In his short life, the German writer Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz (1915–1942) published two novels, neither of which appeared in his native tongue. Boschwitz, whose father was ethnically Jewish, fled to Sweden after the passing of the Nuremberg Laws and published Menschen neben dem Leben (People Parallel to Life) there in 1937, in a Swedish translation released under the pseudonym John Grane. Months after Kristallnacht, he drafted his second book, which follows a Jewish businessman named Otto Silbermann on the run from Nazi authorities in the aftermath of the pogrom, crisscrossing Germany by train. It appeared to little fanfare in 1939 in England as The Man Who Took Trains, and later in France and the United States under different titles. The novel, written in four frantic weeks as the Shoah was only beginning to unfold, far predates the ever-growing body of retrospective Holocaust fiction, or its coalescence as a genre; its immediacy, economy, and deadpan bleakness distinguishes Boschwitz’s work from more maudlin or sensationalized depictions.
Boschwitz spent the rest of his life in peril. He was interned in England as an “enemy alien” in 1939, then deported to Australia and detained in a prison camp in New South Wales. Eventually German refugees like Boschwitz were reclassified and allowed to come back to England. In 1942, the writer boarded the MV Abosso for the return trip. The ship was torpedoed by a German submarine and sank; Boschwitz died at the age of 27. His work was largely forgotten until the recent rediscovery of the original German typescript of his second novel, which had been stored in a Frankfurt archive. With the permission of Boschwitz’s family, publisher and editor Peter Graf revised the manuscript and published it in Germany in 2018 as Der Reisende (The Passenger). This excerpt is taken from the new English version, translated by Philip Boehm.
As soon as he was back in his apartment, he asked the maid if Herr Findler was already there. She said he was, so Silbermann hastily took off his hat and coat and stepped into the study, where his visitor was waiting.
Theo Findler was examining a painting with clear disapproval. When he heard the door open, he quickly turned around and smiled at the man entering.
“Well?” he asked, knitting his brow as he always did when he spoke, thinking that the wrinkles added weight to his words. “How are you, my friend? I was afraid something might have happened to you. You never know . . . Have you given my last offer some more thought? How is your wife? I haven’t seen her at all today. So, Becker’s off to Hamburg.”
Findler took a deep breath, because he was only at the beginning of his monologue.
“Well you two sure are clever! A person could learn from you. Becker has a Jewish head on his shoulders. Ha ha, he’ll manage all right, he’ll manage. I’d have been happy to join in the business, but too late is too late, right? By the way, where did you dig up these awful pictures? I don’t understand how anyone could hang rubbish like that on their walls. No order to the things, you old culture-Bolshevik you. Now don’t go thinking that I’ll be raising my last offer even by just another thousand marks. Not on your life, I can’t do it.
“You think I’m a rich man, Silbermann. Everybody does. If only I knew where they came up with that idea. And here I’m having a hard time paying what I owe in taxes. Speaking of taxes, can’t you find me a clever bookkeeper or point me to someone? I mean I know my way around a little bit, but I don’t have time to take care of all that properly. These taxes, these goddamned taxes. Tell me, am I supposed to support the whole German Reich all by myself? Well?
“You’re not saying anything? What is it? Did you think things over? Are you going to take my offer? Your wife must have something against me. I see she’s kept herself completely out of sight. I don’t understand it. Is she upset with me because we didn’t say hello to you the other evening? But good grief, how could we have? The place was teeming with Nazis! Later my wife pestered me that we should have said hello. But I told her that Silbermann’s far too reasonable. He realizes I can’t compromise myself on his account. Well?
“So, Silbermann, out with it. Do you want to sell or don’t you?”
Findler seemed to have finished talking—in any case he was now looking expectantly at Silbermann. They sat down at the smokers’ table, but Findler must have moved too abruptly, since he winced and, with a concentrated expression, started rubbing his left hip.
“Ninety thousand,” Silbermann said, ignoring all the various questions and remarks he realized were mostly meant to throw him off guard. “Thirty thousand in cash, the rest secured by mortgage.”
Findler started up as if he’d been given an electric shock.
“You’ve got to be joking,” he shouted, sounding offended. “Listen, it’s high time we stopped all this dithering. Fifteen thousand on the table, you hear? What on earth—thirty thousand marks! You know, if I had thirty thousand marks lying around, I could think of better things to do than buy your place. Thirty thousand marks!”
