Not long ago friend Cath in the Netherlands emailed me an eleven page PDF called Address Unknown. It consists of a series of letters between Martin Schulse and Max Eisenstein from 1932 to 1934. Max is in San Francisco running the art gallery he and Martin created together. Martin has returned with his family to Germany. The letters start off friendly and intimate and take a turn as Hitler rises to power. You see, Max in California is Jewish and his friend Martin, while at first worrying about Hitler, joins the Nazi party and is soon breaking off his friendship with Max. But since they are also business partners Martin tells Max he can only send financial information to him and only send it to the bank. Max sadly agrees until his sister, an actress who joined an acting company that traveled to Berlin, disappears. He pleads to Martin for his help in finding her. Martin does, or rather, she finds Martin, and asks for help with the SS hot on her trail. Martin refuses aid. But it gets worse from there. By the end of these letters I was devastated.
I don’t know if I should be embarrassed or not, but I thought these letters were real. Sure, Kathrine Kressmann Taylor’s name is on the title page but I thought she was either editor or family or something. When I went looking for more information about Max and Martin, I discovered that these letters were actually a short story originally published in Story Magazine in 1938. Knowing they weren’t real life letters though did not lessen my reaction to them. Even now when I think about them I get a sinking feeling in my stomach and it is just a little harder to breathe.
Kressman Taylor wrote the story as a wake-up call to Americans about what was really going on in Nazi Germany. The editor of Story Magazine thought the piece “too strong to appear under the name of a woman,” so published it with the author name “Kressmann Taylor,” as though “Kressmann” were a first name. However, she ended up using it as her professional name for the rest of her life.
Simon & Schuster published Address Unknown as a novel in 1939 and sold 50,000 copies. International publication soon followed including a Dutch translation that was confiscated by the Nazis and a German one published in Moscow. No surprise that the book was banned in Germany.
In 1944, Columbia Pictures turned it into a movie with William C. Menzies as director and production designer (he was also the production designer for Gone With the Wind) and starring Paul Lukas as Martin.
Address Unknown was reissued by Story Press in 1995 to mark the 50th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camps. The book was translated into 20 languages with the French edition selling 600,000 copies. In 2001, the book was finally published in Germany. The Hebrew edition was a besteller in Israel where it was also adapted for the stage.
It is a little book that made quite a splash. I don’t know how I didn’t know about it. But it says something about how well the story is written that I thought the letters were real. Letters are such intimate things, it is no easy task to create ones between two friends that actually sound and read as if two different people had written them.
If you have not read this little gem, I highly recommend it.