The Passenger

This book was written on the run. It captures that moment after 9 November 1938 where things got a lot worse for a lot of people, very rapidly. Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz, then aged 23, had made it out of Germany and on to Brussels, just in time. Will his protagonist, Otto Silberman, do the same?

I didn’t like him much. His character grated on me. Why would he just up and leave his wife? Why could he not simply decide where he was going, and go there? Why did he repeat his own mistreatment to a fellow Jewish man on the run? But if I’ve learnt anything from all I’ve read about the Shoah, the Second World War, or any extreme situation, it’s that you can’t know how you will respond until you’re under that kind of pressure yourself.

I didn’t like his neighbours and colleagues much, either. This is probably one reason why it took so long for the book to be published in Germany – it doesn’t fit a simplified story of good victims, evil perpetrators, and the people in between who “just went along with it” and perhaps didn’t know that much. The neighbours knew. The colleagues knew. They could all see it coming. And they took advantage, and looked out for themselves.

But I did get sucked in. Once Silberman does get going, the story moves at breakneck pace through a very short time span. The tension is indescribable. And in this moment before the whole world descended into years of violence, it’s bubbling up and breaking through in one man’s life, as he criss-crosses Germany on trains.

In his editor’s note on the German edition of Der Reisende, published by Klett-Cotta, Peter Graf explains that the 1938 manuscript took almost 80 years to be published in Germany. The typescript made it into the archive of exiled Germans in Frankfurt am Main in the 1960s, but it was only published in Germany in 2017. And as Die Zeit is quoted as saying on the German cover, the theme couldn’t be more pressing today.

Four years later, Philip Boehm’s exciting English translation for the inimitable Pushkin Press, The Passenger, is a runaway bestseller in the UK. I haven’t been able to track down the 1930s English version; if anyone has, please do get in touch. And if you’d like to talk about more books like this, join the ITI German Network book club – thank you to everyone who came for our lively discussion of the book!

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