It amazes me that, after years of immersion in the field of World War II and the Holocaust, I can still discover works of which I was totally unaware. I had one such experience recently. While reading The Borrowed Years 1938—1941: America on the Way to War by Richard Ketchum (an excellent book, by the way) I learned of a short story titled “Address Unknown.” Written by Katherine Kressmann Taylor in September 1938, the story first appeared (appropriately enough) in the magazine Story. It created a literary sensation; never in the magazine’s seven-year history had any story generated so much comment. It was reprinted in the January 1939 issue of Reader’s Digest, and then reprinted in book form the same year, where it sold 50,000 copies. Soon it was on the Reichskommissar’s list of banned books.
The story is told entirely through the exchange of 19 letters between close friends and business partners Max Eisenstein and Martin Schulse, and covers 16 tumultuous months, from late 1932 to early 1934. You can read it in less than an hour. Its very brevity adds to its impact.
In the first letter (dated November 12, 1932), Max, who is Jewish, writes to Martin, who is not. Martin has just relocated to Munich, Germany, the country of origin for both men. Once an impecunious artist, Martin has become sufficiently successful through their jointly owned art gallery in San Francisco that he can return to his homeland with his wife and three boys, leaving Max behind to run the Schulse-Eisenstein Galleries.
Writing the day after the 14th anniversary of the Armistice that ended World War I, Max rejoices about the “long way we have travelled, as peoples, from that bitterness,” as well as the fact that the “democratic Germany” to which Martin returns has been purged of “Prussian arrogance and militarism.”
On a personal note, Max reveals he has just heard from his younger sister, Griselle (living in nearby Vienna), an aspiring actress who, we learn, once had a torrid love affair with Martin. Does Max have Martin’s permission to notify Griselle that Martin is back in Germany?
Martin’s reply (December 10, 1932) depicts a poor and downtrodden Germany—so poor that Martin is able to purchase a 30-room house on 10 acres and employ 10 servants. Martin comments on the political turmoil prevailing in the country, even under the presidency of Paul von Hindenburg, a fine liberal that Martin much admires.
As for Griselle, by all means give her Martin’s address, so she can know a home for her is close at hand. After all, “for Griselle I keep a tenderness that will last long.”
By January 21, 1933, Max waxes lovingly about his deep friendship with Martin, but inquires, with concern, about “this Adolf Hitler” who is rising toward power.
Over the course of the next few months, Max expresses growing concern about conditions in Germany, while Martin, who initially expressed ambivalence toward Hitler, becomes increasingly dogmatic in his replies. At first, he expresses distaste for the Jew-baiting he sees, but calls it the “little surface scum when a big movement boils up.” By July, Martin is explaining that scapegoating Jews “does not happen without a reason,” and further asks Martin to stop writing to his home address. Under the strict censorship rules, correspondence with a Jew is anathema to a Nazi official, which Martin has become. Better to write, if at all, in care of the bank where Martin works.
By September 1933, Max, “of necessity” sends a brief message to Martin at work. It concerns Griselle. She has joined a theater company in Berlin, oblivious to the danger, and Max is worried about her safety—will Martin watch out for her? No response.
When Griselle subsequently disappears, Max becomes desperate and writes again—can Martin try to find and help his old lover?
Martin finally responds—prefacing his reply with a “Heil Hitler.” He informs Max that Griselle is dead. She came to Martin’s home with stormtroopers at her heels, and Martin turned her away. He simply could not “risk being arrested for harboring a Jew and . . . los[ing] all I have built up here.”
Hearing the news, what can Max do now? He is thousands of miles away, a Jew, and his erstwhile best friend will never face justice in a Germany awash in anti-Semitism and besotted with a fanatical leader. (Martin has since had a fourth child, a boy naturally named Adolf).
But Max does have one way to exact revenge and achieve justice. Less than a month after Martin’s startling revelation of the depths of his heartlessness, Max begins to pepper Martin with letters—now written to his home address. These letters are sprinkled with overt references to “the Fleishmans,” “Uncle Solomon,” and “Aunt Rheba,” implications that they share a Jewish grandmother, as well as cryptic instructions to prepare “the following reproductions: Van Gogh 15 by 103, red; Poussin 20 by 90, blue and yellow; Vermeer 11 by 33, red and blue.”
Martin responds—once—in desperation, in a letter smuggled out of Germany with an American acquaintance, begging Max to stop. The authorities want to know what “the code” means. Martin is losing his job, his son is no longer welcome in the boys’ corps, his wife is snubbed on the street. Won’t Max have pity, and stop?
Yet Max persists, and his final letter (March 3, 1934), which ends with the injunction that the “God of Moses be at your right hand,” is soon returned by the German postal authorities with a simple stamp, in bold Gothic letters: Adressat Unbekannt [Addressee Unknown].
The back story to Address Unknown is almost as interesting as the book. Katherine Kressmann was born in 1903 in Portland, Oregon. She later married Elliott Taylor, worked as an advertising copywriter and wrote for literary journals in her spare time. The inspiration for Address Unknown came from two sources, according to her son. Shortly before the war some “cultivated, intellectual, warmhearted German friends” of Taylor’s returned to Germany after living in the U.S. Within a short time, they became devoted Nazis, “refused to listen to the slightest criticism of Hitler,” and during a return visit to the U.S. turned their backs on an old, dear friend of theirs who happened to be Jewish.
More importantly, around the same time Elliott noticed a small news article about some American students studying in Germany. Their fraternity brothers thought it would be funny to write them letters poking fun at Hitler. They wrote back: “’Stop it. We’re in danger. These people don’t fool around. You could murder one of the Nazis by writing letters to him.’” Katherine took the idea of a letter as a weapon, and wrote Address Unknown. Interestingly, the editor at Story magazine thought the tale was “’too strong to appear under the name of a woman,’” and shortened her byline to the more neutral sounding “Kressmann Taylor,” the pen name she used for the rest of her life.
In 1944 Columbia Pictures turned Address Unknown into a movie directed by William Menzies (of Gone With the Wind fame), which received two Academy Award nominations (Art Direction and Music Score). But, much like From Day to Day, her story fell into obscurity following World War II.
After the war Taylor continued to write, and taught journalism and creative writing at Gettysburg College for almost 20 years (where she was the first woman to earn tenure). To commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camps, Story Press reissued the book once again in 1995. Address Unknown has since been translated into 20 languages and has been a bestseller in Israel and France (where it sold 600,000 copies). A BBC radio dramatization is available on YouTube (here).
Katherine Kressmann Taylor died in July 1996, age 93, almost sixty years after the publication of her short story; long enough to see it recognized the world over as a classic.
[For reasons that I have been unable to uncover, the title of the story and the book was Address Unknown, rather than Addressee Unknown, which is the correct translation of Adressat Unbekannt.]