Kristallnacht 81 Years On |

Rediscovering the Forgotten Jewish Novelist Who Foretold the Holocaust

A book by Ulrich A. Boschwitz has been rescued from oblivion and has finally won fame in the mother tongue of the author who was forced to flee his homeland

Avner Shapira
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The German novelist Ulrich A. Boschwitz (1915-1942)
The German novelist Ulrich A. Boschwitz (1915-1942). 'He describes the moment when the dehumanization of German society takes shape, where barbarism begins.' Credit: Leo Baeck Institute
Avner Shapira

One mid-July morning this year, a modest memorial ceremony took place for three former residents of 81 Hohenzollerndamm in Berlin, all members of the Boschwitz family who fled shortly after the Nazis took power in 1933.

The stolpersteine dedicated to author Ulrich A. Boschwitz. The small, gilded plaques on the pavement memorialize victims of the Nazis who were forced to flee or were deported, often to their deaths.Credit: OTFW

One of the three, novelist Ulrich A. Boschwitz, has become the subject of heightened interest in the past two years due to the rediscovery of his two novels – some 80 years after they were written and 75 years after Boschwitz died at 27 in a naval disaster during World War II.

The mayor of the Berlin borough of Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf, where the building is located, took part in the ceremony, along with the German artist Gunter Demnig, who opened the event by engraving Stolpersteine – stumbling blocks – the small, gilded plaques on the pavement that memorialize victims of the Nazis who were forced to flee or were deported, often to their deaths.

Demnig had a lot of work on his hands that mid-July morning in Berlin; as soon as he was done with the stones for three members of the Boschwitz family – the author, his older sister Clarissa and their mother Martha – he rushed to two other Stolpersteine ceremonies.

But even in his absence it was hard not to think about the similarity between the Stolpersteine phenomenon and “Der Reisende” (“The Traveler”), Boschwitz’s second novel. It was written soon after Kristallnacht in November 1938 and describes the travails of a Berlin Jew, the businessman Otto Silbermann, who has fled his home, attempting to escape his homeland.

The new edition of Ulrich A. Boschwitz's novel "Der Reisende" ("The Traveler").Credit: Achuzat Bayit Books

“Der Reisende” was written in German, but of course could not find a publisher under the Nazi regime. The manuscript went missing, and the work would traverse a long and winding road until it was finally published in Boschwitz’s mother tongue, winning its author belated fame.

Boschwitz managed to get the book published in his lifetime in English, and when the war ended, in French, but it didn’t draw much attention. Boschwitz’s sister, who preserved his estate following her emigration to Israel, passed the estate on to her daughter, Reuella Shachaf. She in turn gave the estate – which did not include “Der Reisende” – to a German literary scholar from the United States, who transferred it to the Leo Baeck Institute in New York.

Shachaf believed in “Der Reisende” – she tried to pique the interest of publishers, editors and translators in Israel, but the author’s anonymity and the absence of the German manuscript hindered the production of a Hebrew version.

Then, four years ago, Shachaf read my Haaretz article about “Blood Brothers,” the 1932 novel by the forgotten German author Ernst Haffner. The book, which tells the story of street waifs in Berlin, had been rediscovered by the German publisher Peter Graf and was translated into many languages, including Hebrew. Shachaf wrote me and asked for my help in contacting Graf, who had been interviewed in my article. She hoped he might be interested in her uncle’s story and in rescuing him from the oblivion.

I mentioned this to the German-to-Hebrew translator Noa Kol, who searched for information on the author and discovered that a copy of the German manuscript of “Der Reisende” was stored in the foreign-literature archives of the German National Library in Frankfurt. The manuscript landed there after the author’s mother had handed it to another institution. From there it was passed from one archive to another, unbeknownst to other members of the family.

The portrait of Boschwitz painted by his mother. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

When I told all this to Graf, he expressed great enthusiasm and a few days later even flew to Frankfurt to read the manuscript. He says he was fascinated by the text, apparently the earliest literary description of the fate of German Jews after Kristallnacht. He realized that the manuscript hadn’t been edited and felt that some editing could improve it immeasurably, a project he embarked on.

