By Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz
266 pp. Metropolitan Books. $25.
It’s November 1938 and, like all Jews living in the Third Reich, Otto Silbermann has to get out of Germany — and fast!
Silbermann’s anxiety is palpable and we eagerly turn the pages, desperate to see him make it out in time. Silbermann himself doesn’t strike us a particularly likable figure, and it’s to Boschwitz’s credit that he didn’t turn his protagonist into a caricature of the oppressed man the way a Hollywood adaptation would almost certainly do. Silbermann is just an ordinary fellow who it’s easy to see ourselves in — reason enough for us to want him to make it out alive.
This is one of those books where the remarkable (in this case tragic) life of the author threatens to overshadow the novel itself.
Boschwitz also found himself on the run from the Nazis, and if anything his travels dwarfed Silbermann’s own. From Germany to Sweden, Sweden to Norway, Norway to Paris, Paris to England. World War II breaks out, and the English government places Boschwitz — and indeed most of the Germans who’d fled the Nazis — in internment, eventually shipping him off on a prison transport to Australia in 1940. Two years later, in 1942, Boschwitz was allowed to return to England.
Whew, at least that story has a happy ending, right? Wrong. On the way to England, Boschwitz’s ship is torpedoed by a German submarine and Boschwitz, along with his fellow 361 passengers, is killed.
As for “The Passenger,” it had been published in 1939 in England as “The Man Who Took Trains,” in 1940 in the US as “The Fugitive,” and in France, but it quickly went out of print in all three countries and disappeared.
In 2015, on a tip from the late author’s niece, a German publisher and editor named Peter Graf unearthed the forgotten manuscript in Frankfurt, in the German Exile Archive of the Deutsche Nationalbibliothek. Graf made some edits to the text and has republished “The Passenger” in its current form, to the great fortune of us all.
Incredible and lurid real-life backstory aside, “The Passenger” is an unforgettable tale, one that illustrates what a remarkable talent Boschwitz — who was only 27 when he died — was.
Read it and you’ll find yourself unable to forget it.