Archival Spaces 272
Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz: The Passenger (1939/2020)
Uploaded 25 June 2020
I recently finished reading Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz’s “lost” novel. Der Reisende, published for the first time in German in 2018, and recently republished in English in a new translation as The Passenger, eighty years after its first quickly forgotten appearance; it has been hailed by critics as a masterpiece. A promising young German-Jewish author of 27 years with two novels under his belt, Boschwitz died in 1942, when the troop transport ship he was on was sunk by a German U-Boat, having previously survived a torpedo attack in 1940 en route to Australia. Like the luckless fictional Jewish hero of his novel, who desperately tries to flee Nazi Germany in the days after the November 1938 Pogrom, an event the Nazis-called Reichskristallnacht, Boschwitz could apparently not escape his fate.
The novel opens in the Berlin home of Otto Silbermann on the night of 9 November, when Nazi brown shirts, the Sturmabteilung (S.A.), try to break into his flat and arrest the middle-class businessman, just as thousands of other German Jews were arrested and beaten all over Germany. Leaving his Christian wife behind, Silbermann escapes out the back door, and after meeting his “Aryan” business partner who has bought the business for a tiny fraction of its actual value, – a process the Nazis termed “Aryanization” – gets on a train without a destination in mind. He tries unsuccessfully to cross the border illegally into Belgium with 40,000 Reichsmarks in his possession, – another crime, given the prohibition for Jewish citizens against taking any money out of Germany, – and spends the rest of the novel traveling by train from one place to another, eventually ending back in Berlin.
Silbermann is not only a completely assimilated German citizen of Jewish ancestry, he does not look “Jewish” and can therefore pass among both anti-Semites, Nazis, and ordinary, non-political Germans. It is this ability to move freely among the “Wolfmen,” as Curt Siodmak called the Nazis that had kept Silbermann from emigrating sooner, as his son had and now leads him to reproach himself obsessively for not seeing the writing on the wall, for not rescuing his capital sooner, for abandoning his wife, for not trying to attempt another border crossing. But he had served patriotically in World War I on the Western Front, and like many middle-class German Jews, he took pains not to call attention to his Jewishness. As time goes on, Silbermann becomes not only more and more frustrated, but also thin-skinned, even aggressive. When he meets an old Jewish business associate back in Berlin, he accuses the friend of putting him in danger, because Löwenstein looks Jewish. When he meets a sympathetic woman on a train, who makes clear to him she is not an anti-Semite, he verbally abuses her. “You look so irritated. I can understand that, but you should know I have nothing to do with all that. I’m not an anti-Semite. And if you were?, he said sharply. What would it change?” He even retorts aggressively to a German police official who is trying to find an excuse not to arrest him.
I’ve read dozens of novels, written by exiled German Jewish writers in my decades of research on German refugee filmmakers from Nazi Germany after 1933, but seldom have I read a writer who described the pain, suffering, disappointment, humiliation, and betrayal, as well as Boschwitz, himself a German citizen of Jewish ethnicity who was thoroughly assimilated, and even baptized. In fact, Boschwitz wrote the novel in one month immediately after the November Pogrom. It was published in Sweden and England under the title The Man Who Took Trains.
Boschwitz did escape and went to England, where his mother was already residing, but was arrested and deported as an enemy alien to Australia by Winston Churchill’s government. On 10 July 1940 2,542 detainees, almost all of them Jewish, anti-Nazi Germans, Austrians, and Italians, were loaded onto the HMT Dunera, where they were beaten, abused, and robbed by British military guards before arriving in Australia 57 days later. The ship was torpedoed twice, but one bomb was a dud, while the second narrowly missed the hull. Among the ship’s passengers were many famous refugee scientists, artists, and intellectuals. Boschwitz spent two years in an Australian internment camp, was then allowed to make the perilous journey back to England, if he enlisted. In his luggage was a revised version of the novel he hoped to republish, having previously sent revisions of the first 109 pages. He died on 29 October 1942, when the M.V. Abosso was sunk by a German torpedo 620 miles north of the Azores.
In the postwar German Federal Republic, no one was interested in publishing Boschwitz’s novel, although none other than Heinrich Böll (Group Portrait with Lady) tried in vain to convince a publisher. Not until Peter Graf, the editor of Der Reisende, found the German manuscript in 2015 in the “Exile Archive” of the German National Library in Marbach was The Passenger discovered.