“But consider the net income from rent. And since the sale price is already ridiculous, the least I have to have is a decent down payment. The building’s worth two hundred thousand marks, you’re buying it . . . ”
“Worth, worth, worth,” Findler interrupted. “What do you think I’m worth? Except nobody would pay a thing for me. Nobody can pay what I’m worth, and nobody would even think of putting down just a thousand marks. I’m unsaleable. And so is your building. Ha ha ha, Silbermann, and I say it as a friend. I’m taking the shack off your hands, and if I don’t then the state will. And they won’t give you a lousy pfennig.”
The telephone rang in the next room. For a moment Silbermann wondered if he should answer it. Then he jumped up, excused himself, and left the study.
I’ll probably take what he’s offering, he thought as he picked up the receiver. After all, Findler’s still a relatively decent fellow.
“Hello, who is this?”
The long-distance operator answered. “Please hold the line, you have a call from Paris,” said a cool female voice.
Silbermann felt a flash of excitement and lit a cigarette. “Elfriede,” he called out in a low voice.
His wife, who had stayed in the salon just as he’d suspected, came in, quietly opening and closing the door behind her.
“Hello, Elfriede,” he said, covering the receiver with his hand. “I just arrived five minutes ago. Herr Findler is here. Won’t you go in and talk with him?”
She stepped close and they exchanged a fleeting kiss.
“It’s Eduard,” he whispered. “The call is coming at an awkward moment. Please go talk with Findler, otherwise he’ll listen in. It’s already practically a crime to telephone with Paris.”
“Tell Eduard hello from me,” she said. “I’d really like to say a few words to him myself.”
“That’s out of the question.” He warded her off. “The lines are all being tapped. And you’re too careless. You’d say something you shouldn’t.”
“I should at least be able to say hello to my own son.”
“I’m afraid you can’t. Please understand.”
She looked at him beseechingly. “Just a few words,” she said. “I’ll be careful.”
“The answer is no,” he said firmly. “Hello? Hello . . . Eduard? Hello Eduard . . . ” He pointed imploringly at the door of the study.
“Listen,” Silbermann said, going back to the phone call. “Have you managed to arrange our permit?” He spoke very slowly, weighing each word before he uttered it.
“No,” Eduard answered on the other end. “It’s extremely difficult. You can’t count on getting it. I’m trying everything I can, but . . . ”
Silbermann cleared his throat. He decided he had to be more forceful.
“That’s unacceptable. Either you’re making an effort or you aren’t! And I’m sure you realize the matter is of some importance. I don’t even know where to start with these lazy excuses.”
“You’re overestimating what I can do, father,” answered Eduard, upset. “Six months ago it would have been a lot easier. But you didn’t want to. And that’s not exactly my fault.”
“It’s not a question of who’s at fault,” Silbermann snapped back, fuming. “Your job is to see to the permits. And be so kind as to spare me your wisdom.”
“Listen, father,” Eduard said, indignantly. “You want me to get you the moon and the stars and you’re bawling me out because I haven’t delivered them!” Then he added, “But how are you both doing? How is Mother? Please give her my best. I would have been happy to speak with her.”
“Fix the permit and do it quickly,” Silbermann repeated sternly. “That’s all I’m asking! Your mother sends her best. Unfortunately she can’t talk with you right now.”
“I’ll get it done,” answered Eduard. “At least I’ll try everything I can.”
Silbermann placed the receiver back on the hook.
That’s the first time in my life I’ve wanted something from my son, he thought, disgruntled and disappointed. And I know for a fact he’s bound to fail! If I had a business friend in Paris, he’d be able to come up with the entry permits in a few days, but Eduard . . . I shouldn’t expect too much. He’s simply not accustomed to doing things for us. When someone’s used to you always being there for them it’s very hard for that person to switch roles. Eduard’s used to my helping him and now I’m asking him to help me. And he’s not well suited to his new part.
Then Silbermann shook his head, ashamed of his own ruminations. I’m being unfair, he thought, and what’s worse, I’m being sentimental.
He went back to the study.
