As part of German Lit Month, hosted by Lizzy and Caroline, there has been a readalaong of a book which has made quite a splash in the media. The work in question is “The Passenger” by Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz, and it has a fascinating history. An early version of the book was first published in England shortly after the author and his mother escaped their after war broke out in 1939. However, Boschwitz was interned as an ‘enemy alien’ and eventually sent to Australia; after Pearl Harbour he was rebranded as a ‘friendly alien”; but the ship upon which he was being sent back to the UK was torpedoed and Boschwitz was lost along with 361 fellow travellers. The author had indicated to his mother, shortly before his death, that he wished to revise “The Passenger”, and that job was taken on recently by German publisher and editor Peter Graf, with the help of Boschwitz’s family and what could be gleaned of his intentions. So “The Passenger” comes with a very interesting genesis – but what is the story actually about?

“The Passenger” is set in Germany, 1938; it’s not a happy place for anyone of Jewish origin to be, as synagogues are being burned, Jews arrested and taken away, and their businesses seized or destroyed. Our protagonist is one Otto Silbermann; a middle class businessman, with a gentile wife, he’s so far avoided the horrors creeping up on his fellows. However, as the book opens he’s struggling through some business deals, attempting to liquidate property, and it’s clear that Otto has become aware that time is limited. His son has already escaped from Germany but is struggling to get exit papers for his father; his wife is of course relatively safe, apart from the fact that she’s married to a Jew; and the main thing Otto has in his favour is that he doesn’t look Jewish. Being able to ‘pass’ will be a significant advantage in the days to come…

The arrival of stormtroopers at his apartment shocks Otto into running, and he takes off into the streets of Berlin. However, there doesn’t appear to be safety here either; those who know him and know he’s Jewish avoid him, hoteliers and restauranteurs who formerly happily served him turn their backs; and Otto starts to realise that what status he had has been stripped away by the Nazi decrees and treatment of his people. What follows is a tense series of flights as Otto shuttles from place to place on a sequence of train journeys, trying to get out of Germany, find out if his wife is safe, contact his son and hold onto what money he has left. His encounters on the way are chilling – will Otto’s constant movement be enough to keep him ahead of the Nazis and safe from capture?

We were always just one of many, part of a group. And now we’re alone. There’s no longer someone giving commands, there’s no order you can stick to. You have to run and there’s no one telling you where to.

It’s fair to say that “The Passenger” is a nail-biting read; with the benefit of hindsight, we know what it was like when the Nazis came to power and how ghastly their regime was. However, Boschwitz takes the reader right into the heart of that time, and we experience the horrors alongside Otto as he attempts to come to terms with his world falling apart. It’s the kind of book you can’t put down, fearing for Otto at each encounter and willing him to behave calmly and sensibly when of course that really isn’t possible.

What I found particularly interesting is that Otto is not necessarily a particularly likeable character; he’s quite pompous, very much the middle-class, well-to-do businessman, and part of the power of the story is watching all of this fall apart as the strain of running gradually wears him down. His meetings with those he knows are often chilling as they either turn their back, or try to help, or keep their distance; one memorable encounter is with an acquaintance who realises that by his very appearance he’s potentially putting Otto in danger of being identified as a Jew. Otto initially has contempt for those who reject him, but as his situation gets worse he finds that his own survival becomes the only thing which matters, and that he’s no better than those who refuse to help him.

He angrily tossed away the cigarette he’d just lit. Whatever I’ve done in the past, he thought, looks different today than it did back then, because now my humanity is called into question, because I am a Jew.

As well as being a gripping read, “The Passenger” is also a really powerful portrait of a man unravelling under pressure. It’s hard to accept that your normal, ordinary, everyday world is suddenly gone and that your country is being ruled by sadistic madmen. In similar situations, I’m sure we’d find this equally difficult to accept, and it’s only when the truth is incontrovertably presented to Otto in the form of jackboots beating down the door that he realises his life is gone and he needs to flee. He’s not a man of action, however, and the strain of the flight is too much.

Author photograph via Pushkin Press website

As I mentioned at the start of my post, “The Passenger” was lost for decades until it was rediscovered and edited by Peter Graf; and I have to applaud him and the various publishers and translators involved in bringing this work back into print. The English version is translated by Philip Boehm with a preface by Andre Aciman, and is published by the ever-reliable Pushkin Press. As well as being an unforgettable and gripping read, it’s also a timely re-issue. At a period in the planet’s history when extreme regimes are threatening people all over the world, we need to be reminded of how easily those in charge can get out of control and how vile intolerance of others is. “The Passenger” carries a vital message from the past, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.