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Notes from a Crusty Seeker

The Passenger: People See What They Decide to See and Make Drastic Judgments

I usually only post book reviews of books that won't leave me alone. I thought, and hoped, that when I finished reading The Passenger by Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz, I was done with it. Since I closed the final page, I've gone to a book club meeting where we discussed another book and I'm reading my third new book. But Boschwitz won't leave. Hence, here's the review:

The Passenger


Otto Silbermann, with his Aryan nose but his Jewish last name is on the run. Although he's just been excoriated and demeaned by his Nazi business partner, he managed to get some of his money back. However he's stuck:

Mulling over his situation, he wondered what am I supposed to do now? Because they're still going after Jews. I can't stay a single night in my apartment—not with forty-one thousand marks!
We have to leave Germany, but no place will let us in I have enough money to start a new life, but how to get it out of the country? I don't have the nerve to try to smuggle it across. Should I stay or go? What to do?
Should I risk ten years in prison for a currency offense? But what other choice is there? Without money I'd starve out there. Every road leads to ruin, every single one. How am I supposed to fight against the state?
. . .
Other people were smarter. Other people are always smarter! If I'd realized in time what was going on, I could have saved my money. But everyone was constantly reassuring me. Becker [business partner] more than anybody. And fool that I am, I let myself be reassured. . . .
Maybe things aren't half so bad, and the whole business is one big psychosis. But no, I should finally acknowledge the reality of the situation: things are going to get worse—much, much worse! (80-81)

It's 1938 and Otto Silbermann, a persnickety neurotic, could not be less suited to running for his life.


Author Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz (1915-1942) wrote and published an earlier version of The Passenger when he was only 23, and he died before he could get a revised edition to his publisher. At first the writing seemed to me to have some of the clumsiness of a young writer—overwriting, heavy-handed dialogue, redundancy—but as my anxiety grew (more on that in a second) so did the writing grow on me and I stopped judging.


The substance, largely Silbermann's inner ever-changing monologue, bone-chillingly puts the reader into the frenzied flight of a German Jew running for his/her life. (And there are so many similarities between Nazi tactics of blaming their victims and today's politics that essentially claim black is white, that you don't have to be Jewish to shudder. And the flight for life in an impossible situation plays daily in our news—whether it be South and Central Americans running from gangs or Afghans hanging from American airplanes as their last hope for life. Being human is all that is required for shuddering at this story.)


The book includes a Foreword and an Afterword that enhance this tale with true history—of the author, the book, this new edition of the book, and the times—and contributed to the nervous stomach I felt every time I began to read. I could not separate myself from Otto Silbermann and my fear was so visceral that I could only stand reading in short spurts. By the second to last chapter, I was so identified with him and his frantic indecision that I lurched to the computer to write this sentence, then noticed that my ceiling-high dracaena's support stick was leaning precariously to the right, so I uprighted it, thought I should wash the plant and water all the plants, but I was so hungry I was light-headed so maybe I should eat first, but really I wanted to type this sentence, so that's what I'm doing and maybe once I've hit the period, I'll eat—yes, that's it, I'll eat. But I really need to pee, and who is that I hear talking outside my window? I can't find him. He must be on a lower floor terrace. I must pee and eat and water the plants. Damn that man, why can't he keep his voice down? — This is how Silbermann negotiates this entire story.


Like Boschwitz, I was not raised in the religion or culture, but apparently my face screams "Jew" so loudly that strangers all over the world have felt confident in labeling me, and even friends I've explained my lifelong history of celebrating Christmas to insist on wishing me a "Happy Hanukka." And this labeling has made me Jewish despite no relationship to the religion. It's taken years (and a first novel; see Plan Z by Leslie Kove) to work this all out in my psyche, and now I actually feel quite good calling myself an Ashkenazi Jew; I like my heritage and derivation from a tribe of survivors. It is a powerful warm feeling in my bone marrow. Hence I shuddered in my bone marrow for the entire length of this book and, after each reading session, had to consciously decompress and tap into my gratitude that I live in the most diverse city in the world surrounded by people who look like me. . . . If they come for me, they'll have to come for all of NYC.


People are people, people! If you don't feel outrage at the condemning and demonization of whole groups of people (excepting "Good Nazis" or anybody dedicated to genocide), read this book. If you feel superior to anybody who is condemned, I hope this powerful novel makes you miserable enough to dissolve your illusions.


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