World War II victim’s 1938 novel about Crystal Night brings the English language to life


In Kristallnacht’s wake, a German Jewish merchant named Otto Silbermann sees his seemingly secure life crumble. As the Nazis ransack Jewish homes and arrest Jewish citizens, Silbermann is forced to live on the run. His daily life turns into a series of train journeys through the Third Reich as he seeks to escape his increasingly anti-Semitic homeland.

This is the plot of “The Passenger”, a revolutionary novel written in 1938 by German author Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz. It would be the first literary work to address Kristallnacht, which erupted in Germany and Austria in November.

The story’s backstory has as many twists and turns as the story itself. Boschwitz was a promising writer whose life was threatened under Nazism when he learned that his family had Jewish roots. He fled himself and, on his flight across Europe, the 23-year-old author wrote “The Passenger” or “Der Reisende” in German. The refugee novelist was treated as an unwelcome arrival, first in the UK and then in Australia. Ultimately, he died on his way back to the UK, on ​​a ship that was torpedoed by a German submarine in 1942.

Although “The Passenger” was published during the author’s lifetime, it has been forgotten. Today, the novel and its author are experiencing a revival. German publisher Peter Graf, who has a habit of digging up writers from his country lost in history, heard about Boschwitz from a surviving relative in Israel. This led Graf to find the original manuscript of “The Passenger”, located in Berlin. He edited the work based on this manuscript, assisted by the author’s family.

“The Passenger” was released in Germany in 2018; now, thanks to Graf, an English version has hit the shelves as well, with a translation by Philip Boehm. It ranked in the top 10 on the UK-based Sunday Times hardcover bestseller list.

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Writer Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz (Courtesy Leo Baeck Institute, New York)

In an email interview, Graf called the book “the first novel on the [November] pogroms. He added: “There is no previous literary text [about Kristallnacht] in German language. That alone makes the book special, but what is perhaps more important is that Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz could only write this novel in this form because he did not know how the persecution and extermination Jews had actually taken place.

Graf said the novel reflects a “multi-level view,” in which not all Germans that Silbermann meets have bad intentions, and in which the protagonist is not exactly heroic.

“Boschwitz felt that he was German and that he belonged to German culture, and it can be assumed that knowing the true extent of German crimes would have changed his handwriting,” Graf said.

The character of Silbermann is also apparently ingrained in German society. He is a veteran of the Great War and a successful businessman dedicated to his non-Jewish wife Elfriede and their son Eduard. Yet his business involves dismantling ships, and after Kristallnacht his life is dismantled as well.

He and Elfriede go their separate ways; she is going to live with her brother. Eduard is in Paris and is not very eager to help his father escape. Silbermann hands over his business to a non-Jewish employee, Becker, in a deteriorating working relationship. With no place to hide, Silbermann leaves his vandalized home to ride the German rail system or the Deutsche Reichsbahn with a briefcase full of brands. He meets other Jewish refugees, Nazi officials and soldiers – even a hint of romance. All the while, Silbermann is hoping that one of these rides will get him out of Germany.

“Is it going to go on like this forever?” Silbermann wonders at one point. “The journey, the wait, the flight?

‘The Passenger’ by Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz, published by Peter Graf and newly published in English from the German original. (Courtesy)

Boschwitz had already written a novel – “Menschen neben dem Leben” (literally: People Next to Life) – by the time he started “Der Reisende”. He wrote both novels under the pseudonym John Grane. His father was an assimilated Jew who died fighting for the Kaiser in World War I in 1915. His mother came from a well-known Protestant family and she also raised her Protestant son.

After Kristallnacht and after the family learned that they had Jewish roots, the Boschwitz emigrated to different destinations. Boschwitz’s sister, Clarissa Boschwitz, left for Palestine, where she lived in a kibbutz. He and his mother arrived in the UK via a roundabout route that included Scandinavia and the Netherlands. Classified as an enemy alien, he was deported to Australia on the infamous refugee ship Dunera and placed in a prison camp there before having his unfortunate chance to return to Britain.

When Boschwitz died, he was still in his twenties. Graf noted that he had two other novel manuscripts, both of which have disappeared.

Gone, and almost forgotten

Boschwitz’s surviving work has made a gradual reappearance since the 1970s, when a young scholar named Thomas Hansen was researching his thesis topic at Harvard, German literature in exile from 1933 to 1945. Hansen came across a short entry on Boschwitz in an annotated list. of these writers in a Harvard library. When Hansen visited his grandparents in New Haven, Connecticut, for Christmas that year, he accidentally learned that his grandmother knew one of Boschwitz’s surviving cousins ​​in Israel, Dvora Boschwitz. This eventually led him to correspond with Boschwitz’s Israeli niece, Reuella Shachaf.

Teacher. Thomas Hansen, September 2020 (Courtesy)

Shachaf sent Hansen a wealth of documents relating to the late author, including photographs, passports, documents and school items. Several years ago, Hansen – now Emeritus Professor of German at Wellesley College in Massachusetts – donated this collection to the Leo Baeck Institute in New York.

“We can say, about this talented young adult whose life was destroyed by the Holocaust and the war, we don’t know how things would have turned out, but I would say his career started off pretty well,” Hansen told The Times of Israel in a telephone interview. “The point is, so many people in exile could not be published at all. “

Meanwhile, a few years ago, Graf published another rediscovered novel by a German author in exile – “Blood Brothers” by Ernst Haffner, which has been translated into Hebrew. According to Graf, after doing an interview on this book, he was contacted by Shachaf, who told him about “The Passenger”. He went to Frankfurt am Main to find the original manuscript in the exile archives of the National Library. He wanted to publish it but admitted it was unedited and said the family agreed to revise it.

After these revisions, Graf said: “I have found the courage to edit the text with all possible respect for the author and his novel. I benefited from my long experience as a publisher, but also from my experience reading books from that time.

The result amazed critics and the general public.

Publisher Peter Graf in Berlin’s Schoneberg district, March 8, 2018 (photo credit: Sebastian Wells)

“Our archives are full of the papers of so many brilliant German Jewish writers, thinkers and artists whose careers were cut short, including [Ulrich] Alexander Boschwitz, ”said Dr. William H. Weitzer, executive director of the Leo Baeck Institute, in a statement. “It’s very gratifying to see their work reach a wider audience through publications like ‘The Passenger’, but it’s also tragic when that success comes posthumously. Even more tragic is all the work that has never been created.

Graf said: “The fact that 80 years after its creation this book resurfaces as a message in a bottle makes it a literary event. And it is almost incomprehensible that such a young writer could write with such clairvoyance and insistence on the situation in Germany at the time.

He noted that while the novel is very much of its time, it is also a timeless reminder of the plight of refugees.

“If you look at the refugee problem today, you see that the will to help those in need is weak,” Graf said. “And the more refugees there are, the less people are ready to help. This terrible and simple pattern runs through history. After the November pogroms in Germany, almost no country has accepted Jews. They were trapped. “


About Norma Wade

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