Outsideleft Book of the Year
Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz
A novel written during the war years of the early 1940s by a German who died in 1942 aged just 27 and who never saw it published. The book was ‘discovered’ and eventually released in German in 2018 and the translation published this year. What possible relevance could this have to 21st century readers?
The book details the attempt by a well-off Jewish businessman to both come to terms with his sudden lowly status in Germany before the outbreak of war and to leave the country for somewhere safer. His attempts at both eventually leave him travelling in a paranoid, parallel state on Germany’s well organised railways, avoiding officials, informers and obvious fellow Jews who’s company might take him to the concentration camps. Silbermann isn’t a sympathetic character. His main thoughts are for himself and he finds it almost as hard to understand that his loss of status is down to the religion and cultural background he has hardly acknowledged in his day to day life (married to an ‘Aryan’ woman, dealing with ‘Aryan’ fellow business people) as the suddenly unrecognisable country he literally wakes up one morning to find himself in.
It’s a frightening book. The matter of fact delivery. The eye-witness accounts of ordinary life changing to take into account the insanity of anti-semitism becoming institutionalised and systemic. The passive, sometimes gleeful acceptance of Silbermann’s suddenly hateful fellow citizens. And reading it will remove the solidity of your day to day existence. We are all only one crazy, charismatic politician away from becoming a passenger ourselves.
Boschwitz himself made it to the UK, just in time. Just in time to be interred and sent to Australia on a packed troopship. After a couple of years he and many other Jewish, German and Italian refugees were on their way back to the UK when the their equally packed ship was torpedoed by a German submarine and Boschwitz was lost, presumed drowned. The heavy irony of his short life is contained, in anticipation, in The Passenger.