Book Review: Reality Meets Absurdity

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Two novels written almost 80 years apart. Two authors describing a reality that borders on absurdity. Two characters whose flight from the Nazis mixes humor and horror. These statements only partly describe “The Passenger” by Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz (Metropolitan Books) and “Nothing the Same, Everything Haunted: The Ballad of Motl the Cowboy” by Gary Barwin (Random House Canada). One work offers a view of Jewish life just as the Nazis began their reign of terror, while the other looks back at events that took place decades before. 

It’s difficult to believe that “The Passenger” was written in 1938, shortly after Kristallnacht, but before the full extent of the Nazis’ plans for the Jewish population of Europe were revealed. Boschwitz was fortunate to leave Germany in 1935 and, after time in Norway and France, arrived in England in 1939. Unfortunately, once World War II began, he was treated as an enemy alien and transported to Australia. Although he was allowed to return to England in 1942, the 27-year-old author died when his ship was torpedoed by a German submarine. An early version of “The Passenger” had been published shortly after it was written, but the book sank into anonymity until the original German manuscript was found in a Frankfurt archive. What’s amazing is not only how fresh the novel feels, but how Boschwitz manages to predict the future reactions of Jews and Gentiles. 

The plot focuses on Otto Silbermann, a Berlin businessman who is also a veteran of World War I. That fact, however, does not prevent the Nazis from knocking on his apartment door to arrest him after Kristallnacht. Although he manages to escape, nowhere is really safe for him. Otto may not look Jewish, but his official papers identify him as such. Friends and business partners won’t help because they either fear for their own welfare or see his troubles an opportunity for advancement. First looking for assistance and then escape, Otto finds himself boarding trains that crisscross Germany and meeting far too many people who support the Nazi cause.

“The Passenger” is both realistic and satirical. There is a wonderful scene in a police station that could have been written by Franz Kafka, since even when Otto is in the right, being Jewish condemns his every complaint. Although a friend notes that “it’s Jewish blood that’s bringing the German people together. And I fail to see why my friend Silbermann of all people should wind up as glue,” that same friend offers little to Otto in the way of safety. Otto feels as if he is being singled out, noting that “they [the Germans] have declared war on me, on me personally. That’s what it is. War has just been declared on me once and for all and right now I’m completely on my own – in enemy territory” and that “a Jew in Germany without money is like an unfed animal in a cage, something utterly hopeless,” since it’s only because he was cash for train tickets that he is able to continue running. The absurdity of the situation is clear when he suggests that Jews have “become a business opportunity for our enemies, and a danger for our friends. And in the end we’re blamed for our own bad luck.” Otto also offers a prophetic take on what occurred later in the war: “Perhaps [the Nazis will] carefully undress us first and then kill us, so our clothes won’t get bloody and our banknotes won’t get damaged. These days murder is performed economically.” 

At first, the ending of “The Passenger” didn’t seem to flow organically, but, after some thought, it makes sense because of the author’s limited knowledge at the time of its writing. It also emphasizes the absurdity of Otto’s situation. Reading about what happened in Germany written at the same time the events were taking place makes this work particularly poignant and a welcome addition to Holocaust literature.
While Otto in “The Passenger” considered himself fully German, Motl, the main character in “Nothing the Same, Everything Haunted” may live in Lithuania, but no one thinks of him as anything other than Jewish. That’s even clearer once the Germans invade. Like Otto, Motl decides to flee, but in this case he’s looking for something specific: an important part of his anatomy that he lost in Switzerland during a bizarre adventure years before. On his travels, Motl meets Esther, and they both manage to escape absurd situations, including a settlement of Lithuanians pretending to be American Indians and an astonishing circus performance. Their travels clearly show the horrors the Nazis are perpetrating – from crowded ghettos to mass killings. 

To make the plot even stranger, Motl views life as if he were an American cowboy, although the only Wild West he knows is from novels. He declares that he should be allowed to determine his identity: “Should my life be nothing but the minced despair and boiled hopes of an aging Jew, too thin to be anything but borscht made by the Nazis? I choose to think myself a Paleface chuck line rider of doleful countenance, a Quixotic Ashkenazi of the bronco, riding the Oxland trial. Like my mother said when I told her I wanted to be a doctor, ‘Mazel tov, Motl. Nothing is impossible when it’s an illusion.’” Much of Motl’s speech has a Yiddish cadence, and readers will find themselves laughing at his nonsense, shaking their heads at the word play or, sometimes, stopping to note a touching moment. 

Unlike the main character in “The Passenger,” Motl and Esther have difficulty passing as anything other than Jewish, although they manage to gain papers that describe them as Karaites, a sect that Hitler did not consider Jewish. One member of that sect advises them on how to pass as non-Jewish: “Don’t act like a Jew because they say, if you look like a Jew, shrug like a Jew and tend toward an ironic yet earnest engagement with the inscrutable, numinous, ineffable mystery best approached through speculation in the context of traditions, intellectual community and daily ritual, then they’ll probably say you are a Jew.” 

As much as Motl identities at first with the cowboys of the old West, he discovers that the way Europeans treated Native Americans has much in common with the way Nazis are treating the Jews of Europe, something that stays with him once the war is over and he lives in Canada. (It’s made clear in the first chapter that Motl’s Canadian grandson is telling the story.) Motl learns the good and bad sides of his former heroes, and with whom he must now identify.
The sense of absurdity that underlies “Nothing the Same, Everything Haunted” will not appeal to every reader, especially those who have less patience with complex word play. There are a few anachronisms and some questions (how did that car not run out of gas!), but they don’t detract from the roller coaster ride that is Motl’s journey to not only survive the war, but to provide the world with another generation of Jews.