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About the book

Hailed by critics as a classic, and as poignant today as when it was first published, Address Unknown is a short yet powerful work of fiction. Written entirely through the medium of letters, it chronicles the rise of Nazism and its impact on a long and close friendship. Written shortly before the outbreak of the World War Two, this story is startlingly prescient. It deals with the impact of National Socialist ideology at an individual level. Kressmann invites us to gaze through a window to the past. The book serves as a timely reminder of the consequences of ignorance, intolerance and extremism. 

The two protagonists are Max Eisenstein, a Jewish American residing in San Francisco, and Martin Schulse, his former business partner who has recently moved back to his native Germany. Their letters reveal a cherished friendship, each knowing the other’s family intimately. The past becomes palpable as we read through Max and Martin’s personal correspondence. Both men work in the art trade and have created a lucrative business together. Martin’s profits from their business have fuelled his new luxurious life in Germany, and subsequently propelled him into the unenviable company of high-ranking officials in Munich. 

In the beginning, Max holds Germany and German culture in high esteem; as the book progresses through Hitler’s rise to power, his admiration turns to abhorrence. At first, Martin is unconvinced about Hitler and the Nazi movement. As he becomes swept up in the new regime, friendship between Jew and gentile is put to the test. Max expresses shock and disbelief at the persecution and murder of Jews in Germany. He turns to Martin for reassurance that the situation is not as bad as it appears in the American press. Martin cannot put Max at ease because the reports contain no exaggeration. Martin condemns, and then condones the anti-Jewish measures sanctioned by the Nazis, much to Max’s disbelief. We witness just how far Martin is willing to go to demonstrate his commitment to the new regime. Kressmann skilfully displays the power of the written word, and in turn how the pen can effectively become a weapon.

Address Unknown was originally published in the United States, in Story Magazine in 1938. It proved so popular that it was republished in book form in 1939. It met with huge success in both the United States and England. Banned in Germany, the book remained largely unknown on the continent for 60 years. In 1995 Address Unknown was reissued to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camps, and once again, the book was a hit. In 1996, a French translation took place and it became a bestseller. There have since been over 15 recent translations, including the first German edition.

Kressmann was inspired to write the book because of similar occurrences that she had experienced. She witnessed Germans turning their backs on former close friends who were Jewish because they had come to follow National Socialist ideology. Kressmann was concerned that no one in the United States was aware of, or cared about what was happening on the continent. Address Unknown was written to turn American attention to the dangerous situation unfolding in Germany. She attempted to punctuate the isolationist ideology so prevalent in the USA during this time. 

Address Unknown has been dramatised by BBC Radio 4. The play is available on YouTube. It lasts 45 minutes and is well worth a listen.

 

About the author 

An American author, Kathrine Kressmann Taylor adopted the pseudonym Kressmann Taylor because it was thought at the time that the story was too strong to be published under the name of a woman. 

 

Key themes 

  • The intolerant and merciless nature of the National Socialist regime in Germany during the 1930s. ‘I am now an official and a worker in the new regime and I exult very loud indeed. All of us officials who cherish whole skins are quick to join the National Socialists.’ (March 25, 1933) 
  • The persecution of Jews. ‘His brown shirt troops are of the rabble. They pillage and have started a bad Jew-baiting.’ (March 25, 1933) ‘A terrible pogrom, that is the consensus of our American papers.’ (May 18, 1933) ‘…floggings, the forcing of quarts of castor oil through clenched teeth and the consequent hours of dying through the slow agony of bursting guts…’ (May 18, 1933)
  • The alleged injustice of the Treaty of Versailles. ‘Not for always can the world grind a great people down in subjugation…We ate the bitter bread of shame and drank the thin gruel of poverty.’ (July 9, 1933)

 

Discussion Questions

1. Why did this book prove to be such a success when it was first written?

2. How does the Germany described in Martin’s first letter (December 10, 1932) differ from that in his third (July 9, 1933)? What key event occurred in Germany between these dates? 

3. How does Martin’s view of Hitler change?

4. How does Martin try to justify the persecution of the Jews to Max? 

5. With which character do your sympathies (if any) lie? Why?

6. In utilising the pen as a weapon, is Max justified in his final actions through words?

This book is useful for those that would like a general overview of the situation in Germany during the 1930s. Teachers may find it useful because it is very short and has significant depth so can be analysed on a number of levels.

 

Further reading for those that enjoyed this book: