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‘Address Unknown,’ Based on Exchange of Letters in Pre-Nazi Germany Comes to West Bloomfield Stage

The story, which the late Irwin Shaw had translated into Hebrew, will be presented in Hebrew, with English subtitles, on April 6.

‘Address Unknown,’ Based on Exchange of Letters in Pre-Nazi Germany Comes to West Bloomfield Stage

The play, "Address Unknown" in Hebrew [accompanied by English surtitles], will be performed by the Kibbutz Theatre, at 7 p.m. Sunday, April 6 at The Berman Center for the Performing Arts.

The story consists of the exchange of correspondence between and American-Jewish art gallery owner in San Francisco and his German business partner who returned to Munich in 1932. The deterioration of their erstwhile close relationship – as the German is gradually seduced by Nazism and is complicit in the betrayal of his friend's sister to the Gestapo – is apparent from the text of the letters.

The skillful surprise ending, in which an intriguing revenge is leveraged via transatlantic correspondence, does not diminish the terrible darkness of a relationship doomed by history and opportunistic weakness.

With remarkable power and economy, the story recounts the breakup of a friendship between a Jewish art dealer in San Francisco and his German business partner, after the latter returns to Germany in 1932. The story is told solely through their letters and we follow how the bedrock of affection and respect between the friends erodes under the weight of Nazism’s rise and the spread of hatred.

“Address Unknown” was adapted from the story of that name, which was first published in September 1938 in Story  magazine. The story proved an instant success when Reader’s Digest decided to publish it too and it was read by 3 million people. This double success led the prestigious Simon & Schuster publishing house to bring it out in book form in 1939 and it sold 50,000 copies, an impressive number at that time.  

Within a short time Europe was embroiled in World War II; the book was banned in Nazi Germany and was virtually unknown thereafter in the 60 years that followed. In 1995, it was reprinted to mark the 50th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camps and it was subsequently translated into 20 foreign languages. They very successful stage play has been performed by theatrical companies in Israel, France, Germany, Italy, Czechia, Argentina, South Africa, Turkey and the USA.

The author was born Kathrine Kressmann in Portland, OR. Her novella created a sensation and the New York Times Book Review called it “the most effective indictment of Nazism to appear in fiction”. She enjoyed brief notoriety as “the woman who jolted America” and then lived quietly as a college professor in Gettysburgh, Pennsylvania.

The ‘Detroit’ Connection

Irwin Shaw, the late renowned executive director of Metropolitan Detroit’s JCC, read the book as a young student and it made an indelible impression on him. He used to organize dramatic readings of the book at the Center and would buy many copies of the book for friends and acquaintances. 

In 1996 he sent a copy of the book to his Israeli friend Asher Tarmon, a Hebrew educator who had been a shaliach (Israel emissary) at the JCC in the late 1960s. He was deeply affected by it, translated it into Hebrew after Irwin Shaw had contacted the author for permission and the book came out in print in Israel to critical acclaim in 2001.

Tarmon explains the reason for translating the book into Hebrew: “Every Israeli is familiar with the history of the Holocaust (Shoah) and what preceded the most horrible tragedy of our people. Yet I doubt whether people who were born here (in Israel) fully comprehend how the hate slipped into the lives of all the segments of the German population and how they were influenced by that hatred so, that they partook willingly in the most barbaric genocide in human history.”

The Hebrew version was adapted for the stage and the play has already been performed over 160 times at theaters, high schools, community centers, kibbutzim, military bases and the Yad VaShem Memorial Museum. The book serves counselors accompanying high school students who visit concentration camps in Poland. A special TV production of the play was screened on Israeli TV’s public channel.

The performance in Detroit opens this year’s North American tour of the play and is given in tribute to Irwin Shaw who did so much to promote the book and cause the story to proliferate widely. The re-emergence of the book and the revival it is enjoying, brings to the fore a vitally important message at a time when anti-Semitism is dangerously on the rise. The current widespread Arab and Muslim hatred of Israel and Jews only adds fuel to the fire.

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