When you consider when this book was written, in what circumstances and a little about the writer, Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz, it will seem astonishingly prescient. The fact is that this is a revised edition, translated from the German, the first German edition that has been published.
A little background: UAB was born to Jewish parents in Berlin in 1915. His father was a decorated veteran of World War One. One other thing that should be noted, is that Boschwitz and his sister were brought up as Christians, their father having converted long before their birth, or his marriage to a Christian woman. He left Germany in 1935 with his family and they lived for a time in Oslo, then Ulrich transferred to Paris, where he wrote the first draft of the novel, while studying at the Sorbonne. He arrived, with his mother, in England in 1939, was interned in the Isle of Man as an “enemy alien” and eventually transferred with other “enemy aliens”, as well as German and Italian prisoners of war to Australia. The conditions were appalling, and not greatly improved on arrival. Eventually, encouraged to join the fight against Germany, 351 of the said “enemy aliens” were on their way back to Europe when their transport ship was torpedoed, and all of them drowned.
So much for the potted biography. In the novel, Otto Silberman is a wealthy business man engaged in metal salvage, mostly of ships. His partner, Becker, has been until Kristallnacht (9th November, 1938) the General Manager but sensing the way things are going Silberman has sold part of the business, liquidating his assets in the process.
He returns to his home, where he is hoping to do the same with his apartment, as he owns the whole block. But Theo Findler has other ideas, and in a process that becomes more and more acrimonious, reduces his offer to a paltry sum. Two important telephone calls interrupt this negotiation; one from his son, Eduard, in Paris, one from his sister. Elfriede, his wife, is talking to Findler when the Gestapo arrive at the front door. Elfriede is a Christian. Findler persuades Otto to leave by the back door, he will deal with the Germans.
From then on, throughout the whole of the rest of the novel, Otto is on the move. He becomes a passenger on one train after another, from Berlin to Aachen, back to Berlin, on to Hamburg and Dortmund, back to Berlin. Filled with suspicion he follows Becker and “collects” his money, which he is carrying with him in a briefcase for the rest of the time.
He meets, on one train or another, a variety of German people with varying views; Silberman himself has Aryan good looks, he is tall, blond and elegant; at first he travels in First Class, then in Second and once he ventures into the Third Class carriages; he meets other nervous travellers, German army officers and other people who clearly dislike and distrust the Jews, he meets people that he knows, who have a more typical appearance assigned to the Jewish race and he learns about himself as well as about others, even about the kindness of strangers.
There are so many books, fiction and non fiction about this dark period in German history. This one was written at a moment when the world could have done more and didn’t. The stain remains on many nations, even if mostly upon Germany itself. If Ulrich Boschwitz could see what was happening, why did no one else react? Of course, many did, leaving Germany before 1936, and many like Otto Silberman left it too late.
The sense of claustrophobia, the sweat-inducing nervousness, the moments of sheer panic resonate throughout this novel, so that the times when someone is kind or thoughtful stand out in stark contrast. But this most interesting novel has at its very centre, a person who is not really very likeable: Otto is a bit self satisfied, especially of his non-Jewish looks and it takes a long time for him to come to some much needed self realisation, and when he does, it comes with a death wish.