Fiction – paperback; Serpent’s Tail; 90 pages; 2015.
For such a slim book, this one packs a powerful punch!
First published in 1938, Address Unknown is a timely reminder of the invidious nature of fascism and the ways in which this warped ideology can tear once-close people apart.
It tells the story of a friendship between two men — a Jewish art dealer and his business partner — that is tested by political events in the lead up to the Second World War.
Martin Schulse and Max Eisenstein run an art gallery together in San Francisco, but when Martin repatriates to Germany their friendship continues via correspondence.
An epistolary tale
Through their letters, which span the period from November 1932 through to March 1934, we come to understand the closeness of their relationship and the way in which it begins to fracture as events in Europe unfold.
When Max hears about political unrest in Germany, he is distressed by the news reports “that come pouring in to us from the Fatherland” and asks Martin to clarify what is going on:
I know your liberal mind and warm heart will tolerate no viciousness and that from you I can have the truth.
Martin’s reply, now on headed paper from his bank to avoid the censors, warns his friend to cease writing to him.
It is impossible for me to be in correspondence with a Jew even if it were not that I have an official position to maintain.
He makes deeply offensive antisemitic remarks further on in the letter, suggesting that he is now firmly on the side of Hitler, whom he refers to as “our Gentle Leader”. But Max refuses to believe that his friend has gone down this upsetting political path, writing:
I can see why Germans acclaim Hitler. They react against the very real wrongs which have been laid on them since the disaster of the war. But you, Martin, have been almost an American since the war. I know that it is not my friend who has written to me, that it will prove to have been only the voice of caution and expediency.
Within a few more letters their friendship lies in tatters, but Max does not give up easily, continuing to write even when he gets absolutely no response. There’s a sting in the tail though, one that demonstrates the life-and-death power which can be wielded by the pen.
Address Unknown takes less than an hour to read, but I dare say it will be a tale that will stay with me for the rest of my life. I came away from it reeling and I’ve been mulling over the implications, and the way in which Max levels the playing field, ever since.
Afterword by the author’s son
This edition, published in 2015, comes with an afterword written by the author’s son, Charles Douglas Taylor.
He explains that Address Unknown was originally published in Story magazine in September 1938, one of the first stories to expose “the poison of Nazism to the American public”. It was published as a book the next year and sold out in the USA and England but was banned in Europe. It was largely forgotten after the war but was reissued in 1995 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camps.
A French translation in 1999 brought it to the attention of European readers for the first time. By 2010, it had been translated into 23 languages. It has been adapted for stage and performed on both Broadway, in the US, and the West End, in London.
The author died in 1996, aged 93. You can find out more about her via her Wikipedia page.