Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz: The Passenger (transl. Philip Boehm)
Cannot believe that German Literature Month is now in its eleventh year! I have taken part in this ever since I became aware of it (I think in 2012 or 2013), and, having spent my childhood in Austria, and then quite a few years recently on the Franco-Swiss border, I have the chip on my shoulder of the smaller cultures dominated by the overwhelming Piefkes (slang word for Germans in Austria). So I tend to choose mostly Austrian and Swiss writers, and will do so again this year. However, I start off with a book by a German Jewish writer, Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz, because this is a book with a very interesting history. You can read more about the young author hounded out of Germany and moving from country to country during WW2, dying at the age of twenty-seven, before he got a chance to properly edit this novel. I for one could not resist its back story, nor its black/white/red cover (very well played, Pushkin Press, the colours of Nazi Germany).
The subject matter of course is very moving: a rather smug Jewish businessman who suddenly finds all his certainties and protected bubble of a world crumble after Kristallnacht in Berlin in November 1938. His house is ransacked, his family and friends abandon him, his business partners try to rip him off, the Gestapo are after him, and he is stuck in a nightmare of boarding first one train, then another, in an effort to escape across the border. And, although some might say that the story doesn’t have a satisfying conclusion, that is the only possible outcome: the nightmare of no way out. The dark heart of the story is perfectly mirrored in its noir apparel and style, which I suspect the author derived from the German and American cinema of the time. Imagine the absurd situations of a character from a Kafka novella, combined with the sharp social critique of Joseph Roth, and the poignant, yet somewhat deadpan delivery of Hans Fallada, married to the frenetic and clumsy action of the narrator from Alexander Lernet-Holenia’s I Was Jack Mortimer.
Otto Silbermann has managed to navigate his way through the increasingly difficult waters of Nazi Germany: his appearance is not typically Jewish, his wife is a good German Christian, and his business has been doing well enough for him to be able to help out others. He is stunned to realise that all this can change in a second:
Ten minutes ago, it was my house that was at stake, my property. Now it’s my neck. Everything’s happening so quickly. They have declared war on me, on me personally… and right now I’m completely on my own – in enemy territory.
As he switches from train to train, from first class to second and third, he encounters a cross-section of the German population, including fellow Jews desperate to escape, vocal anti-semites, indifferent but not really friendly average people, even some well-meant encouragement (albeit always with a sting in its tail). Above all, he has to admit that he no longer recognises the country, his neighbours, the people he once trusted, even his business partner with whom he went through the war together.
[this is spoken by another character, but describes the general situation]
I had to sit in my shop and watch them march past, with flags and music. At times I could practically scream, let me tell you. They were all people I knew. The veteran’s association, teh skat club, the guild. All former friends, and suddenly you’re sitting there completely alone. No one wants to have anything more to do with you, and if they do happen to run into you, then you wind up being the one who looks away just so you don’t have to see them doing it… This person was in your class at school, that person trained alongisde you or was one of the regular at your table in the pub. And now? Now you’re just air, and bad air at that!
Gradually, and this is perhaps the most painful moment of insight, Silbermann discovers that he is as cowardly, as self-interested, as quick to disassociate himself from ‘the Jews’ as the Germans around him.
There are too many Jews on the train… and that puts every one of us in danger…If it weren’t for you, they wouldn’t be persecuting me. I could remain a normal citizen. But because you exist, I will be annihilated along with you…
He considered such thoughts undignified but couldn’t help thinking them. If people are constantly saying: You’re a good man, but your family is completely worthless. Or: You’re nothing at all like your cousins, they really are a nasty lot – then it’s easy to get infected with the general opinion.
There are a few moments when the reader’s hopes are raised: a few people willing to help him, or the moment he walks across the Belgian border. But surely it’s not a spoiler to say that all his attempts to escape are thwarted, and that he ends up in a downward spiral of aimless wandering – self-destruction you might say… except that there was nothing much else that he could do. The destruction was forced upon him.
A compelling read and depiction of both individual and general suffering. A shattering reminder of a dark period of history and an entreaty for us to learn and do better in the future. So many sentences that should jump out at us as warnings not to dehumanise any group of people: ‘my character and my qualities are entirely unimportant… the headline decides. The content doesn’t matter.’