There is no shortage of fictions set in the Nazi era, and the most serious attempts are based on an enormous amount of historical research. This is in stark contrast to two novels written in the late 1930s to which major American publishers have given new life this year.
These are works that were not born from an excavation of the past, but which arose out of the urgency of their moment as the story unfolds.
“The Passenger” was written the day after Kristallnacht by Berliner Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz in his early twenties.
The novel follows Otto Silbermann, a successful Berlin Jewish businessman and World War I veteran whose commitment to his country kept him from leaving, even as his son took refuge in England. However, we are now at the end of 1938 and Silbermann’s world is rapidly collapsing. With the forced Aryanization of Jewish businesses, he now depends on the goodwill of non-Jewish friends and associates, to find that they view his bad luck as an opportunity they take advantage of.
When the Nazis arrive at the door of his apartment, Silbermann has no choice but to escape through a backdoor. Unwanted or dangerous in hotels, it unexpectedly finds itself on the run and mostly lives on trains. He realizes “the point is that I have already emigrated… to the Deutsche Reichsbahn. I am no longer in Germany. I am on trains crossing Germany.
As he travels the country in search of money and freedom with growing desperation, the time he spends in the passenger compartments offers him the opportunity to take stock of attitudes towards Nazism and the Jews among his compatriots. Most see their party membership as a badge of honor.
Boschwitz does not idealize Silbermann. While it is admirable that he does not lose his moral sensitivity when the world around him has let go of such niceties, he is also a difficult product of his social class. And he is thwarted by his own stubborn belief in his country and what should be his rightful position in it. He only came to understand his status better after it had evaporated: “I had a wonderful life… I was rooted… No, I was not rooted. I only imagined that I was.
Silbermann is able to travel with relative ease as he does not appear to be a recognizable Jew. And one of the book’s psychological hunches emerges through Silbermann’s growing aversion to meeting other Jews, as they now pose a risk to him. Meeting an old friend, he notes that “I too was afraid of his Jewish nose.”
When I saw that Boschwitz had died in 1942, I assumed he had been killed during the Holocaust. His fate was more complicated. He was born to a Protestant mother and a Jewish father who converted to Christianity, but died shortly before Ulrich was born. Boschwitz, who was still Jewish by Nazi standards, and his mother were able to leave Germany in 1935, eventually settling in England.
He published a version of “The Passenger” there in 1939. However, with the onset of World War II, he, along with many refugees from Nazi Germany, were classified as “hostile aliens.” He was sent to camps, first on the Isle of Man, then in Australia. After being reclassified as a “friend”, he was sent back to England on a passenger ship which was torpedoed by the German Navy. He died along with 361 other passengers.
“Address Unknown” by Kathrine Kressmann Taylor is a book I had heard about but never met. The short work was originally published in 1938 in “Story” magazine, where it was attributed simply to Kressmann Taylor – apparently the magazine’s editor and Taylor’s husband felt the article was ” too strong to appear under a woman’s name “.
It was soon published as a book by Simon and Schuster (still under the pseudonym) with great success, but spent most of the decades that followed being out of print. It was reissued this summer by Ecco.
Born in Oregon, Taylor (who was not Jewish) wrote the book while living in San Francisco. She did this in response to seeing good friends in the United States return to their native Germany and transform into committed Nazis.
The 96-page short story consists entirely of letters sent between Martin Schulse and Max Eisenstein, associates in an art gallery in San Francisco, after Martin’s return to Germany in the early 1930s. During their correspondence, which begins with great mutual affection, we are witnessing the nascent adoption of nazism by martin, as well as the corresponding dissatisfaction expressed by max, who is jewish.
Max’s concern is heightened by concern for the well-being of his Viennese sister (with whom Martin had previously had an affair), who is attempting to pursue an acting career in Berlin. And I’ll stop here, as it would be unfair of me to further reveal the plot of this satisfying, but very short book, other than to say that Taylor used the letter writing device brilliantly.
These two books are timely, given the current rise in anti-Semitism and the increase in racist violence, particularly directed against Asian Americans. And what I find particularly resonant in both books is their focus on relationships as a barometer of societal dysfunction. These portraits of how opportunism, ideological devotion, and bigotry can trump friendships and interpersonal loyalties are all too real, and they are caveats to heed.
“The Passenger” by Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz (288 pages, Metropolitan Books)
“Address unknown” by Kathrine Kressmann Taylor (96 pages, Ecco)