CHARLIE CONNELLY on a brilliant writer whose recently rediscovered story of a Jew forced to become a fugitive of the Nazis has echoes of his own itinerant, tragic life.
When 27-year-old Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz leaned on the deck rail and watched the sun set over the Atlantic on October 29, 1942, he felt his wanderings might finally be coming to an end. For seven years he’d been on the move, ranging as far as Norway and, most recently, Australia. He’d seen enough ships’ cabins and train compartments to last a lifetime, not least when every single one was only leading him towards more uncertainty.
A quarter of his life spent as an itinerant, effectively stateless but condemned by his nationality, going where he had to go rather than anywhere he wanted to go. No home, not even a country to call home, a victim deemed guilty by association. It had to end soon. He watched the sun lower itself into the water until the last speck of orange slipped below the horizon, picked up the manuscript that never left his sight and went back below deck.
You’ll search largely in vain for accounts of the fate of the MV Abosso. Wartime reporting restrictions kept it out of the news and by the time the conflict ended three years later the sinking of a ship in the eastern Atlantic was just one statistic among many, a tragedy obscured by sheer weight of numbers.
The Abosso had left Cape Town for Liverpool three weeks earlier and was around 700 miles northwest of the Azores on the night Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz watched the sun go down. She carried troops mainly, but among the 393 passengers and crew were 61 civilians, 44 of them, like Boschwitz, former internees returning to freedom, of a sort.
The first torpedo hit at 10.13pm, on the port side just behind the bridge. The ship’s engines failed, all the lights went out and the Abosso listed severely to port. Fifteen minutes later, as the crew frantically tried to co-ordinate an evacuation, another torpedo struck, dooming the vessel to sink in barely half an hour. Only one lifeboat made it safely away from the wreckage and of the 392 people on board the Abosso all but 31 perished.
Among them was Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz, refugee and novelist. He’d written ahead to his mother that if anything happened to the ship, sailing unescorted through waters where U-Boats were known to lurk, he would strap the manuscript of his new novel Traumtage, ‘Dream Days’, to his body to protect it. Both author and book were lost.
In the same letter Boschwitz told his mother, who was living in London having been freed from a camp on the Isle of Man, that he had sent the first 100 pages of a reworked version of his previous novel Der Reisende, ‘The Passenger’, by a different route and when it arrived she should “get the advice of some experienced literary chap” regarding what to do with it next. That sheaf of typed pages never arrived either.
Traumtage was lost forever, but Der Reisende existed in a previous form. An early version of the story about a Jewish businessman trying to avoid persecution in 1930s Berlin had been published in English by Hamish Hamilton in 1939 under the pen name John Grane. Reviews were decent but the war pushed it out of print almost immediately and a German version never materialised. There were efforts to produce one after the war, and Heinrich Böll tried again during the 1950s, but there was no appetite for literary self-examination in a nation struggling to come to terms with its own recent past.
A hunch by Boschwitz’s niece a few years ago led to the rediscovery of a manuscript in a Frankfurt archive and its placing with renowned publisher and editor Peter Graf. In 2018 Der Reisende was published in German for the first time and to huge acclaim.
“One of the most important books of the year,” said Stern. “The insight into the atmosphere of the times is so deep, so immediate, it will make you feel as though you’d accompanied the hero yourself.”
A new English translation by Philip Boehm is published next week by Pushkin Press, a novel so good it promises to follow Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin in becoming a revived and revered classic of modern German literature.
The Passenger paints a vivid picture of Germany, and Berlin in particular, in the immediate aftermath of Kristallnacht in November 1938. Otto Silbermann is a wealthy Jewish industrialist who has thus far managed to navigate the gradual erosion of rights, liberties and dignity endured over the previous five years.
He runs a lucrative, expanding business and lives with his Protestant wife in a sumptuous Berlin apartment. As anti-Semitism ratchets up after the events of November 9, 1938, however, he finds himself forced to sell his home to a predatory property developer for a fraction of its value. Just as they conclude the deal a hammering on the door brings stormtroopers looking to arrest him.
Silbermann escapes through a back door and we follow his attempts to stay one step ahead of the Nazi authorities by becoming the eponymous passenger, criss-crossing Germany on a succession of trains, trying to flee the country while also hoping to reach people who might help him. He also attempts to find his wife, from whom he hasn’t heard since the night the troopers came, but soon any hope of safety becomes associated simply with staying on the move.