“I was just explaining to your wife,” Findler said, by way of greeting, “that it’s very careless of you to keep going to the same old places. If you run into some acquaintance who isn’t kindly disposed toward you, you could wind up in a lot of trouble. Your wife is an Aryan, she can go anywhere she wants, but you . . . God knows I’m not approving of the circumstances that make such advice necessary, but I’m speaking with your own interest at heart. The best would be for you to stay home or with friends. Of course no one can tell by looking at you that you’re Jewish, but why tempt the devil? Incidentally what’s Sohnemann up to? He hotfooted it, and in the nick of time, too. Ha ha ha, funny times we’re living in, right?”
“Listen, Findler,” Silbermann began, “I’ll let you have the place for a down payment of twenty thousand marks, just so we can finally come to a deal.”
“Don’t talk nonsense. Why would you want to hoodwink your old Findler? Besides they’ll take whatever money you have at the border. For you I’d even chip in a few marks more than what the joint’s worth to me, but to pay extra just so it winds up in the state treasury—I have no interest in that.”
“For the moment I don’t have any intention of leaving Germany.”
“Well, children, do as you like. I really wish something better for you than the current circumstances. It’s Jewish blood that’s bringing the German people together. And I fail to see why my friend Silbermann of all people should wind up as glue. Running for your life, on the other hand—that I understand completely.”
“Don’t you think what’s happening to the Jews is a horrible crime?” asked Frau Silbermann, who was horror-stricken by Findler’s proclamation that “it’s Jewish blood that’s bringing the German people together,” and who still hadn’t given up searching for some moral in the events of the times.
“Of course,” Findler said dryly. “A lot of bad things happen in the world. And some good things as well. Today it’s this person, tomorrow that one. One person’s consumptive, another’s a Jew, and if they’re really unlucky they’re both at once. That’s the way it is. How much bad luck do you think I’ve had in my life? There’s nothing you can do about it.”
“I knew that you aren’t exactly the most tactful person, Herr Findler,” said Frau Silbermann, indignant, “but that you’re so cold inside and so . . . ”—here she swallowed the word “brutal”—“indifferent, that is something new to me.”
Findler smiled, unmoved. “I love my wife and my little daughter. As far as the rest of humanity goes, everything is strictly business. There you have my entire relationship to my surroundings. I don’t love the Jews, I don’t hate the Jews. I am indifferent to them, though as capable businessmen I admire them. If an injustice is being done to them, I’m sorry, but it doesn’t surprise me, either. That’s the way of the world. When the time comes, some fail and go bankrupt while others prosper.”
“And if you were a Jew yourself?”
“But I’m not! I’ve given up racking my brain about what might be. I have enough to deal with what actually is.”
“So do you always think only about yourself? Are you incapable of sympathizing with the tragic plights of other people?”
“Who the devil worries about me when I have bad luck? Theo Findler doesn’t have anyone but Theo Findler. And those two have to stick together thick as thieves. Ha ha.”
“Yet you claim to love your wife and daughter.” Frau Silbermann was becoming more and more agitated. “I can’t believe that someone who’s so . . . bestially indifferent is capable of . . . ”
“Hey, listen, that’s going too far. I have pretty thick skin and can stand a lot of joking, but I don’t like being insulted!”
Frau Silbermann stood up. “You will excuse me,” she said frostily to Findler. Then she left the room.
“Good God, you are a sensitive bunch.” Findler laughed. “My heavens! Well, honest people like myself have to put up with a lot. Back to business! So what’s the score? Well?”
The phone rang once again.
“Twenty thousand,” Silbermann insisted, “the rest secured by mortgage.”
The door opened, and Frau Silbermann asked her husband to step into the next room. She was apparently still agitated, and he did not appreciate the new disturbance. “Think about it,” he said to Findler as he left the room.
“What is it, Elfriede,” he asked his wife.
She pointed to the telephone. “Your sister’s on the line. Speak to her. She’ll explain everything . . . ”
He reached for the receiver.
“Yes, yes?” his sister stammered, clearly upset. “Günther has been arrested!”
Silbermann was so surprised he didn’t know what to say. “How so?” he finally asked. “What happened?”
“Don’t you know—all Jews are being arrested.” He pulled up a chair and sat down.
“Calm down please, Hilde,” he said. “There must be some mistake. Now tell me everything once more, nice and quietly . . .”
“There’s no time for that. I only called to warn you. Four men in our building were arrested. If I only knew what was happening to Günther.”
“But it can’t be! People don’t just go hauling off respectable citizens from their homes! They can’t do that!”
He was silent. Yes they can, he then thought, they can.
