May 2, 2008

ADDRESS UNKNOWN: the book, the reading, the message.

Several people have asked how the reading went; I meant to post right after the event but
came home to an internet outage :-(

It went very well. Attendance was small; but with so many other events scheduled for Holocaust Remembrance Day, that is not unexpected. But those who came were very attentive, and quickly became enthralled as the story unfolded.


The book was ADDRESS UNKNOWN, by Kathrine Kressman Taylor. It was first published 70 years ago, just before the United States entered the Second World War, and is set just a few years earlier. It had been due for release in Holland in 1940, but the invasion by Germany resulted in the destruction of all copies printed there. The book would not be seen in Europe until 2001.

It was reissued in 1995, and has since been printed in multiple languages and adapted to the stage. The stage version has been playing in Israel since 2002.


It's a compelling story: two German expatriates, Max and Martin, come together in America following the end World War 1. They become business partners, and then they become close friends; Max is regarded as an uncle by Martin's children. And the fact that Max is a Jew is never mentioned at all; he's just one of the family.

But Martin has never really acclimated to the United States. The food, the culture; he's always felt like an outsider. In 1932, he decides to take his family back to Germany. The gallery he started with Max is a success; even in the depths of the Depression they are making a good living. So Martin leaves Max to run their business, and he goes home to Germany.

Germany has not done very well since losing WW1. Middle-class back in California, he's considered a millionaire in Munich. Martin not only buys the house of his dreams, it's a veritable mansion. The mayor is a guest in his home, and the neighbors urge him to run for office.

The friends write each other frequently; Max is having success with the gallery, and Martin is elected to an office. Max asks about this new politician, Adolph Hitler. Martin isn't sure about him: he describes Hitler's followers as "rabble," and worries that liberal Old Guard won't be able to remove him if Hitler proves undesirable.

As Max becomes concerned about the tide of events, Martin not only is swept up in them, but embraces the New Order.

Eventually, their friendship ends, in a most disastrous manner. Betrayal and revenge; a tale of two friends becomes a tragedy; everyone loses. Some lose more than others.


I read the piece with the store manager, Michael Karpus. It only took us a few minutes to sort out who was reading whom, and to determine the structure of the reading. He read Max, who starts and ends the story, and I played Martin, who undergoes a transformation from a lovable liberal to a jackbooted thug. Michael had more to read, but I had more German to garble, so it worked out.

This is the first performance I have given since 1994. While it may not have been the best of my life, I felt that I had a good grasp on the material, and the audience responded quite nicely. My voice was probably an octave higher than I'd intended; not much relaxation to be had in rush hour traffic! A stumble on a word or a trip on the stilted grammar here or there, but overall, it was a good performance. I will look back on it with pride. I'd like another crack at it, at some point. It's a great piece, and I think I can do more with it.

My partner, Michael, was not a professional actor, but he read strongly and with confidence. He really hit his stride the last few pages, when the tenor of Max's letters change; Michael reflected the shift in tone masterfully.

We were very well received; one woman was talking about presenting a reading to her synagogue, and everyone bought some copies to send to friends. The sponsor was effusive, and my partner was delighted to have strong foil.


Everyone should read this book. It should be required reading in all of our schools. It's short; it took us under an hour to read it aloud. It will literally fit in a pocket - I carried it in a trouser pocket all day. The language isn't difficult.

And we shouldn't write it off as "just another book about the holocaust" or "one more book about how evil the Nazis were." This book isn't a relic of the past. Its events are not some dreary history.

This seventy year old story is one of the most chillingly relevant things I've read in the last year.

Martin, an admitted liberal at the start of the book, embraces the radical conservatism of the National Socialist Party. Max begs him to remember his earlier nature, and the ideals he used to hold dear. But Martin responds with a rabid diatribe: and its content could mirror any staunch Republican today:
"A liberal is a man who does not believe in doing anything. He is a talker about the rights of man, but just a talker. He likes to make a big noise about freedom of speech, and what is freedom of speech? Just the chance to sit firmly on the backside and say that whatever is being done is wrong! What is so futile as the liberal?"

"He calls this 'the long view,' but it is merely a bad scare that he will have to do something himself. He loves words and high-sounding precepts but he is useless to the men who make the world what it is. These are the only important men; the doers. And here in Germany, a doer has arisen. A vital man is changing things."
"I do not question the ends of our action. It is not necessary. I know it is good because it is so vital. Men are not drawn into bad things with so much joy and eagerness."
These words fit very easily into the mouths of a Rush Limbaugh or an Ann Coulter; the words wouldn't seem alien attributed to Dick Cheney, Don Rumsfeld or even George W himself. Seventy years ago, they belonged to the Nazis.

Wouldn't Abraham Lincoln be proud?

Kathrine Kressman Taylor, (c) 1938
Washington Square Press
published by Pocket Books

1 comment:

  1. Congratulations on a successful evening, and for discovering an important bit of forgotten literature. Great lessons to be learned there.