Address Unknown Summary

Kathrine Kressmann Taylor

Address Unknown

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Address Unknown Summary

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“Address Unknown”, by Kathrine Kressmann Taylor, is a short story, published for the first time in 1938 by Story Magazine. When it was first published, it was under the pen name Kressmann Taylor because, at the time, the consensus was that the story was too strong to have been published under a woman’s name.

The story begins with Martin, a gentile who returns to Germany from the United States, where he’s in business with a Jewish man named Max. They have a business dealing art in San Francisco. Upon returning with his family to his homeland, he’s pleased to see that Germany is doing better after the depression that followed World War I. “Address Unknown” is an epistolary story, meaning that the story is told through letters. In this case, those letters are between Martin and Max, and the story takes place from 1932 to 1934.

Martin writes to Max about Hitler, calling the Third Reich “wonderful.” Max responds, showing his envy for Martin’s return to Germany, and praising Germany’s democratic government, political freedom, and culture. But as Martin continues to write enthusiastically about Hitler and what’s going on Germany, Max feels less envious and more concerned. He’s heard from people who have escaped from Berlin that Jewish people in Germany are suffering. Their businesses are floundering because of boycotts, and they are being physically beaten. Martin’s response to Max’s concerns are to tell him that throughout history, the Jewish people have been scapegoats. He also says that in order for millions of people to flourish, a few may have to suffer. He calls the things Max writes about mere incidents, while Max argues that there’s something bigger going on.

Martin requests that Max cease writing to him. He tells Max that if it were discovered that they were exchanging letters, then Martin’s position would be forfeit and his family would be in danger. Max does not heed Martin’s request, because Griselle, Max’s sister, disappears. She’d been an actress in Berlin. He wants Martin to discover what became of her; Martin responds and tells Max that Griselle is dead. As it turns out, Griselle and Martin had an affair, and when Griselle came to Martin seeking safety, he turned her away because she defied the Nazis.

Max continues to write to Martin, but only with information about their shared American business. However, the letters read like they contain some kind of code, so Martin again pleads with Max not to send him letters. Martin says Max’s letters aren’t delivered but that he’s being brought in for interrogation about some kind of code that Max is sending. Max also refers to “our grandmother” in the letters, suggesting that he and Martin share a maternal line and, therefore, that Martin is Jewish. Max’s letters suggest he is now afraid for his safety.

Max continues to send his letters, but after some time, they are all returned with a stamp that reads, “Adressat unbekannt.” This actually translates to “addressee unknown,” but it’s where the story gets its title. The reader is left to presume that Martin is no longer alive, or at the least, no longer a free man. The book’s afterword, written by the author’s son, sheds more light on “Address Unknown”. It was inspired by an article in the newspaper about American students who visited Germany and wrote to their family and friends about what the Nazis were really doing. Some of their friends thought it would be humorous to respond with missives making fun of Hitler, and when the Americans wrote back, it was with a plea to stop, because their lives were endangered by their friends’ letters.

Prominent themes in “Address Unknown” include the power of words—particularly letters, as well as the dangers of extremism and intolerance, and the consequences of ignorance.

Though banned in Germany at the time of its original publication, “Address Unknown” was a bestseller. When the story was reissued in 1995 to honor the liberation of the concentration camps, it became a bestseller again. In 2001, “Address Unknown” was adapted for the stage when it was performed in France. It premiered in Israel in 2002, and in New York City in 2004. It’s toured various cities across the United States, as well as Germany, Turkey, Italy, South Africa, Argentina, Hungary, Scotland, the Netherlands, and London. In 2008, it was adapted by Tim Dee and broadcast on BBC Radio.

Katherine Kressmann Taylor was born in 1903 in Oregon and lived until 1996. In addition to her notoriety for “Address Unknown”, which was recognized not only for its literary merit but also because it was among the earliest works to shed light on the horrors that the Nazi party was exacting in Germany prior to World War II, Taylor is known for her 1942 novel, Until That Day, which is about a man standing against the Nazi takeover of the church in Germany, who has to ultimately flee to the United States. Though these are Taylor’s two most well-known works, she published 21 works over the course of her life. Those works appeared in over one hundred publications and have been translated into 18 languages. Some of the other works on this list include: Diary of Florence in Flood, Florence: Ordeal by Water, and Day of No Return.