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.
Adina Applebaum is a Program Associate at the Whiting Foundation. She lives in New York.