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The Passenger: A German Masterpiece Rediscovered

Posted on 30th September 2021 by Mark Skinner

The first novel to capture the terror and brutality of Kristallnacht - the anti-Semitic pogrom perpetrated by the Nazis in November 1938 - Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz's Hitchcockian thriller of suspenseful escape has become a surprise bestseller in a new English translation published by Pushkin Press. In this piece, publisher and managing director of Pushkin, Adam Freudenheim, discusses what makes The Passenger such a compelling read.  

In 1942 the ship on which writer Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz was travelling on from Australia to Britain was torpedoed and sunk by a German U-boat. Boschwitz, just 27 years old, perished along with everyone else on board the ship. Less than four years earlier Boschwitz had published what was undoubtedly the very first fictional response to Kristallnacht – The Passenger. The book appeared in the US and Britain in 1939 and 1940 (under two different titles – as The Fugitive in the US and in Britain as The Man Who Took Trains) and was largely ignored. It went out of print almost immediately and was pretty much forgotten until in 2018 an enterprising German Editor, Peter Graf, discovered the original manuscript in a Frankfurt archive and set out to publish the book in German for the first time (it had only appeared in translation decades earlier). It was the first German edition of The Passenger that I read two years ago and offered on the day I received it that has just been published by Pushkin Press in a new translation by Philip Boehm and with a Preface by André Aciman – and which is now Pushkin Press’s first Top 10 Sunday Times bestseller! 

For me, this is story is personal. My father was born in Stuttgart in July 1937, but he was one of the lucky ones. In late 1937 my grandfather managed to get himself to America, and in spring 1938 he obtained visas for my grandmother, my uncle and my father who followed him there. So my father and his family were not in Germany when a few months later the terrible events of the night of 9/10 November 1938 occurred; they were safe in Buffalo, New York. Ulrich Boschwitz was no longer in Germany either.

As a publisher I’ve long felt a strong connection to books from this period. In 2009 I published the first English translation of Hans Fallada’s 1947 novel Alone in Berlin. In 2018 I published the first English translation of Françoise Frenkel's memoir No Place to Lay One’s Head. There are many wonderful novels and impressive works of non-fiction of more recent vintage about the Nazi era and its aftershocks, but I continue to find books written during or immediately after of particular interest. They have an immediacy that adds to their power and historical significance, and I can’t think of a more moving, gripping, immediate book than The Passenger

Boschwitz, whose father was Jewish but who had converted even before he was born, left Germany in 1935 after the Nazis’ Nuremberg Laws came into effect; he never returned. But Boschwitz continued to follow events in Germany very closely and, struck by everything he read about Kristallnacht, was inspired to write a novel in response to it in the weeks immediately after. He created the character of businessman Otto Silbermann, who finds himself in internal exile, travelling all across Germany by train in order to escape the Gestapo. The Passenger reads like a Hitchcockian thriller, but its real power comes from its honest, unsparing depiction of Otto in all his contradictions - he is married to a non-Jew, he doesn’t ‘look’ Jewish, he isn’t overtly political, and yet the times in which he’s living have caught up with him and forced him to flee his apartment, his family and his hometown, Berlin. His business partner and friends let him down as does the country he fought for as a soldier in the First World War; he’s forced to go on the run. 

The Passenger is a powerful novel in part because reading it today we know what came next - for Silbermann, for the Jews of Germany and Europe and for Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz himself. He was interned on the Isle of Man as an ‘enemy alien’ when war broke out and then shipped off to Australia; he was on his way back to Europe when his ship was sunk and he died along with everyone else on it – and his final manuscripts were lost at sea as well.

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