Tuesday, 9 November 2021

I'm reviewing The Passenger...

…by Ulrich A Boschwitz

Born in Berlin in 1915, Ulrich was the son of a Jewish businessman and factory owner who had converted to Christianity.  His father died, as a soldier in WW1, shortly before Ulrich was born.  Ulrich's mother, Martha, an amateur artist, took over the running of her husband's business interests and Ulrich was destined to take on his father's original role once he was old enough.  However, with rise of National Socialism in Germany in the 1930's, Ulrich's heritage would be brought into question.  Martha took her son first to Sweden in 1935 and then to Oslo to escape the growing constraints on their business and their personal lives. Ulrich's first novel - People Parallel to Life - was written whilst he was in Sweden.  The book was published in 1937 under the pseudonym of John Grane.
The immediate success of that first story meant that Ulrich could go to Paris to study at the Sorbonne.  Whilst in Paris he wrote The Passenger.  November 9th, 1938, became a date of note that year and has continued to overshadow history ever since.  It was the reporting of what happened on Kristallnacht along with other privations that the family had suffered whilst still in Germany that prompted Ulrich to write The Passenger, again under his assumed name.  The book took about four weeks to complete.  The first English version was published by Hamish Hamilton early in 1939 under the title, The Man Who Took Trains.
I mention all this history because it is so pertinent to the story.  Beginning with Kristallnacht, the novel follows the plight of Otto Silbermann, a businessman living through the November pogroms, who is helped to escape arrest by his protestant wife.  The novel follows Otto through his emotional shifts as he tries, desperately, to reconnect with his family, his friends and previous associates whilst hiding in plain sight of anyone who might report him to the authorities.  He spends days travelling by train in an effort to get out of the country and many of the scenes are based on actual personal or familial experiences.
Although a novel, there are many autobigraphical similarities - Otto tries to cross the border into Belgium but is caught.  Ulrich had a similar experience in Luxembourg.  The closeness of scenes in the book to real life give the text an edge of nervousness that I, in my blissful and peaceful 21st century existance, can only partially understand.  But the growing sense of desperation and menace that Otto experiences is there on every page.
As a character, I didn't particularly warm to Otto but then, when under such extreme duress, having lost everything, would any of us behave in a way that would encourage empathy?  Probably not.  Otto's shifts from absolute despair through to whimsical belief for a bright future in the Germany of 1938 were sometimes hard to read, but the inner workings of his mind were an insight into the daily terror that ordinary people had to face during that time.
I found the writing style a little difficult at the outset, but it soon became very clear that the narrative voice employed was the only one that could fit such a unique story - a unique story that had to be told.  I can thoroughly recommend this book as a fascinating view of a terrible time in our recent history.
As for Ulrich himself, he and his mother settled in England in 1939.  With the outbreak of war they found themsleves interned as enemy aliens on the Isle of Man.  In July, 1940, Ulrich along with over 2000 other internees, was put aboard the troop ship Dunera to be deported to Australia.  During the 2 month journey the internees were maltreated and any belongings they had were rifled through and stolen or thrown overboard.  The troops on board to guard the internees were mostly men who had recieved a pardon and been released from prison to help the war effort.  Luckily, Ulrich made it; arriving in Sidney in early September.
Two years later, in 1942, Ulrich was allowed to return to the UK.  His journey this time was aboard the MV Abosso.  On October 29th, the ship was torpedoed whilst in the Atlantic and sank.  T here were no survivors.  Ulrich was twenty-seven years old.
His short and contraversial writing life has meant that it is only possible now for his two books to be published in his native language, hence the latest English version of The Passenger, which is published by Pushkin Press.  Ulrich wasn't only a novelist, he also wrote poetry.  Regettably, very little of his verse is available to us to read.


  1. Replies
    1. Hi, Janet, thanks for visiting. You can get the book in large bookshops, Amazon or direct from the publisher Pushkin Press.