In his book Lihiyot Ba’olam (Being-in-the-World, 2014), the Israeli historian Boaz Neumann took on an intellectual challenge. Drawing on primary sources, Neumann—who died of cancer at the age of forty-three a year after the book’s release—provided an intimate portrait of Germans from the turn of the twentieth century through the end of the Weimar Republic. The book assumed the perspective of someone who, like his subjects, was unaware of what was to come, namely the rise of Nazism. Shunning a historiographical approach that sees the Weimar period as little more than a precursor to Hitler, Neumann regarded it—to borrow his terminology, which he borrowed from Heidegger—on its own “time.” He lingered with ordinary Germans—working, eating, falling in love, growing bored—in their own present moments. Quoting extensively from journals marking uneventful days, he found significance in often-overlooked details, such as a waiting room with “chairs that looked as if assembled hastily from other rooms to seat unexpected guests.”
The Passenger, a novel by Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz, is stunning in the way it dwells—another Heideggerian term—on the life of one man just before World War II. Otto Silbermann, a wealthy Jewish Berliner, is locked in the abyss of the days immediately following Kristallnacht in November 1938, when the Nazis broke into Jewish-owned homes, vandalized Jewish businesses, torched synagogues, beat Jews on the street, and shipped off 30,000 Jewish men to concentration camps. There is no artifice to the writing: Boschwitz completed the novel in less than a month that same year, effectively fictionalizing events almost as they were happening, even though he had left Germany three years before.
The circumstances surrounding a novel’s creation may help illuminate it but should not eclipse it. (Things are different in philosophy: that Heidegger became a member of the Nazi Party does—indeed, should—complicate our reading of his work.) In the case of Boschwitz, however, it is hard to keep his novel separate from his biography. His father, who was Jewish, died as a German soldier in World War I, just before Boschwitz was born. His mother raised him as a Protestant. In 1935 the two fled to Sweden after the Nazis imposed the Nuremberg Laws; a year later he moved to Oslo, where he wrote his first novel, Menschen neben dem Leben (People Parallel to Life), which appeared in Swedish translation under the pseudonym John Grane in 1937. After spending time in France, Luxembourg, and Belgium, he rejoined his mother in England in 1939, shortly before the war broke out. There Boschwitz published The Passenger in an English translation titled The Man Who Took Trains, to a scant readership. A year later he was sent to an internment camp in Australia, where he reworked the novel. In 1942 he was allowed to return to England, but a German submarine torpedoed his ship, killing him and 361 other people on board. He was carrying the revised manuscript.
As a result of his untimely death at the age of twenty-seven, Boschwitz’s legacy is woefully slim. The literary world did not recognize how much had been lost until his niece mentioned to the publisher Peter Graf the existence, in a Frankfurt archive, of the original German typescript of The Passenger. Graf read the novel in a single sitting in 2015 and decided to edit it, incorporating notes from Boschwitz’s last letter to his mother about the revisions that he thought would improve the book. In 2018, eighty years after it was written, the novel was finally published in German as Der Reisende. That edition has now appeared in a lucid English translation by Philip Boehm.
The novel is remarkable precisely because of the immediacy of its plot—its sense of being written in a continuous present. Boschwitz, who was twenty-three when he finished it, was able to capture what happens when a regime turns on its own citizens and treats them as pariahs, with savage force and daily degradations dressed up in legalese. He had an ear for dialogue and a penchant for the absurd. Like Gregor Samsa, Silbermann wakes up to a twisted new reality. He may not have turned into a vermin overnight, but he is regarded as if he had. “As of yesterday I’m something different because I am a Jew,” he thinks. He has become “a swear word on two legs.” When he holds out his hand to a man he has long known and the man tells him quietly, “Please don’t,” Silbermann can feel his face flush and is “ashamed of his shame.”
Boschwitz’s novel pulsates with such fine, understated descriptions, such as one of the Nazi bureaucrats who, attempting to purify their vocabulary of foreign words, tell each other, “Here, instead of ‘the new Reich’s mission vis-à-vis Europe,’ it should say ‘concerning Europe.’” Or the small children who build bridges and houses with blocks, then destroy them “like moody gods.” One comes away marveling not only at Boschwitz’s craftsmanship but at what can only be called his human spirit: a sense of emotional restraint and the eerie foresight it took to produce this kind of work.
The Passenger exposes the posturing of bystanders who claimed not to have known what the Nazis were doing. Here, at least, we have one example of someone who did know. Certainly Boschwitz knew about the concentration camps. And he was clairvoyant about the humiliations still to come. One character muses—two years before all Jews in the Reich were required to wear a yellow Star of David on their clothes—that it would be advisable “if the Jews had to wear yellow bands on their arms.” But Boschwitz also seemed to intuit a deeper truth about the cold efficiency of the Nazis’ methods. “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,” Silbermann thinks. “These days murder is performed economically.”
In recent years many ambitious writers of fictionalized accounts set before and during World War II have tripped into committing sins of schmaltz, moral ambiguity (why the literary obsession with non-Jewish saviors?*), inaccuracy, or—more often than not—all of the above. For example, the best-selling novel The Tattooist of Auschwitz (2018), which reimagines the real-life love story between two Slovakian prisoners in the camp, was rebuked by the Auschwitz Memorial Research Center as “dangerous and disrespectful” for its factual mistakes and exaggerations.
A rare exception is Walter Kempowski’s All for Nothing (2006), a masterful novel about a dilapidated manor house in East Prussia in the last days of the Third Reich, its occupants, and the people passing through its gate: a Nazi violinist, a nosy local technocrat, Czech laborers, a Jewish refugee. The novel is a feat of dispassionate storytelling and historical precision. Kempowski refuses to preach, condone, or make life in any way morally easy for his readers. Rather, he depicts his characters simply—bravely—as they are. Their “Heil Hitlers” grow as repetitive and unremarkable as the Baltic snow they tread on.
