I have just finished reading Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz’ The Passenger, the story of a Jewish businessman trying to escape the Nazis in the wake of Kristallnacht. The novel opens on 9 November with a visit of Nazi officers to the Berlin flat of Otto Silbermann which sees one of his few remaining friends attacked, while the once well respected businessman can only slip out of the back door with a suitcase.
While he still manages to wind up his business and rescue a small fortune in his briefcase, the remainder of the novel sees Silbermann travelling by train across Germany, finding he has nowhere to turn. As he travels from Berlin to Hamburg, to Dortmund, Aachen, Munich and Dresden and many times back and forth, he meets people who are suspicious of him, but also people who are kind and willing to help.
Nevertheless, he grows increasingly anxious, hopeless and weary of travelling as well as of life itself as Nazi Germany becomes a trap for the upstanding citizen whose passport does not allow him to cross the border to safety.
The book was written by Boschwitz, who himself had a Jewish background, soon after the events of Kristallnacht and was first published in England in 1939 long before it came out in German.
As it happens, I have been reading part of the book on trains – the last bit of it as I was travelling from London to Brussels, Cologne and back. Along the way I could not stop thinking of the hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians fleeing their homes, many of them travelling by train across Europe, some eighty years after the Passenger was written, facing an uncertain future.
While the situation of Ukrainians fleeing from the Russian invasion of their country is quite different from that of the Jewish population of Nazi Germany in many ways (some 6 million Jews were killed by the Nazis), the Passenger nevertheless made me connect to the present refugees on an emotional level as it captures most of all the uncertainty of uprooting a life and travelling without a clear destination.
I do not know how many Ukrainians who have made it across the border to Poland, Slovakia, Hungary or elsewhere had a clear plan or an address to turn to and how many are just lucky to have escaped the war and leave it to chance where they will end up. However, I hope they will find kind people and places to go.
I saw many offers of help along the way that made me hopeful: two women in hi vis jackets and Covid masks holding up boards draped in the Ukrainian colours on the platform at Brussels Midi, signage showing the blue and yellow flag with simple instructions in Ukrainian and Russian around the station buildings in Brussels, Cologne and London, arrows pointing to help desks and makeshift offices. There even was an announcement in Ukrainian as our train arrived in Brussels from Cologne.
Yet, in the general chaos accompanying train travel on a busy Bank Holiday weekend, I did not see if many people took up the offers of help. I just hope they make a difference.