There are hints of Kafka in these journeys without end, but most of all there’s a vivid portrayal of a nation on the cusp. Life for Jews plunges from barely tolerable to utterly intolerable almost overnight and Boschwitz brings us the full range of injustices, from mass arrests to casually blatant anti-Semitism. Silbermann finds friends, acquaintances and business associates cheerfully repeating “I’m sure you understand” every time they abandon him to his fate or rip him off with some smilingly derogatory crack about “you Jews”.
It’s a brilliant portrayal of a man transformed in the time it took to slip out through a door from a scion of privilege and influence to a fugitive constantly thinking on his feet.
“Even a thief on the run with his loot has a smirk on his face,” reflects Silbermann of his predicament, “while all I have is fear”.
A startlingly good novel, The Passenger is also a distillation of the story of its author. There are definite similarities between Otto Silbermann and Boschwitz’s father Salomon, known as Sally. Like Silbermann, Boschwitz senior was a successful Jewish businessman, a Berlin industrialist who converted to Christianity in 1911, married a Protestant woman, Ulrich’s mother Martha. Like Silbermann, Sally served in the German army during the war but died in May 1915 of a brain tumour a month after Ulrich was born.
Martha, a noted artist, carried on her husband’s business through the war and the tumultuous years of the Weimar Republic while raising Ulrich and his older sister Clarissa. The advent of National Socialism proved a challenge too far. Judaism passes through the maternal line, meaning that as far as the Jewish faith was concerned Martha, Clarissa and Ulrich were gentiles. Indeed, in 1933 Clarissa with her blonde hair and blue eyes was cited as a fine example of Aryan womanhood – until she pointed out her Jewish heritage and promptly departed for Palestine and converted to Judaism.
Ulrich turned 20 in 1935 and was due to be conscripted into the Wehrmacht. He and his mother had endured some low-level Gestapo harassment after Clarissa’s departure, but when Martha’s brother Alexander Wolgast, a lawyer and outspoken critic of the virulently anti-Semitic Nuremberg Laws, was murdered in the street they slipped out of the country, escaping first to Norway then settling in Sweden.
Ulrich had displayed literary gifts from an early age and in exile he published his first novel under the Swedish title Människor utanför, ‘People Alongside Life’, in 1937 as John Grane. Mother and son then moved on to France where Ulrich studied briefly at the Sorbonne in Paris, then Belgium and Luxembourg before in the spring of 1939 arriving in London and settling in Primrose Hill, where Martha had relatives.
It was there Ulrich published his first version of Der Reisende, in English as The Man Who Took the Train, again under his English-sounding pseudonym. He was appalled when news reached London of the events and consequences of Kristallnacht, channelling his ire into the novel so intensely the first draft was completed in just four weeks.
When Britain entered the war in September 1939, Ulrich and his mother as refugees were not initially classified as ‘enemy aliens’. In the aftermath of the Dunkirk evacuations and with the war slipping away from the Allies, on June 21, 1940, mother and son were sent with thousands of other German and Austrian nationals to an internment camp on the Isle of Man. Three weeks later Ulrich was placed aboard a ship called the Dunera, destined for another camp on the other side of the world, outside Sydney.
Anti-German feeling was at its height in 1940 and the British crew treated the internees appallingly during the six-week voyage. More than 2,500 people had been crammed onto a ship designed for considerably less, and as well as the terrible conditions money was stolen from them, possessions were tossed overboard and Ulrich lost an entire novel provisionally titled Das Grosse Fressen (‘The Big Feast’), its pages tossed into the waves by a sneering crew member.
During two years spent in Australia he worked on Traumtage as well as overhauling Der Reisende. The future may have been uncertain but Ulrich still nursed high hopes of a successful literary career.
By 1942 the levels of paranoia attached to the internees had subsided enough for their release from captivity. Ulrich managed to make his way to South Africa, then on October 6, 1942, boarded the Abosso at Cape Town for the final leg of his journey to England. In Traumtage he held the brightest hope for a settled future in his hands.
On all his perambulations around the deck and the saloons that sheaf of paper never left his possession: if the ship were to suffer mishap at the hands of a U-Boat he would tie the manuscript to his torso so he might never be separated from it even if he were to require rescue. It was with him as he watched his last sunset, it was with him when the torpedoes hit, it was with him as he was cast into the Atlantic.
Traumtage was lost with its author. The revised Der Reisende also vanished, but the version published next week by Pushkin Press is still a spectacular legacy for an author still only hinting at what he might go on to achieve. With The Passenger alone, Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz claims a place alongside the likes of Thomas Mann, Heinrich Böll and Hans Fallada as one of 20th century Germany’s greatest novelists.
The Passenger by Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz, translated by Philip Boehm, is published by Pushkin Press on April 1, price £14.99
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