The Fayette Citizen-Opinion Page

Wednesday, March 24, 2004

Adressat Unbekannt: Address unknown


Whoever said “Youth is wasted on the young” had me in mind.

I had no idea of the value of an association that I thought was almost accidental, and wasted it, I’m sure. I was a freshman at Gettysburg College in 1953, and someone responsible for these things assigned Kathrine Kressmann Taylor to be my adviser, probably because I indicated I wanted to go into journalism, and she was professor of journalism and creative writing.

I liked her classes and I liked her, but I don’t recall that we had much of a relationship. I do remember learning that she was a published author, and that made me awestruck.

Tall and almost gaunt, she wore her brown hair short in back, curly at the sides and front. She was not beautiful, but wore an aura of melancholy. I didn’t learn why until this week.

The short story (later released as a small book) that induced my admiration was called “Address Unknown,” and appeared first in Story magazine in 1938. Simon & Schuster published it as a book in 1939 and sold 50,000 copies, a huge number in those days. Foreign publications followed quickly, but when war consumed Europe, they were put on hold. Every copy of an already published Dutch translation disappeared, and the book was listed on the Reichskommisar’s list of banned books.

The book is credited with exposing the poison of Nazism to the American public.

“Address Unknown” is the story of two German friends and business partners, art dealers in San Francisco. Martin, a Gentile, returns with his family to Germany, exhilarated by the advances in the old country since the humiliation of the Great War. The Jewish partner, Max, remains in the States to keep the business going. The story is told entirely in letters between them, from 1932 to 1934, the technique used in “84 Charing Cross Road.”

Martin writes about the wonderful Third Reich and this fellow Hitler. At first Max is covetous: “How I envy you! ... You go to a democratic Germany, a land with a deep culture and the beginnings of a fine political freedom.”

But Max soon doubts his friend’s enthusiasm, having heard from eyewitnesses who got out of Berlin that Jews were being beaten and their businesses boycotted. Martin responds, telling Max that, while they may be good friends, everybody knows that Jews have been the universal scapegoats, and “a few must suffer for the millions to be saved.”

“This Jew trouble is only an incident,” Martin says. “Something bigger is happening.” Nonetheless, he asks Max to stop writing to him. If a letter were intercepted, he (Martin) would lose his official position and he and his family would be endangered.

Max writes anyhow when his own sister, an actress in Berlin, goes missing. He becomes frantic to learn her fate. Martin responds on bank stationery (less likely to be inspected) and tells Max his sister is dead. He admits that he turned Griselle away when she came to him, her brother’s dearest friend, for sanctuary.

There is a gap of about a month. After that, Max’s letters, more frequent than ever, are cool and carry only what looks like business and remarks about the weather. The letters from Munich to San Francisco get shorter and more panicky, begging Max to stop: “My God, Max, do you know what you do? ... These letters you have sent ... are not delivered, but they bring me in and ... demand I give them the code ... I beg you, Max, no more, no more! Stop while I can be saved.”

But Max continues: “Prepare these for distribution by March 24th: Rubens 12 by 77, blue; Giotto 1 by 317, green and white; Poussin 20 by 90, red and white.”

At last a letter is returned to Max, stamped: Adressat unbekannt. Address Unknown.

The book’s “Afterword,” lovingly written by Mrs. Taylor’s son, says that a publisher deemed the story “too strong to appear under the name of a woman,” and assigned her the masculine pseudonym of Kressmann Taylor, her maiden name and her husband’s name. She used it professionally for the rest of her life.

The idea for her story came from a small news article: American students in Germany wrote home with the truth about the Nazi atrocities, a truth most Americans, including Charles Lindbergh, would not accept. Fraternity brothers thought it would be funny to send them letters making fun of Hitler, and they wrote back, “Stop it. We’re in danger. These people don’t fool around. You could murder [someone] by writing letters to him.” Thus emerged the idea of “letter as weapon” or “murder by mail.”

Mrs. Taylor wrote “Until That Day” in 1942, “Diary of Florence in Flood” in 1966, plus several short stories.

Kathrine Kressmann married Elliott Taylor two weeks after she met him, in 1928. He died in 1953, the year I started college. (Hence the melancholy?)

Mrs. Taylor taught at Gettysburg for 19 years, married John Rood in 1967, and they lived half the year in Minneapolis and half near Florence, Italy. She maintained both homes after Rood’s death in 1974.

In 1995, when Mrs. Rood was 91, Story Press reissued “Address Unknown” “to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camps.” It was well-received and its author pleased to sign copies and do interviews.

Her book has been translated into at least 11 languages. She died in July 1996, “sharp-witted, perceptive, and enthusiastic, even about the end of life.”

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