Address Unknown

Kathrine Kress­mann Taylor

  • Review
By – December 20, 2021

How long does it take for a man’s mind to be poi­soned by hatred? In Kathrine Kress­mann Taylor’s Address Unknown, the answer is a mere 363 days. The book, orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in Sto­ry mag­a­zine in 1938, takes the form of let­ters exchanged between two men, the Ger­man-Amer­i­can Mar­tin Schulse and Jew­ish San Fran­cis­can Max Eisen­stein, and charts the course — and demise — of their friendship.

Mar­tin and Max begin exchang­ing let­ters dur­ing the autumn of 1932 and, at first, their notes back and forth beat with the famil­iar rhythms of friend­ship. Max asks ques­tions about Martin’s new home; Mar­tin inquires about the well-being of his friend’s sis­ter. Kress­mann Tay­lor is adept at cre­at­ing dis­tinct tones for each of the men, and build­ing a friend­ship that, ini­tial­ly, the read­er is inclined to root for. The two men, despite the dis­tance between them and the stress of a world on the brink of war, seem to gen­uine­ly care for and respect one another.

Grad­u­al­ly, though, the mood of the let­ters changes, as Mar­tin first dis­miss­es Hitler’s hate­ful rhetoric before open­ly adopt­ing it. Kress­mann Taylor’s sub­tle shifts in tone are nev­er over­done, and although the read­er can see Schulse’s shift in alle­giance from his Jew­ish friend to Nazism com­ing, it’s still painful­ly shock­ing — both for Eisen­stein and the read­er — when his anti­se­mit­ic remarks appear in full force.

The con­clu­sion of their cor­re­spon­dence is trag­ic, although per­haps not in the way the read­er would antic­i­pate, and Kress­man Taylor’s twist end­ing artic­u­lates that hate­ful, nation­al­is­tic rhetoric is ulti­mate­ly a game in which every­one los­es. The slim nov­el is a page-turn­er, and Kress­mann Taylor’s prose is emo­tion­al with­out being over­ly sen­ti­men­tal. What makes the nov­el remark­able, though, is its recog­ni­tion of an expe­ri­ence that often goes unac­knowl­edged in WWII lit­er­a­ture: the ter­ri­fy­ing over­lap between friend­ship and hatred.

Upon his return to Ger­many in 1932, Mar­tin affec­tion­ate­ly signs a let­ter to Max, We do not for­get you, Max­el.” By 1933, his cor­re­spon­dence opens with Heil Hitler!” The space between these two let­ters makes the book a dev­as­tat­ing and nec­es­sary read, and a reminder of exact­ly what is at stake in the fight against big­otry — a fight that Kress­mann Tay­lor would be dev­as­tat­ed is still ongo­ing, eighty-three years after Address Unknown first appeared in print.

Discussion Questions