The Jewish Chronicle

On the run in Nazi Germany

- The Passenger By Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz Pushkin Press, £14.99 Reviewed by David Herman David Herman is a senior JC reviewer

Who can Otto trust? And can his friends trust him?

It is hard to know which is more tragic: the life of the author of

The Passenger, Ulrich Boschwitz, or the central character, Otto Silbermann.

Boschwitz was born into an affluent Jewish family in Berlin in 1915. His father died a few weeks before Ulrich was born. In 1935, Ulrich and his mother left Germany after the Nuremberg Laws and fled to Scandinavi­a, then France, Belgium and Luxemburg, arriving in Britain in 1939. He was interned in 1940, deported to Australia on the infamous

Dunera. In 1942, he was allowed to return to Britain but his ship was sunk by a German submarine. There were no survivors. He was 27.

The Passenger was first published in German in 1938 and translated into English in 1940. It disappeare­d without trace, was rediscover­ed by the German publisher and editor Peter Graf and republishe­d in German in 2018. And now, Pushkin Press have translated it with an excellent preface by André Aciman and a fascinatin­g afterword by Graf himself.

The novel tells the story of Otto Silbermann, a well-to-do businessma­n from Berlin. It is November 1938. Otto is Jewish, though he doesn’t look it, but his wife Elfriede is not, and their son, Eduard, is safely in Paris. Then comes Kristallna­cht and a knock on the door from a group of Nazi thugs. Silbermann flees and spends the rest of the novel on the run, travelling around Germany trying to sort out his affairs and arrange a visa so he can escape to France.

All this is full of suspense. Everywhere he goes, Silbermann falls under suspicion. Who can he trust? His business partner, Becker? He is a friend and fellow veteran from the First World War, but is now a Nazi. His brother-inlaw Ernst, who has offered sanctuary to Otto’s wife? He, too, is a Nazi. And what about Otto’s wife? As an Aryan, with a brother-in-law in the Party, she is safe. Does she regret having married a Jew? “They’re all backstabbe­rs and sellouts,” Otto thinks, “every single one of them. No one resists.”

But can Otto’s Jewish friends trust him? He doesn’t want to be seen with friends who look too Jewish and therefore might be a liability. If Becker can sort out one final deal and give Otto his money and if Otto can sell his apartment, then all he needs to do is get across the border.

But what if he can’t? Will he end up in a concentrat­ion camp, abandoned by everyone?

The Passenger is a powerful, emotionall­y overwhelmi­ng read, full of twists and turns. Silbermann is a complex character, sympatheti­c one minute, difficult and infuriatin­g the next.

I can’t think of any other novel that makes you realise just what it was like to be on the run in pre-war Nazi Germany, fleeing for your life, suspecting everyone you meet.

 ??  ?? Awaiting the evil express: Stettiner Railway Station, Berlin 1930s
Awaiting the evil express: Stettiner Railway Station, Berlin 1930s

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