Unlike these historical novels, The Passenger resembles a message in a bottle: cautionary, despairing, a literary warning. It also runs a drastically different set of risks. Chief among them was that it might read like a too-neat marshaling of good versus evil. But Boschwitz’s hero is no saint. Silbermann falsifies his tax statements and had managed to be exempted from serving in the Great War by purchasing war bonds. When storm troopers pound on his front door searching for Jews, he needs little prodding from his (Christian) wife to leave her behind and slip out the back. He quickly realizes that the safest place for a fugitive like him is in transit, so he sets off on countless train rides within Germany whose destinations begin to blend together, lending the novel its name: “Berlin to Hamburg, from Hamburg back to Berlin, then from Berlin to Dortmund, Dortmund to Aachen, back to Dortmund, on to Küstrin, Dresden and eventually back to Berlin.”
On one such aimless trip, having heard no news of his wife, Silbermann strikes up a conversation with a fellow traveler and contemplates having an affair with her. When he tells the woman about his ordeal, she looks puzzled. “Why don’t you simply get a different passport?” she asks obliviously. Silbermann is hardly less oblivious. Time and again, what keeps him going is not his loved ones—he has one grown-up and rather feckless son who lives in Paris and is unable or unwilling to help his parents flee—but rather the comforting thought of his own padded pockets. “As long as I have money in my wallet and even if it’s a single thousand-mark bill, I’ll have both the strength and spirit to live,” Silbermann reassures himself. One wonders why Boschwitz felt the need to hew so closely to stereotype with this description of the self-serving Jew. Perhaps he wasn’t entirely free of bias himself, having never known his Jewish father. Or perhaps the circumstances of the novel justify his choice. It’s almost as if he is winking at his non-Jewish readers: See? I know what you’re thinking.
At one point Silbermann telephones his brother-in-law, with whom, it turns out, his wife has been staying, and asks if he might join them. “You’re putting us in jeopardy!” his brother-in-law snaps. Hours later, at a Berlin train station, Silbermann runs into Lustiger, an old acquaintance with “very Jewish features.” His appearance contrasts with that of Silbermann, who doesn’t look Jewish and who, earlier in the book, “reached up and felt his nose. How important you are, he thought.” (Besides Kafka, there is a strong infusion of Gogol here.) Silbermann becomes increasingly irritated with Lustiger, almost repulsed by him. When Lustiger suggests they stick together, Silbermann rebuffs him. He echoes his brother-in-law by telling Lustiger, “You’re putting me in jeopardy,” then immediately regrets it. In other words, he is human. And this not only makes him easily (if uneasily) relatable but helps elucidate something else the Nazis exploited: people’s ready inclination, in the words of the novelist Anne Enright, to “take dignity away from people and then despise them for their lack of dignity.”
Silbermann’s meanderings all over Germany owe their style to the literature of the flâneur—he watches and drops in and out of other people’s conversations, and we in turn do the same—but instead of the voluntary drifting of high modernism we have the hopeless roaming of the displaced. “Now I’m not really traveling, I’m merely moving,” Silbermann thinks as he is forced to make harsh adaptations. “Ten minutes ago it was my house that was at stake, my property. Now it’s my neck.” Why don’t they just arrest him and get it over with, he begins to wonder, even as throughout the novel, and against every sign to the contrary, he tells himself that his situation is bound to get better, that “surely today was a case of things getting out of hand.”
The Passenger reaches a climax of sorts when Silbermann finally manages to cross the border into Belgium with the help of a young chauffeur. The novel, which up until now has been told in a close third person, switches abruptly to the point of view of the nervous driver. (“This is the first time I’ve taken the car on my own and it’s going to be the last time, too.”) The change in perspective is stark and brilliant. It’s as if, caught up in his hero’s travails, Boschwitz has had an accidental lapse by diving into someone else’s consciousness. The novel’s borders—much like Silbermann’s surroundings—become momentarily porous. But not for long. Two Belgian gendarmes soon discover Silbermann trekking through the forest and send him back to Germany in spite of his desperate pleas.
One can’t help but think of refugees who are turned away at the border, of the thousands of dispossessed people who, thinking there is still time to leave, seal their own fates. Boaz Neumann’s book suggests that drawing such equivalences is not only facile but dangerous. “Whoever ‘learns’ from history inevitably does it injustice because they ignore the fundamental difference between the language of one historical event and the language of another, between the spirit of one time period and the spirit of another,” he told an interviewer from Haaretz in 2014.
Yet it is impossible to read The Passenger and not reflect on the world we inhabit, in which more people are forcibly displaced than at any other time in recorded history. Certain passages seem specifically designed to chill a present-day reader. At one point early in the story, Silbermann takes brief refuge in a hotel lobby and scans the faces around him:
There you sit, he thought. In your countries it isn’t customary for law-abiding citizens to be attacked in their homes and hauled off to prisons or concentration camps. In your homelands the chair of the board of directors doesn’t have a machine gun next to him when he asks for a vote of confidence. But when these things happen here in Germany, when all is said and done you find it rather novel and quaint. Because no one does anything to you, and the same hotel that for me has now become a jungle full of dangers is for you a peaceful abode where you can happily drift along according to your custom. And when you go back home, you will report that one can dine quite well there in the Third Reich.
This is a novel written through clenched teeth. What other brave, urgent works likewise fell into obscurity because of the war? What else might Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz have written had his ship reached Liverpool in 1942?