Graf was encouraged by the fact that Boschwitz continued to revise the book even after its initial publication in other languages – Boschwitz wasn’t satisfied with it – as well as by the author’s request to his mother on the eve of his death that she get the book published in German and that she tap the expertise of a literary expert to that end. “I really believe that there’s something in this book that can turn it into a success,” Boschwitz wrote to his mother in August 1942.

The book did become a literary sensation after Graf edited and published it via the Klett-Cotta publishing house in February 2018. It was praised in the German press, was compared to other prominent works of literature about the Nazi era, reached the best-seller lists and was sold for translation into 16 languages, including Hebrew.

And now, exactly 81 years after Kristallnacht, “Der Reisende” is being released in Israel with Kol’s beautiful, flowing translation. In the spring the book will also come out in English, by Metropolitan Books in the United States and Pushkin Press in Britain.

Reuella Shachaf at home in Ra'anana with a portrait of her uncle, novelist Ulrich A. Boschwitz, painted by his mother, October 27, 2019.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Graf says the belated discovery of the novel is like finding a message in a bottle 80 years later. “What makes it so special is the fact that Boschwitz wrote it in this form after the pogrom in 1938 – he feverishly composed it over the course of one month – but Ulrich had not experienced the later extermination of the Jews. What he describes stands at the beginning of a cruel process, it’s the beginning of physical violence, of systematic persecution, but it’s also the moment when the dehumanization of German society takes shape, where barbarism begins.”

As Graf puts it, “By means of Silbermann’s story, we see how the events undermined all of the certainty, and how a respectable citizen becomes subordinate and ostracized. I see the book as a manifesto of humanity because anyone who follows this process as a reader learns almost everything about what it means to be a human being. What dignity means, what guilt means. He even learns that victims can also be guilty, and vice versa, that in a climate of hate one can preserve one’s own empathy.”

Similar to Graf, many critics who reviewed the novel have been amazed at the way it brings history to life and slaps readers in the face. “‘Der Reisende’ moves the mass terror and suffering into the arena of literary fiction,” said the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, while Der Spiegel described the book as an exciting composition in which “Boschwitz develops an impressive panorama of the Germans of his time.”

Other critics praised the rhythm of the story that reads like a thriller – in which the author and his protagonists don’t know the end of the story or the destination to where the Nazis were sending the Jews.

“‘Der Reisende” has been compared in Germany to the works of major writers such as Anna Seghers, Elias Canetti and Imre Kertész, while Boschwitz’s first novel “Menschen neben dem Leben” (“People Next to Life”) has been mentioned in the same breath as novels by Hans Fallada, Joseph Roth and Alfred Döblin, Graf says. “In my opinion, these comparisons show just how talented Boschwitz was. And perhaps – one cannot know – if he had developed this talent for a long life, he would have created a work that went far beyond the two novels we know from him.”

From trains to a sinking ship

Boschwitz’s rediscovery isn’t taking place in a void. Several German writers, some of them of Jewish origin, took their first literary steps during the final days of the Weimar Republic or at the dawn of the Nazi regime, were persecuted, and were forgotten. Then in the past two decades they have won wide recognition. The most prominent example is Fallada, along with Haffner, Hans Keilson and Irmgard Keun.

As with “Der Reisende,” there were writers who provided evidence of life in Nazi Germany but who were published in German only decades later. This includes two books that are mentioned in many discussions about Boschwitz’s novel: “Geschichte eines Deutschen: Die Erinnerungen 1914-1933 (“The Story of a German: Memoirs 1914-1933”) by the historian and journalist Sebastian Haffner, written in 1939, and the world-famous Nazi-period diary “I Will Bear Witness” by the linguist and literary scholar Victor Klemperer.

The new edition of Boschwitz’s first novel “Menschen neben dem Leben” (“People Next to Life”).

Unlike the latter two writers, “Der Reisende” isn’t a memoir or documentary work but historical fiction. Still, it’s based on authentic experiences, captures the spirit of the times and couldn’t have been written the same way later. For instance, Boschwitz’s main motif is Germany’s trains, which the protagonist Silbermann changes again and again; they move him from Berlin to Hamburg, Aachen, Dortmund, Dresden and back to Berlin.

