The novel The Passenger was the first literary portrayal of concentration camp realities and the Holocaust from the point-of-view of the perpetrators.
First, in 1959, the play was broadcast on the radio as The Passenger from Cabin 45 / Pasażerka z kabiny 45 (directed by Jerzy Rakowiecki, starring Aleksandra Śląska and Jan Świderski). In 1960, it was shown on television under the title The Passenger / Pasażerka (directed by Andrzej Munk, starring Ryszard Hanin, Zofia Mrozowska, Edward Dziewoński). In 1961, Zofia Posmysz wrote a film adaptation in the novella form and later, together with Andrzej Munk, a screenplay. The filming of The Passenger (directed by Andrzej Munk, starring Aleksandra Śląska, Anna Ciepielewska, Marek Walczewski) was cut short by the director's death. The film was edited and assembled by Munk's colleagues, making it to the screen in September 1963. Zofia Posmysz's contribution to the film was limited to the screenplay and she wasn't involved in its production, however she did work on the novel version of the story, which she published in 1962.
The Passenger has been published in 16 languages. In 1968, the first opera version of the novel appeared in the former Soviet Union (libretto by Yuri Lukin and Aleksander Medvedev, music by Mieczysław Weinberg). The Passenger was also adapted for the stage, both in Poland and abroad.
The novel takes place over two days on a luxury ocean liner. Liza and Walter Kretschmer are sailing from Hamburg to Rio de Janeiro. He's finally secured an ambassador's post representing West Germany in Brazil, while she's happy to accompany her diplomat husband abroad. Both of them approach this turn of fortune with hope. They allow themselves to embark on a life of leisure they could not previously have afforded. Walter carries on a discussion with the American journalist Bradley, who was involved in the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp in 1945 and the de-nazification of Germany and now, 16 years after the war, is disturbed by Germans' lack of guilty feelings or remorse.
Liza's equilibrium becomes unbalanced when she catches a glimpse of one of the passengers. She admits to her husband that the woman reminds her of one of the prisoners in Auschwitz. Walter is devastated as his wife had never acknowledged her SS service and work in the concentration camp. If Liza's past comes out, it will be the end of his diplomatic career - or their marriage. He demands the whole truth of her. He abandons the mocking tone he'd used to deflect Bradley's accusations and begins to defend himself. He risked his life in order to avoid getting his hands dirty. He volunteered for the Wehrmacht in order to avoid the SS and, what's more, he "pursued the bullet" to escape the front line. He confesses before Bradley and demands the same of his wife.
Liza admits to having believed in Nazi ideology and serving as an SS prison officer. However, she doesn't feel responsible for any crime. She didn't beat prisoners. She inflicted punishment only when she would have been punished herself for not following the rules. She participated in selecting gas chamber victims only once and under pressure; SS superiors made sure no one strayed from a common responsibility for the camp's evil. But she has no blood on her hands. Liza is afraid of confrontation with the passenger who reminds her of the prisoner Marta. She saved her life a few times, but when she was leaving Auschwitz, the Polish woman was in the death bunker. And yet, her words could vouch for Liza's good intentions.
Marta is a prisoner of privilege. Liza chose her, assigned her to office work, gave her additional food rations, even allowed her to see her boyfriend. She took her out of the infirmary, where no one ever came out of alive. She cast a blind eye to slight transgressions; for example, she didn't confiscate a medallion Marta wore once she found out that it was a valuable memento. Something about the woman fascinated Liza. She also wanted to use the prisoner to her advantage: to uphold discipline in the camp with her help. This proved to work on occasion. With time, she came to realise that Marta was not sincere with her, that she was playing a double game.
She takes on the challenge of capturing her spirit - or breaking down her defenses. The tight command of female prisoners that Marta controlled began to slack. Liza, on the other hand, was honoured for her good service and was promoted to a job in another prison on Reich territory. She suggested to Marta that she would take her along and didn't ask for anything in return. Just that she would leave her friends, who were all literally at the death's door. But Marta refused. "I belong to the command", she replied.
The Kretschmers find that the passenger is indeed Marta. She has survived. And she has recognised Liza. Walter decides that Liza will disembark in Lisbon and travel by plane the rest of the way, putting off the decision about their future until they both arrive in Brazil. But at the port, it turns out that it is Marta who descends from the ship. She walks by Liza without a word. She leaves her with her secret. Bradley wants to go back to the unfinished conversation, but Walter has no further desire to talk about guilt and remorse.
Piotr Kuncewicz in Agonia i nadzieja ("Agony and Hope") acclaimed The Passenger as "a world-class novel of great psychological artistry".
"It's all atypical: and the SS woman isn't of the worst sort, and the privileged prisoner, and a German who's essentially against fascism. The strongest part is the book's construction and its psychology".
Andrzej Werner described The Passenger as a "bold and new" work in his Zwyczajna Apokalipsa ("Ordinary Apocalypse").
"The book by Zofia Posmysz stands at, as it were, the edge between two genres of Holocaust literature. In as much as reality is presented, the entire analytical material clearly separates 'The Passenger' from the group of martyrological works, on the other hand, the caution in the assumptions is far from the line established by Tadeusz Borowski".
"A work that won't let itself be forgotten",a "subtle and incisive psychological study," is what Zenona Macużanka called The Passenger (commentary on the selection of radio broadcasts Miejsce na ścianie / "Place on the Wall").
"Zofia Posmysz holds up the same problem years after the war," writes Macużanka, "which was once acknowledged by Leon Kruczkowski in 'Germans', and more precisely, she attempted to answer the question that asks who 'they' were, the Germans, in their everyday lives; it's the same problem, but captured differently and projected in the light of a peaceful Europe, a Europe that in its greater scope cannot and refuses to forget what took place on its territory and which, in another, German, scope, wants to wipe out the sins of its nation."
Author: Andrzej Kaczyński, May 2010
Translation by: Agnieszka Le Nart, June 2010