The Passenger by Ulrich Boschwitz: Story of a Jew fleeing the Nazi era

I read the review of this novel, The Passenger, in the Sunday Times, and whilst it is a work of fiction, the story comes from the experiences of the author Ulrich Boschwitz, a German Jew who spent his short life moving countries because of the Nazis.

Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz
THE LEO BAECK INSTITUTE

Ulrich Boschwitz was the son of a Jewish businessman who died as a soldier in WWI the same year Boschwitz was born. Ulrich Boschwitz received a strictly Protestant upbringing from his mother, Martha Wolgast Boschwitz. During the Nazi era, Boschwitz emigrated to Sweden with his mother in 1935 after receiving a draft order from the Wehrmacht. From Sweden, he moved to Norway and in 1936 to France. In 1937/38, he stayed in Luxembourg, where he was expelled by the police and moved to Belgium. From there, he and his mother went on to England in 1939.

After the outbreak of WWII, they were interned as “enemy aliens” in a camp on the Isle of Man. After the British government decided to deport all male internees overseas, he was shipped to Sydney, Australia, on the HMT Dunera in the summer of 1940. From there, he was taken to a camp in New South Wales. On 29 October 1942, he was on the MV Abosso, which was torpedoed in the Atlantic by the German submarine U-575 and sank during his return trip to England. Boschwitz died at the age of 27.

More than 70 years later, the original German manuscript for The Passenger turned up in a Frankfurt archive, allowing an editor to revise the novel in line with instructions Boschwitz had conveyed in letters to his mother. It’s the translation of that new text that Pushkin Press has lovingly published.

“There have been a number of great novels about the Second World War that have come to light again in recent times, most notably Suite Française and Alone in Berlin. I’m not sure that The Passenger might not be the greatest of them.”

Sunday Times

Now you might think that the author’s story would overtake the novel; however, it does not.

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The Passenger is the story of Otto Silbermann, a Jewish businessman married to a Protestant who lives in Berlin. His world falls apart hours after Kristallnacht when the Brown Shirts storm his apartment as they round up all Jewish men. He is forced to flee, leaving his wife. However, where can he go? It is illegal to take money out of Germany, but you have to show you can support yourself when entering another country. He is suspicious, tense, feeling every German will ask for his papers and arrest him. He cannot believe it is the middle of the 20th century in Europe, and overnight he has become a fugitive without a home, his wife or any friends. The feeling of terror shouts out from each page; the moment Otto relaxes, a tsunami of fear overwhelms him.

“….I can sense how closely death is nipping at my heels. It’s just a matter of being faster. If I stop I’ll go under, I’ll sink into the more. I simply have to run, run, run. When I think about it I’ve been running all my life. But then why is it so difficult all of a sudden, now that it’s more necessary than before? Greater danger ought to bring greater strength, but instead it’s paralyzing, if the first attempts to save yourself fall through.”

Otto Silbermann – his thoughts on one of his many train journeys.

Many of the events in the novel can be linked to auto-biographical or familial experience, as can the despair and hopelessness that overcame Otto Silbermann in the wake of the November pogroms. Thus, Otto Silbermann mirrors the author’s own inner turmoil.

This is a book that everyone should read. We know the horrors of the Holocaust during WWII, but for the 523,000 Jews living in Germany in 1933, this book tells a story specific to them.

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