‘They’ll slowly undress us first and then kill us, so our clothes won’t get bloody and our banknotes won’t get damaged.’ These words, spoken by Otto Silbermann in Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz’s The Passenger, are startling. Not because they so perfectly articulate the obscene ethos of Auschwitz but because they were written several years before the fact.
Composed in 1938, after its author had escaped the more murderous developments of Hitler’s regime, The Passenger is a tense, nightmarish account of one Jewish man’s attempt to survive in a country that is systematically stripping him of his right to exist. Initially blind to the dangers around him, Silbermann, a respectable businessman, suddenly finds his familiar environment transformed into a perilous hunting ground when a group of brownshirts come pounding on his door. Having given them the slip, he adopts an unlikely stratagem: to turn himself into a moving target and take to the Reichsbahn.
With an eye for sinister tension redolent of Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock, Boschwitz subjects his hero to a series of nerve-racking encounters on the railways. Shunned by former associates, friends and even family, he boards one train after another, tearing across the length and breadth of Germany in a sleepless race that grows more desperate each minute. As the money in his briefcase dwindles, so the fugitive sinks from first class, to second, to third, each journey stripping him of his illusions and his identity, each minute bringing him closer to the inevitable realisation: that he has long since lost ‘the right to be an ordinary human being’.
By turns claustrophobic, dizzying and symbolic, The Passenger is a work with sufficient pace to be a thriller, yet possessed of enough nuance and psychological depth to be of real literary weight. As the clock ticks ominously on, and the strain of Silbermann’s terrible momentum takes its toll, his journeys acquire an ever more labyrinthine, Kafkaesque quality, casting light on the truly diabolical horror of a regime that entraps and brutalises its own citizens.
To see Boschwitz’s haunting tale written before the outbreak of war and the horrors of the camps is breathtaking. But if there is one thing that this newly discovered classic makes clear, it is that its vision of the barbarism about to take place was no prophecy: the writing was already on the wall, if only one dared to read it.
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