Address Unknown, by Kressman Taylor
Address Unknown is a 1938 short story by American writer Katherine Kressman, published under the name Kressman Taylor (Taylor was her husband) as it was considered “too strong to appear under the name of a woman”. It’s published today as a stand alone work, as a novella essentially, though the Souvenir Press edition I read achieved its length of 64 pages by the somewhat shameful expedient of leaving the bottom 40% or so of every page entirely blank. That said, I wouldn’t envy Souvenir trying to sell a 30 to 40 page story at anything like a price that could make it worth publishing, so perhaps the fault lies not with our publishers but with ourselves.
All that aside, what is it? It’s an epistolary tale set in 1933. It opens with Max Eisenstein, a Jewish American, writing to his old friend and business partner Martin Schulse wishing him well on Martin’s recent return to Germany with his family. Max is optimistic, missing his friend but confident he has made the right decision, that he will be happy and successful back in Germany, a land now free of its “old Junker spirit, the Prussian arrogance and militarism”. As Max says:
You go to a democratic Germany, a land with a deep culture and the beginnings of a fine political freedom. It will be a good life.
Max writes too with news of his sister, Griselle. She is an actress and a woman with whom Martin once had a passionate extramarital affair, now ended.
Martin responds in equal good cheer, he writes to “Max, dear old fellow”, laughs about his big new house and the bed he has had made for his wife, but comments too on how rich he is in Germany with his American wealth, his countrymen so poor that he pays ten servants in Germany for the same money as two in the US. His letter is gossipy, emotional, full of affection advising Max to find “a nice fat little wife” of his own. The friendship between the men is evident.
The correspondence continues, and soon Max is asking Martin “Who is this Adolf Hitler who seems rising toward power in Germany?” Max’s reply is equivocal, telling “Dear Old Max” “I think in many ways Hitler is good for Germany, but I am not sure” and adding that he “is like an electric shock, strong as only a great orator and a zealot can be. But I ask myself, is he quite sane?” To the politics, he adds news of family, his wife’s new dress, but he returns to Hitler concerned at where Germany may be headed.
From there, the story takes a darker turn. Max writes enquiring if the stories he hears from Germany, of atrocities against Jews, are true. He is worried and has news that Griselle may herself be travelling to Berlin, a journey he has counseled her against in the circumstances. Max’s reply, to “Mr. Max Eisenstein” is written from his business address, he no longer wishes correspondence from a Jew arriving at his home. He writes:
As for the sterm measures that so distress you, I myself did not like them at first, but I have come to see their painful necessity. The Jewish race is a sore spot to any nation that harbors it. I have never hated the individual Jew — yourself I have always cherished as a friend, but you will know that I speak in all honesty when I say I have loved you, not because of your race but in spite of it.
Martin is a Nazi official now, his wife entertaining members of the party, his son a member of the Hitler Youth. Hitler is now referred to as the “Gentle Leader”, with capitalisations it’s worth noting, the letter is full of Nazi rhetoric, references to the “old, strong gods of the German race” and the “Semitic character”.
I shan’t quote much further, Griselle travels to Berlin, and on that trip turns the former friends’ story. In essence, however, this is an examination of how the Nazi regime changed people, like Martin who starts off praising Hindenburg as “a fine liberal whom I much admire” but later writes without irony of how “We ate the bitter bread of shame and drank the thin gruel of poverty. But now we are free men.” Without irony as, of course, Martin had no such experience. He lived well in America, in partnership with a Jewish friend, Germany’s post World War I hardships were never his.
Address Unknown is a neat and clever tale. Generally a month passes between letters, sometimes two months, we see the friendship die in slow motion, as Martin’s greetings move from exclamations of friendship to literally opening a letter with simply the words “Heil Hitler”. Kressman was inspired to write it, we are told in an afterword, by an experience where German friends who had lived in America but now returned to Germany briefly revisited the US, and while there refused to speak to a former Jewish friend. Kressman wondered how such a thing could happen, how good people could become so indoctrinated that could turn their backs on their former companions. Address Unknown is her examination of that question, and of the absurdities of the regime that gave rise to such results.
Address Unknown is a very fast read, I read the whole work in around half an hour, perhaps slightly less. It’s an enjoyable and rewarding story, well written (Max and Martin have distinct and consistent voices) and the ramping up of tension and the sudden turn of the story as Griselle heads to Berlin are well paced and judged. It’s also a surprisingly prescient tale, illustrating the dangers of Nazism at a time when many weren’t paying attention, it’s easy to forget when reading it that Kressman had no benefit of hindsight. She saw what the Nazis were, and the seductive power of certainty. That last element is why the story remains relevant, the allure of simple solutions and a convenient other to blame never goes away for long.
I learned about Address Unknown from Stewart McAbney’s blog, Booklit, he reviewed it here. Stewart’s review is an exemplary one, his analysis absolutely spot on. In particular, I owe the point that Martin uses “we” when speaking of Germany’s suffering even though he wasn’t there for it to Stewart’s writeup.