What We’re Reading: The Passenger

Cover of the book.  
Block print in black and white by Frans Masereel shows a busy train platform.  Three train cars are on the left, along with three rows of train cars on the right, including a steam engine at the far right.  Indistinct passengers crowd the top and bottom of the platform, with a train engineer blocking the top crowd.  One loan man runs from the left train to the right.   The author, Ulrich Alexander Boshwitz, and the title, The Passenger, are in red sans serif type.
Cover by Frans Masereel

The Passenger

by Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz

As I’m writing this, the UN estimates that about over 2,000,000 Ukrainians have fled the Russian invasion and subsequent war.  By bus, by car, by train, the refugees are seeking safety from the tanks rolling down their roads and highways.

This means that there are still millions are left in Ukraine.  And maybe some are wondering why they, too, are not fleeing.  Just as people wondered why, in the late 1930s, Jews didn’t flee Germany during the rise of the Third Reich.  The answers to both are the same – leaving is very difficult.

The Passenger is the story of a Jewish man whose life is falling apart.  Otto Silbermann is losing his business, his home, his friends, and now comes the Berlin police to arrest him for… something.  He has money.  He has contacts.  He has a son in France. He doesn’t look Jewish.  His wife is Christian and she has relatives.  Surely, if anyone can escape Germany, if anyone can find a safe haven, it’s him.

Yet Otto is thwarted again and again.  He can’t get a visa.  He can’t cross borders.  His contacts can’t help him.  His wife’s relatives refuse him.  So he takes one train, then another, then another, trying to find a way out. 

Otto isn’t a nice or decent person. As a businessman, he took the advantages he could.  As a taxpayer, he was less than forthright.  He wasn’t a great friend or spouse.  And still he is easy to sympathize with. His fear is palpable.  His frustrations are endless.  His loss of hope is harrowing. 

His journey echos the harrowing travels of those who later went to the concentration camps.  Is this purposeful?  In fact, it’s not. Boschwitz was very young when we wrote this. He lived in Britain but was detained at the beginning of the war by the UK government. At one point he was sent to a relocation camp in Australia, only to be recalled back to the UK later.  But on his return voyage, his ship was sunk by a U-Boat. All onboard were lost.  He didn’t live to learn what happened in his homeland 

This is an early book from a young writer. When it was first published in 1939, it was mostly ignored.  This new version was edited by Peter Graf and became a best seller in 2021.  Even so, the writing isn’t always polished or beautiful.  But the story is gripping, and, especially today, important.  

If you’d like to find a copy:

  • Available from the Harvard Library
  • Available in print in many public libraries.
  • Audiobook: In Audible, Scribd, and some public library Overdrive/Libby collections  
  • Ebook: Kindle and some public library Overddrive/Libby collections.

Check out your public library’s free ebook, audiobook, and digital media collections in Overdrive/Libby or Hoopla.  All Massachusetts residents can register for a free Boston Public Library ecard to access the BPL online collections.

Scroll to Top