It’s unlikely that you’ve read many books by Ulrich Boschwitz. He died in 1942 when he was twenty-seven years old. The Passenger, which he wrote partly during his time interned in Hay New South Wales as an enemy alien — along with the ‘Dunera Boys’, has been revived recently. He had sent the manuscript to his mother, interned in England, saying further revisions were needed. The book was published in England in 1939, to no great acclaim. But now, well after World War II and the Holocaust, there is a great deal more interest.
Boschwitz was born in Berlin. His father, who died when Ulrich was a baby, was Jewish but his mother was not. Ulrich left Germany in 1935 for Norway, and then to study at the Sorbonne in Paris. After internment when war broke out — and being shipped to Australia — he was permitted to return to England, presumably to rejoin his mother. But his ship was torpedoed by a German submarine and all passengers were killed.
The Passenger is set in Berlin in 1938, just after Kristallnacht. The protagonist is Otto Silberman, a well-to-do Jewish businessman — some years older than the author. We see how this man, used to a comfortable existence of eating well, taking taxis everywhere, living in a pleasant apartment with his non-Jewish wife, gradually becomes desperate — turned away from establishments where he’d long been welcomed, betrayed by friends and colleagues. Otto escapes out of the back door of his apartment when the stormtroopers call and from then on, he is on the run with nowhere to go. You have to register to stay in a hotel. Trains are his best bet, although he can’t cross the border because he’d have to show his papers. He catches train after train, backwards and forwards across Germany — mainly travelling second class so as not to attract attention. One time he bribes a chauffeur to show him across the Belgian border, but after a few moments of freedom he is caught by Belgian guards who escort him back to Germany.
The book was written very quickly after Kristallnacht and the frenzy of writing captures Otto’s desperate travels. The translator says that a sense of motion is embedded in the rhythm of the original language. The book captures propulsion, yet Otto is really going around in circles — going nowhere.
The reader doesn’t necessarily like this rather toffy businessman, but we are sensitive to his plight. He is being ripped from his culture: ‘As of yesterday, I am something different because I am a Jew.’ In the end he seems to be driven to madness. He has himself arrested and his prison companion (who is about to be sterilised) ultimately concludes that Otto is pretending to be a Jew.
The book, for me, provided moments of immersion into the frenzied, desperate experience of people on the brink of that abomination wrought by humans on other humans — the holocaust.