The first thing that strikes me about this exceptional novel is the author’s personal story. Boschwitz and his mother escaped from Germany to Oslo in 1935, he came to London in 1939. Despite his Jewish background Boschwitz was interned as an enemy alien on the Isle of Man before being sent to a camp in Australia. Eventually the authorities released him, tragically, his ship was sunk on route back to England, Boschwitz was twenty-seven. The Passenger was written shortly after Kristallnacht in 1938 and describes the terror of life under the Nazis. The clear sighted vision of the coming Holocaust is chilling and gives a lie to any pretence that we didn’t know what was going on in Germany at the time.
While the majority of German Jewish people did not survive the Holocaust a number in Berlin did by hiding in plain sight until the end of WWII. Their heroic defiance could only be achieved by masking all signs of their Jewish identity but prior to the Third Reich Berlin Jews were well integrated into German society anyway. The protagonist of The Passenger, Otto Silbermann, is such a man, married to an Aryan woman, he is a landowner and businessman, he has status and wealth. He is a citizen but not to the Nazis, to them he is an enemy. The fall from grace and the stripping of his middle class privilege hits Silbermann hard, he is forced to go on the run but is determined not to relinquish his identity.
There’s a buzz surrounding The Passenger reminiscent of the reception for Alone in Berlin – Hans Fallada or Suite Française – Irene Némirovsky a few years ago. This novel is certainly as important as either and deserving of a modern readership. Amazingly The Passenger was written in four weeks, it not only records the events of Kristallnacht but forecasts the depths of depravity and horror that Germany will sink to. Boschwitz understood the hatred of the Nazis for Jewish people, he knew what was in store. He isn’t just reporting as it happens, he is predicting the coming nightmare. The new edition of the novel, originally published in English in 1940 to little impact, has been revised with the help of Boschwitz’s family and his own notes.
Despite the topic there’s a blackly comic absurdity to the novel and what sounds and appears surreal is in fact as real as it gets. Otto Silbermann thinks he has some notion of what it will take to survive in the new Germany. He has taken on a new partner, a man he cut in for a share of his business. Becker, a confirmed Nazi, is a limited man, a drinker and a gambler, but needs must and they’ve known each other a long time. Silbermann sends Becker to Hamburg to collect 80,000 reichmarks, can he be trusted with the money?
Silbermann wants to sell his home, Findler wants to buy it, this is a good time to buy anything from Jewish owners. Silbermann says Findler is ‘a relatively decent fellow’ – is he being ironic or does he not yet understand the men he will have to deal with. The asking price is 90,000, Findler offers 15,000, but just to help his friend. By the time the police are knocking on the door to arrest Silbermann he has no choice but to accept the 10,000 Findler is now offering. Silbermann escapes through the back door and bluffs his way past the Nazi sentry. ‘They have declared war on me, on me personally’, he thinks. All the things he could rely on, security, money, and status are quickly eroded. As he travels through Germany seeking a way out of the country, his money dwindles, his life style is downgraded, the danger mounts. This is a poignant and devastating novel, haunting and prescient, it will leave an indelibly print on you.
Translated by Philip Boehm, with an introduction by Andre Aciman and afterword by Peter Graf.
Review by Paul Burke
Pushkin Press, hardback, ISBN 9781782275381, out now