Written in a feverish four weeks directly after the Kristallnacht pogroms, The Passenger is one of the earliest accounts of the persecution of the Jewish people in Germany in the late 1930s. Its author Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz had escaped Germany in 1935, but his fictional account of prosperous Jewish trader Otto Silbermann’s responses to persecution draw heavily from real-life experiences of his own friends and relations.
Uttermost amongst Otto Silbermann’s reactions when a group of young S.A. thugs invade his house and smash his property is a sense of bewilderment: how can this be happening to me? A Jew, nevertheless Silbermann is also a proud German, and he cannot comprehend how his own people have turned against him. This sense of a confused and conflicted mind mirrors the political chaos in Germany at the time, and dictates the actions of the novel’s protagonist as Silbermann, rather than fix on one clear and definite plan of action, instead finds himself hurtling back and forth across the country, torn between the instinct of flight and the desire to stay.
Pitted against the machinery of a state turned against him, and with potential denouncers on all sides, Silbermann discovers an oasis of calm riding Germany’s railway system: “One can travel to escape calm. But one can also travel to find calm.” (p. 179). No longer welcome in the Third Reich, he finds a strange new citizenship on the trains: “The fact is that I have already emigrated… to the Deutsche Reichsbahn.” (p. 148). Here, too, he meets a broad cross-section of German people and, in conversation with strangers in train compartments, discovers their various hopes and fears, principles and prejudices, personal and public, in a Germany on the brink of war.
An earlier edition of The Passenger appeared as The Man Who Took Trains, published by Hamish Hamilton in 1939, but long since out of print. Boschwitz planned to revise and republish this first edition of his novel, but wider global events intervened. Returning to England from internment in Australia in 1942, the boat he was on was sunk by a German U-boat in the North Atlantic, and he died at the tragically young age of 27.
© Fergus Longfellow
Fergus Longfellow reads The Passenger as a passenger.
The Passenger is available from Pushkin Press.