But these aren’t the trains that charge through the collective memory in the wake of the Holocaust and that unavoidably lead to the concentration camps and death camps. In a sense, the trains in “Der Reisende” serve as a path to escape and a doorway to hope, just an instant before they were burdened with the hemorrhaging history of the first half of the 1940s.

Similarly, there’s the statement that Silbermann hears early in the novel from a waiter who thinks his client is an Aryan and who complains about the difficulty in identifying Jews. This statement could be interpreted differently than it was when the book was written.

The waiter says it would be better if Jews were forced to place a yellow ribbon around an arm to prevent “confusion”; this was written about a year before Polish Jews were forced to wear yellow patches and about three years before the Jews of Germany were forced to do so (even though the historical roots of this branding were planted as early as the Middle Ages).

The German novelist Ulrich A. Boschwitz (1915-1942), right. Continued to revise the book even after its initial publication in other languages.Credit: Reproduction by Tomer Appelbaum

Unlike the character Silbermann, the author Boschwitz left Germany early, already in 1935. He too was the scion of a well-to-do, respected family and didn’t consider himself a Jew. Born in Berlin in 1915, his father, who had died a few months earlier, was a converted Jewish physician and businessman born into a family of tradesmen.

Boschwitz’s mother Martha, a painter and the descendant of a family of German senators and Christian theologians from the northern city of Lübeck, raised Ulrich and Clarissa alone, giving them a Protestant education. After her husband’s death, she managed the family businesses and devoted the rest of her time to painting.

Clarissa, who studied medicine and social work, converted to Judaism and fled Germany in 1933, first to Switzerland and then to British Mandatory Palestine; her mother and brother left Germany about two years later.

Shachaf notes that they left in the wake of the 1935 Nuremberg Laws that institutionalized discrimination against the Jews. “But it seems that the more direct reason was the murder of Martha’s brother, the judge Alexander Wolgast,” she says.

“He was murdered in the street after declaring that the new laws of the Nazi regime were invalid as far as he was concerned. They left behind the house and their assets and began a journey of wandering – through Norway, Sweden, Luxembourg, Belgium and France.”

It was during these years of exile that Boschwitz began to write prose; in 1937 he published “Menschen neben dem Leben,” which focused on the socioeconomic problems in Berlin in the early ‘30s. He was only able to get the book published in a Swedish translation. The novel, which he wrote under the name John Grane, won high praise in Sweden.

Boschwitz, left. The trains in 'Der Reisende' serve as a path to escape, just an instant before they were burdened with the hemorrhaging history of the first half of the 1940s.Credit: Reproduction by Tomer Appelbaum

While his mother settled in London, Boschwitz found refuge in Paris, where he studied at the Sorbonne for a few semesters. In 1939 he joined his mother and that year “Der Reisende” was published in English, first in Britain and then in the United States. This novel, too, appeared under the Grane nom de plume; titles given it at the time were “The Man Who Took Trains” and “The Fugitive.”

In the tense geopolitical climate of the time, the novel’s reception was subdued, but some critics noticed its virtues. In 1940, the American magazine Saturday Review applauded it for its credible, simple and unsentimental description of life under the Nazi regime.

A short while after Boschwitz joined his mother in London and thought he had reached a safe haven, it turned out his odyssey hadn’t ended. At the outbreak of the war, both he and his mother were arrested, as were most Germans who had fled to Britain, even if they were Jewish or opponents of the Nazi regime.

In 1940, Boschwitz was sent to a prison camp in Australia aboard the HMT Dunera, a British passenger ship, along with 2,500 people, mostly fellow refugees from Germany and Austria. The ship became infamous for the abuse of the refugees during their two months onboard; some of the crew were eventually put on trial, the refugees won compensation, and Prime Minister Winston Churchill apologized. The crew looted the migrants, thus Boschwitz lost the manuscript of a new book he had completed (not “Der Reisende”).

During the two years he spent in an Australian prison camp, Boschwitz continued to write endlessly and began to revise “Der Reisende.” When the refugees were released in 1942, he requested to return to Europe and was due to join British military intelligence. He set sail for England aboard the passenger ship the Abosso.

