The Pas­sen­ger

Ulrich Alexan­der Boschwitz, Philip Boehm (trans­la­tor)

  • Review
By – April 5, 2021

The pub­li­ca­tion of Ulrich Alexan­der Boschwitz’s har­row­ing nov­el, The Pas­sen­ger, with a new trans­la­tion from the orig­i­nal Ger­man by Philip Boehm, is a major lit­er­ary event. Writ­ten in the weeks fol­low­ing Kristall­nacht, when Boschwitz was just twen­ty-three, The Pas­sen­ger offers an inti­mate por­trait of Jew­ish life in pre­war Nazi Ger­many at the onset of dehu­man­iza­tion, before the yel­low star was imposed. What remains unset­tling is how Boschwitz ren­ders the men­tal­i­ty of Germany’s deeply assim­i­lat­ed Jews, who felt more Ger­man than Jew­ish, but ulti­mate­ly under­stood the Nazis’ plans and sought to escape a hor­rif­ic fate.

Boschwitz fil­ters this intrapsy­chic dra­ma through the fig­ure of Otto Sil­ber­mann, the rep­re­sen­ta­tive of Ger­man Jew­ish con­scious­ness in The Pas­sen­ger. Mid­dle-aged, a vet­er­an of World War I, a wealthy busi­ness­man, and mar­ried to a non-Jew, Sil­ber­man has an Aryan” appear­ance that enables him to pass as Ger­man.” Yet as the nov­el opens Sil­ber­mann is begin­ning to sense that his seem­ing­ly sta­ble world is turn­ing upside down. Talk­ing with his busi­ness part­ner Beck­er, Sil­ber­mann feels a pal­pa­ble shift in the atmos­phere. Beck­er makes a false show of empa­thy, mask­ing anti­se­mit­ic pro­fil­ing, regard­ing Silbermann’s behav­ior as a Jew”: “‘If you were a Jew like oth­er Jews,’” Beck­er remarks, “‘a real Jew, in oth­er words, then you might have kept me on as gen­er­al man­ag­er, but you nev­er would have made me your part­ner!’” An even nas­ti­er obser­va­tion imme­di­ate­ly fol­lows from a wait­er, who, after not­ing that “‘Sil­ber­mann had none of the fea­tures that marked him as a Jew’” tells him: “‘The best would be … if Jews had to wear yel­low bands on their arms. Then at least there wouldn’t be any confusion.’”

Shocked by the waiter’s nation­al­ist desire for racial clar­i­ty — an fore­shad­ow­ing of the regime’s mur­der­ous dream of racial puri­ty — Sil­ber­mann feels an assault on his human­i­ty. They have declared war on me, on me per­son­al­ly,” he reflects; and right now I’m com­plete­ly on my own — in ene­my ter­ri­to­ry.” Dis­placed in his own coun­try, Sil­ber­mann begins to fath­om the dan­ger­ous sit­u­a­tion, even for non-iden­ti­fy­ing Jews like him­self. He returns to his apart­ment, look­ing for his wife, only to find the large front-hall mir­ror had been shat­tered” — his own per­son­al Kristall­nacht. Angry and dis­il­lu­sioned, Sil­ber­mann con­tem­plates his new, unwant­ed con­di­tion. Unmoored, about to enter a sur­re­al land­scape made famous by the acid ironies of Kaf­ka: And the earth real­ly is shak­ing,” he reflects, but only under us.”

The Pas­sen­ger charts Silbermann’s increas­ing­ly futile attempts to escape the bound­aries imposed on Jew­ish move­ment in his now alien, and alien­at­ing, home­land. Rem­i­nis­cent of Art Spiegelman’s depic­tion of his father Vladek in Maus, Boschwitz’s Sil­ber­mann is in con­stant motion, criss­cross­ing Ger­many with a heavy suit­case and a brief­case stuffed with mon­ey, arriv­ing and depart­ing from train sta­tion to sta­tion in search of … some­where to rest his per­se­cut­ed soul. I sim­ply have to run, run, run” he tells him­self. Even­tu­al­ly he rec­og­nizes the futil­i­ty of his efforts — that there is no exit, only immo­bil­i­ty: Now I’m not real­ly trav­el­ing, I’m mere­ly mov­ing.” Like Vladek after the War ped­al­ing for his life on a sta­tion­ary bicy­cle, Sil­ber­mann, despite his con­stant run­ning, remains in place, trapped in a Ger­many obsessed with its Jew­ish cit­i­zens, bent on degra­da­tion and, even­tu­al­ly, mass murder.

Read­ing The Pas­sen­ger, we fol­low Sil­ber­mann on a jour­ney into dark­ness and, ulti­mate­ly, mad­ness. As he rides the iron tracks of Ger­many to nowhere, Sil­ber­mann meets oth­er fel­low trav­el­ers. In one par­tic­u­lar­ly mov­ing exchange, he encoun­ters Lilien­feld, a Jew who voic­es a pro­found­ly chill­ing insight still unavail­able to Sil­ber­mann. “’No one wants to have any­thing more to do with you,’” Lilien­feld reflects. “’And now? Now you’re just air, and bad air at that!’” Rid­ing the trains, Lilien­feld envi­sions, uncan­ni­ly, the loom­ing smoke­stacks of Auschwitz.

In his pref­ace, André Aci­man speaks of the flaw­less­ly pen­e­trat­ing” pow­er of The Pas­sen­ger. Boschwitz’s achieve­ment is even more remark­able in light of his biog­ra­phy. Boschwitz, who nev­er iden­ti­fied as a Jew, was in tran­sit his entire life: he, his moth­er, and sis­ter lived in Swe­den, France, Brus­sels, and Eng­land. Deemed an alien in Eng­land dur­ing the war, Boschwitz was deport­ed to an intern­ment camp in Aus­tralia. He died on Octo­ber 29, 1942, along with 362 oth­er dis­placed peo­ple on the ship the MV Abosso, which was tor­pe­doed by a Nazi U‑boat. Boschwitz was just twen­ty-sev­en. Boschwitz’s own sto­ry and dev­as­tat­ing nov­el speak to the present — they are uncan­ny prophe­cies of our own time marked by the degra­da­tion of human­i­ty in flight, search­ing for a place to call home.

Don­ald Weber writes about Jew­ish Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture and pop­u­lar cul­ture. He divides his time between Brook­lyn and Mohe­gan Lake, NY.

Discussion Questions