shortly after the so-called Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass. (Boschwitz himself had left Germany three years before this.)

The merchant in the novel now wonders: “What am I, really? A swear word on two legs, one that people mistake for something else!” He comes to realise that “my entire existence is based solely on the faulty memory of people who essentially wish to destroy it.”

Silbermann contacts his son in Paris and learns to his dismay that the latter has so far been unsuccessful in arranging an entry permit. Fearing a beating or internment or both, he opts for an itinerant lifestyle until his circumstances change.

He takes a train to Aachen to visit a business partner, returns to Berlin, and sets off again carrying a suitcase stuffed with cash. In this way, he circles between Hamburg, Dortmund, and other cities, interrupted by short stays at flophouses. “Back and forth and forth and back. I’m so fed up with it all already,” he thinks, but there is no respite, especially after an aborted attempt at crossing the border into Belgium.

The passengers he meets on his train journeys are a cross-section of society at the time. There are those sympathetic to his predicament, but unwilling to do much to defy the government’s diktat. There are other Jews, similarly looking for a way out. There are many from the majority who, mistaking Silbermann to be one of them, express virulently anti-Semitic views.

With his range of choices rapidly narrowing, Silbermann haplessly comes to believe that “for a Jew the entire Reich is one big concentration camp”. In this way, as André Aciman puts it, the novel is the first fictional depiction of Jewish life in Germany in the final months before the war, “a keenly observed sociological snapshot as well as an insightful psychological portrait of the protagonist.”

Boschwitz is intelligent enough a writer not to turn Silbermann into an archetypal noble victim. He is depicted as inconsistent, irritable, and even incongruously flirtatious. At one point, overcome by bitterness, he directs his ire at his co-religionists: “You have all gotten me into this mess, he thought angrily, and glared at a man standing by the window whose appearance had led Silbermann to believe he was a fellow Jew.”

Later, thinking of the other citizens, he realises: “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.” He is a fallible character in his own right, just like the rest of us, which of course in no way justifies the actions being taken against him and his people. As he’s told: “It all boils down to either you are a Jew or you are not a Jew, not whether you’re likeable or not likeable. The headline decides. The content doesn’t matter.”

The menacing, sometimes thriller-like atmosphere of The Passenger is often undercut by moments of capriciousness and even absurdity. There is also chilling foresight shown on almost every page, as the novel was written before the full-blown horrors of the Holocaust.  “Who could have imagined anything like it?” Silbermann thinks at one point. “In the middle of Europe, in the twentieth century!” Unfortunately, Boschwitz’s novel remains sadly relevant even in the twenty-first.

The Passenger, then, is both a reminder and a warning of how society can be warped when ideological passions are given full rein. As Graf has said: “Anyone who reads the fate of Otto Silbermann will understand a lot about human values and how terrorism and the lack of courage of the masses make terror against individual groups possible.”

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