Later on, Shachaf and her mother met an artist from Kibbutz Ein Gev in the north who had been at the Australian camp with Boschwitz. He told the women that Boschwitz was worried before the voyage and therefore wrapped around his body the manuscript of another new book. He hoped that if the ship sank maybe he’d be able to save the manuscript. On October 29, 1942, the ship was hit by two torpedoes fired by a German submarine, and 362 passengers drowned, including Boschwitz.

“To us, the absent Uncle Ulrich was very much a part of things, an uncle we never had the privilege to meet,” Shachaf says. “Throughout my entire early childhood and teen years, the portrait of him that my grandmother painted and sent to my mother was present; a painting I still have. Grandma had a hard time coming to terms with his death and believed that he had survived and was living on a desert island, and as a girl I also imagined this and fantasized that we’d find him someday.”

Encounters with other Germans

In “Der Reisende,” as the Gestapo searches for Silbermann, he puts together some cash and sets out, hoping he’ll find a crack through which he can be rescued. Thus begins an intricate adventure story in which train cars serve as a temporary home; he skips from place to place, always forced to continue on.

Along the way his “Aryan” looks and wad of money keep him on the go. In this story of a Jewish refugee who moves from train to train during the arrests of tens of thousands of Jews following Kristallnacht, a portrait emerges both of German Jews suffering the persecution of the late ‘30s and of German society as reflected in the protagonist’s encounters with other Germans.

Ulrich A. Boschwitz as a 2-year-old with his mother, 1917.Credit: Reproduction by Tomer Appelbaum

In an epilogue, publisher Graf notes that the character Silbermann “reflects the rift in Boschwitz’s soul. Not only that Silbermann isn’t an especially likable person – there are times when he’s even revolted by his colleagues who share his misfortune – but also that not all the Germans he meets during his flight are bad people. He encounters a broad spectrum of characters in German society: those taking part in active persecution, those who take part in crimes, those who aid and abet crime, frightened Germans who turn a blind eye to the crimes, and courageous and compassionate Germans who provide aid to the persecuted. This is his view of the country and of the nation that he still feels a connection to.”

Shachaf notes the scene where Silbermann listens to two Nazis sitting next to him on a train and tries to find a new term to replace the word “culture,” which to them is a European term unsuited to the new German spirit. She says Silbermann, like Boschwitz, is an eyewitness to the collapse of values and concepts of the European culture he was raised on, to be supplanted by a nationalist and racist culture.

For 20 or so Israeli relatives of Boschwitz, the visit to Berlin this summer was an emotional closing of a circle. Shachaf, a 77-year-old from the Tel Aviv suburb of Ra’anana, was born about a month after Boschwitz’s death. She wrote a lecture for the Stolpersteine ceremony. Her younger brother, 71-year-old Doron Salzberg from Kibbutz Einat east of Tel Aviv, was choked up as he read aloud the family history.

At the end of the ceremony, memorial candles were lit next to the Stolpersteine and the national anthems of Israel and Germany were sung. Just as the crowd began to disperse, the door of the building where the Boschwitzes once lived suddenly opened and a current resident emerged. Holding a bouquet of flowers, she placed it next to the three Stolpersteine.

Ulrich A. Boschwitz as a boy with his sister Clarissa and an aunt. Credit: Reproduction by Tomer Appelbaum

During the visit to Berlin, another event honoring Ulrich A. Boschwitz took place at the city’s Literaturhaus; first in German and then in Hebrew, actors read aloud a section of “Der Reisende.” Graf told the audience about the novel’s journey starting with the discovery of the manuscript in Frankfurt. He spoke about its impact, including its adaptation for the theater – the production at the Schauspielhaus Zürich and the upcoming efforts in both Germany and Poland. He said a letter he found in an archive reveals that in the ‘60s, future Nobel Prize winner Heinrich Böll failed in efforts to make “Der Reisende” known.

At the events, an excerpt of “Menschen neben dem Leben” was also read aloud. Amid the success of “Der Reisende,” publisher Graf brought this book out once again as well, starting in Germany a month ago. “It’s a brilliant urban novel,” he says.

Two Boschwitz manuscripts may have sunk into the depths of the sea, one during his voyage from England to Australia and the other on his return trip when his ship was torpedoed. But two novels have been dredged up from the depths of oblivion and have won fame in the mother tongue of an author who was forced to flee his homeland. At long last they have gained him entrance to the shelves of 20th-century German literature.

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