The Passenger

André Aciman

The Story Behind the Newly Discovered Novel

“Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz has given us the first fictional depiction of Jewish life in Germany in the final months before the war, a keenly observed sociological snapshot as well as an insightful psychological portrait of the protagonist. The Passenger is a disabused, prophetic, and flawlessly penetrating glimpse of what, in retrospect, was to be the unavoidable outcome of the persecution of Jews under Hitler’s regime.” Read André Aciman’s powerful preface to The Passenger by Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz. This novel of flight and survival in 1930s Germany was written by Boschwitz in 1938, and after being rediscovered is finally reaching readers now.

Berlin, just after Kristallnacht: Nazis everywhere, Jews being hounded, picked up, beaten, and arrested, their stores ransacked and vandalized, every Jew in Greater Germany now terrorized. Not a shred of humanity or shame left in this wide country, except in scant, totally insignificant gestures—the occasional tap on the shoulder, No worries, you don’t look Jewish, or the unctuous but ultimately malevolent Would love to help, but under the circumstance, surely you understand. Everyone—even people you once thought were your friends and partners—will fleece you or rat on you, or both, and if you call them out as the barefaced rogues they are, they’ll only reply with the one infallible curse: Jew! You’ve become a swear word on two legs, and your only hope is that no one nearby heard it spoken, because informants and plainclothes policemen are stalking everywhere, in trains, hotels, street corners, cafés. Anyone who looks at you is dangerous, and if he looks twice, you know you’d better scram; a third gaze can mean the unimaginable. You try to blend in but, as Otto Silbermann, the protagonist of this remarkable novel, realizes soon enough, you look most suspicious precisely when you’re trying not to.

This is 1938, and World War Two hasn’t erupted yet, but everyone knows it’s coming, and though no one has the merest foreboding that what’s about to happen will turn Europe into a slaughterhouse, Germany has already started its single-minded war against its Jews. The death camps haven’t been built but concentration camps are already fully operational. Yellow stars have yet to make their appearance, but it would help, says a waiter to Silbermann, if Jews were asked to wear a yellow band on their sleeve to make it easier to spot them. Meanwhile, the German bureaucratic machine leaves nothing to chance: your passport bears a loutish red J, your phone may be tapped, and even if you have “Aryan” looks, your name instantly identifies you as a Jew. With the dragnet closing in, you realize you’re trapped and have nowhere to go, and as for fleeing the country, well, you should have thought of that months earlier, now it’s too late. Germany won’t let you out, and other countries don’t want to let you in. In the words of novelist Ulrich Boschwitz, “for a Jew the entire Reich [has become] one big concentration camp.”

So you’re on the run, in a state of panic-stricken paralysis, holing up in a series of improvised but bungled hiding places. When you stop to catch your breath in some spot that seems safe enough for a fleeting few hours, the question inevitably comes back: why didn’t you flee when you could easily have done so? The answer couldn’t be more galling: because you thought things weren’t as bad as all that, because you continue to believe that this foul phase can’t possibly last much longer, because you cling to the conviction that Germany is still a democracy, not a madhouse. In Silbermann’s words, we’re “in the middle of Europe, in the twentieth century!”—not some backwater where laws are the whims of the lawless. Surely this can’t be happening.

But of course it is, and Boschwitz mines the irony for nuggets of the darkest Kafkan humor, even as his not-exactly-lovable hero insists on living according to middle-class conventions that have long ceased to have any meaning.

When the storm troopers come knocking at his door, Otto Silbermann manages to slip out the back of his comfortable bourgeois home, leaving behind all of his belongings, while his Christian wife helps hasten his escape. He has a decent amount of cash, he knows his way around, he could even pull a few strings, and a number of people owe him favors. Besides, all this is bound to blow over soon: after all, he served on the front in the Great War, he dutifully pays his taxes, runs a respected business; in short, Otto Silbermann is a thoroughly upstanding citizen.

Of course, the fact that he doesn’t look Jewish helps. When he boards a train, he is the sort of traveler who gives every indication of knowing where he is headed. And his fellow passengers feel free to engage him in conversation. A man with a Nazi lapel pin suggests they play chess, a stenotypist whose leftist boyfriend served time in a concentration camp confides her problems, and the estranged wife of a lawyer is happy to flirt with him. He listens to disgruntled miners and regales lighthearted soldiers. And so we, too, meet a cross section of the populace—“regular” Germans pursuing their everyday affairs, minding their own business, going about their lives with nary a care in the world.

While his looks succeed in deceiving others, over time he begins to see he may simply be deceiving himself. A traveling Aryan speeds ahead, but as Silbermann finds out, a Jew on the run hurtles and jostles his way about, follows one alleged escape route after the other, but is basically buffeted about by an evil wind, and—if he survives the storm, which so many will not—he will likely wind up years later in another kind of camp, for “displaced persons.” Meanwhile here in 1938, Otto Silbermann is already displaced. And so he travels from Berlin to Hamburg, from Hamburg back to Berlin, then from Berlin to Dortmund, Dortmund to Aachen, back to Dortmund, on to Küstrin, Dresden and eventually back to Berlin. With each frenetic trip—in first class, or second class, or third class—he ends up shedding one more of the delusions that had protected and prevented him from recognizing the inevitable. He can no longer pass for who he always thought he was: “The truth is I don’t have the right to be an ordinary human being.”

Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz (1915–1942) was born to an affluent and secularized family. Boschwitz’s Jewish father, who had converted to Christianity and married a Protestant woman, died just weeks before the birth of his son. In 1935, following the promulgation of the Nuremberg Laws, Ulrich and his mother escaped to Sweden, where the young man wrote and published his first novel, Menschen neben dem Leben (People Parallel to Life), under the pseudonym of John Grane. His sister had already emigrated to Palestine in 1933 and settled in a kibbutz. from Sweden, Boschwitz moved to Paris, where he studied awhile at the Sorbonne, before moving on to Luxembourg and then Belgium. In 1939, shortly before the outbreak of the war, he joined his mother in England.

Deeply affected by the events of Kristallnacht, he worked feverishly on what would become The Passenger, finishing a first draft in barely four weeks. In England he was able to publish an early version of the novel, which was also brought out in France, though barely noticed in either country. As an official “enemy alien,” Boschwitz was interned following the outbreak of hostilities in a camp on the Isle of Man, along with thousands of other refugees from Germany and Austria, as well as a small number of actual Nazi sympathizers. As the war progressed, male refugees, along with newly captured prisoners of war, were shipped off to various British dominions. Boschwitz had the ill fortune to be deported to Australia aboard the HMT Dunera. The passage was brutal, as the passengers were robbed and subjected to gross indignities regardless of whether they were Jewish refugees or Nazi sympathizers. In Australia the detainees were interned in a prison camp in New South Wales. following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the authorities reclassified actual refugees as “friendly aliens” and so Ulrich Boschwitz was freed. With some trepidation he boarded the troopship MV Abosso bound for England, but that was torpedoed by a German submarine, and Boschwitz perished, along with 361 of his fellow travelers. He was twenty-seven years old.

In a last letter to his mother, Ulrich Boschwitz signaled his desire to overhaul the manuscript of The Passenger, noting that she should expect to receive the first 109 pages of his reworked version from a fellow prisoner who was on his way to England. In the same letter he advised her that in the event of his death, she should undertake to have an experienced person of letters implement these changes. Alas, his revisions have never come to light.

But what did turn up, some seventy-plus years after his death, was Ulrich Boschwitz’s original German typescript, in an archive in Frankfurt, thanks to a tip from the author’s niece. With the support of Boschwitz’s family, and interpolating what he knew of the author’s wishes based on what he had communicated to his mother and others, the German publisher and editor Peter Graf revised the rediscovered typescript. And so the novel finally appeared in its original language in 2018, under the title Der Reisende, and was translated and acclaimed throughout the world. This translation by Philip Boehm is of that revised original.

Boschwitz has given us the first fictional depiction of Jewish life in Germany in the final months before the war, a keenly observed sociological snapshot as well as an insightful psychological portrait of the protagonist. The Passenger is a disabused, prophetic, and flawlessly penetrating glimpse of what, in retrospect, was to be the unavoidable outcome of the persecution of Jews under Hitler’s regime. Boschwitz’s tale of an individual scurrying from train station to train station across a homeland that is no longer home could not have been more prescient of the terror the Nazis would unleash on every Jew. The author’s own peregrinations from Germany to Sweden and on to France, Luxembourg, Belgium, England, and finally to Australia could not have failed to give him a firsthand feel for Silbermann’s own desperate itinerary. What Boschwitz saw clearly enough was the utter despoliation of one’s identity, of one’s trust in the world, and ultimately of one’s very humanity: “They’ll slowly undress us first and then kill us, so our clothes won’t get bloody and our banknotes won’t get damaged. These days murder is performed economically.” How could he have known all this so early in the tragedy? Or, to turn the question around, how is it that so many can still claim never to have known what was done to the Jews in Hitler’s Europe?


André Aciman is the author of Call Me by Your Name, Find Me, Eight White Nights, Homo Irrealis, Out of EgyptFalse PapersAlibisHarvard Square, and Enigma Variations, and is the editor of The Proust Project. He teaches comparative literature at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and lives with his wife in Manhattan.

Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz was born in Berlin in 1915. He left Germany in 1935 for Oslo, Norway, studied at the Sorbonne in Paris, and wrote two novels, including The Passenger. Boschwitz eventually settled in England in 1939, although he was interned as a German “enemy alien” after war broke out—despite his Jewish background—and subsequently shipped to Australia. In 1942, Boschwitz was allowed to return to England, but his ship was torpedoed by a German submarine and he was killed along with all 362 passengers. He was twenty-seven years old.