“Shall I come over?” he asked after a while. “Or do you want to come to our place?”
“No, I’m not leaving the apartment, I’m staying here. And you shouldn’t come, either. That won’t help anything. Good-bye, Otto.” She hung up.
Distraught, he looked at his wife.
“Elfriede,” he whispered, “they’re arresting all the Jews! Maybe it’s just a temporary scare tactic. In any case Günther has been arrested, but you already know that.”
Silbermann paused for a moment.
“What should we do? What do you think is best, Elfriede? Should I stay here? Maybe they’ll forget about me. I’ve never been seriously harassed before. If only Becker were here. He has a whole slew of party connections. He could intervene in an emergency. Of course if the arrests are coming from above, then he can’t do anything, either. And by the time he gets back from Hamburg I could have been beaten to death by mistake. Ach—nonsense! Nothing’s going to happen to me. In the worst case you’ll just ring up Becker and ask him to come back immediately.”
“Six months ago we still could have gotten out of Germany,” his wife said slowly. “We stayed on my account, because I couldn’t bear to leave my family behind. If something happens to you it will be my fault. You wanted to go, but I . . . ”
“Ach.” He brushed aside her self-reproach. “It’s no one’s fault. Is someone who forgot to put on a bulletproof vest at the right moment to blame if he gets shot? That’s all nonsense. Besides, you were more for leaving than I was. If you’d had your way we would already be out of the country. You would have left your family more easily than I would have left my business. But it didn’t happen. And at this point the whys and wherefores don’t matter.”
He gave her a kiss, then went back to Herr Findler. He attempted to appear as calm and composed as before, but something in his face, some excessive tension, a smile that seemed forced, made the other man suspicious.
“What’s going on?” Findler asked. “Bad news?”
“Family matters,” said Silbermann, and sat back down at the table.
“I see,” said Findler, drawing the words out, his forehead more furrowed than usual. “Well, I’m sure it’s bad news, right? Family news is always bad. Believe me, I know.”
Silbermann opened the cigarette case that was lying on the table. “Shall we get back to business?” he asked as calmly as he could.
“Well,” Findler replied, “I’m really not so tempted. I’m not even sure if it’s still possible to buy property from Jews. No idea. If you had your way you’d flimflam me before I could count to three. Well?”
This constant “well,” which sounded so fat and smug, was gradually bringing Silbermann to the point of despair.
“Do you actually want to buy the building or just talk about buying it? What do you want to do?”
“Well,” said Findler as he stretched in his armchair. “I really wrenched my hip earlier. What do you say to that? Wouldn’t it be better if we waited to see what new regulations are coming? It’s too risky for me. I pay for a place and end up not getting it. The government has in mind all sorts of things for you Jews.”
“All right then fifteen thousand!”
“I don’t know, Silbermann, I really have no idea if I should or not. What say we wait a few weeks, and if nothing happens in the meantime I’ll still be able to buy the place. First I also have to speak with my lawyer, absolutely.”
“But ten minutes ago . . . ”
“Since then I’ve started to have some doubts. I also don’t want you to have any trouble because you’re selling your home. But most of all I don’t want any trouble myself.”
“Just so we can finish this: I let you have the building for a down payment of fourteen thousand marks. But you have to agree now.”
“Is that so? Well . . . let’s talk about it again tomorrow. Fourteen thousand marks is a heap of money, that’s for sure! I’m not an ogre. I don’t want something for nothing. But I have to ask myself whether this place is really worth a fourteen thousand down payment. And of course you realize that the payment could only be made after the deed gets notarized and registered. And in case of any force majeure the whole transaction would be void. Fourteen thousand marks . . . Do you honestly believe I’m getting a bargain if we shake on it this evening and call it a deal?”
“You wanted to pay fifteen thousand marks and now you’re hesitating at fourteen?”
“I’m just thinking there are other deals I could make with the money, maybe better ones. You just always have to see for yourself where you are in life. Well?” He sighed contentedly.
Silbermann jumped up.
“Of course I can’t influence your decision,” he said impatiently. “But since I don’t have any more time I’d appreciate it if you could make up your mind right here and now. Otherwise please consider my offer as no longer valid. I don’t even know if you’re seriously interested in the purchase or not.”
“There’s no need to sound like that,” Findler replied testily. “I’ve always known that you Jews aren’t cut out for doing business, at least not with people who know what they’re doing, well . . .”
Silbermann saw how much Findler was enjoying this extortion—the man was even proud of it. Silbermann had a sharp response on his tongue, something to the effect that he, Silbermann, couldn’t compete with blackmailers and had no desire to, and that he was used to conducting business in a decent manner. Except there are times when the most simple-minded swindler has the edge over the most intelligent and decent person.
But he didn’t manage to spit out the uncivil thoughts that were bubbling up inside him or even to answer Findler more mildly—which would have been far more reasonable—because suddenly there was a wild ringing at the door. Without paying attention to his visitor’s bewildered face or excusing himself even with a single word, Silbermann hurried out of the room into the hall, where he met his wife.
“You have to leave,” she whispered, upset.
“No, no, I can’t leave you here alone!”
Not knowing what he should do, he headed toward the door. She stopped him.
“Nothing can happen to me if you’re not here,” she assured him, blocking his way. “Spend tonight in a hotel. Now be quick and go.”
He thought for a moment. The bell rang again and fists began pounding at the door.
“Open up, Jew, open up . . . ” several overlapping voices bellowed. Silbermann’s jaw dropped. He fixed his eyes on the door.
“I’m getting my revolver,” he said, almost inaudibly. “I’ll shoot down the first one who breaks into my home! No one has the right to barge in like that.”
He started to pass his wife and head to the bedroom.
“We’ll see about that,” he said. “We’ll see about that . . . ”
Fists again pounded the door and the bell was ringing shrilly.
“Well?” asked Findler, who had stepped into the hall when he heard the noise. “What’s happening here? That’s just great. If the brothers catch me here, in their excitement they might take me for a Jew and smash my teeth in.”
He ran his hand tenderly over his mouth.
“Don’t you have a back door?” he then asked Silbermann, who was standing there watching him, as though he were expecting help and advice. “And to hell with it, you can foist your damned building on somebody else,” he added.
“I’m getting my revolver,” Silbermann repeated mechanically, “and I’ll shoot the first one who breaks into my house!”
“Now there,” said Theo Findler, to calm him down. “Easy does it. Better you should go. I’ll talk to them. See that you get out through the back door. And I’ll take the place for ten thousand. Do we have a deal?”
“You are . . . All right, all right, it’s a deal.”
“So then get a move on! I need you alive so you can sign the deed.”
“Go, go,” his wife begged.
The doorbell rang again, and Silbermann wondered why no one was kicking in the door.
“And what will happen to my wife?” he asked helplessly.
“Just count on me,” said Findler, full of confidence. “I’ll take care of everything, but now see to it that you get out of here!”
“If anything happens to my wife . . . you won’t get the building.”
“Fine, fine,” Findler reassured him, “but if you don’t disappear, then you’ll be putting both your wife and me in danger!”
He straightened his jacket, ran his right hand over his bristly hair, took a deep breath, and went to the door.
“Well?” he asked in a booming voice. “What’s going on?”
“Open up, Jew!”
“Have you ever seen a party block leader who is a Jew?” Findler asked coarsely.
“Shut up, you filthy pig, open up!”
Findler turned around to make sure Silbermann had left the hall with his hat and coat, then signaled to Frau Silbermann that she should hide in one of the rooms, and then shouted, “I’m a member of the party!” He tore open the door. “There is no Jew here!” he announced.
Six or seven young men were standing in front of him. For a moment his forceful appearance intimidated them. He reached into his breast pocket to show them his party book.
“The Jews swindle everybody,” said one of the men. “Silbermann a party member—of all the Jewish nerve!”
“I’m not Silber—” Theo Findler doubled over and fell to the floor. One of the men had kicked him in the crotch.
Excerpted from The Passenger by Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz. Published by Metropolitan Books, an imprint of Henry Holt and Company, © 2018 by J. G. Cotta’sche Buchhandlung. Translation © 2021 by Philip Boehm.
Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz (1915 – 1942) wrote two novels, People Parallel to Life and The Passenger. Due to his Jewish background, he fled his native Germany at 20; he was killed at 27 on a ship torpedoed by a German submarine.
Philip Boehm has translated more than 30 novels and plays by German and Polish writers, including Herta Müller, Franz Kafka, and Hanna Krall. He has received numerous awards, including NEA and Guggenheim fellowships and, most recently, the Helen and Kurt Wolff Translator’s Prize.