Katja Petrowskaja tells the story of her own Jewish family over several generations. She releases the deceased and missing from anonymity — and thus also the many victims in Eastern Europe.
"I think her name was Esther, my father said. Yes, maybe Esther. I had two grandmothers, and one of them was named Esther — exactly."
So maybe her name was Esther; it was "Babushka" for her father, "mother" for her grandparents. In any case, Katja Petrowskaja's great-grandmother stayed alone in the apartment in 1941 when the rest of the family fled from the German army in Kyiv.
"Maybe Esther," as she is called throughout Petrowskaja's novel, makes her way to the meeting place at the cemeteries, even though she can barely walk. The German troops are there, and with them, order has been restored. Exact instructions, "Clear, clear and understandable." That impresses her.
Perhaps it was also a "linguistic error" that made Maybe Esther set off on her own. "Many elderly Jews were proud of their command of German, and when the Germans came, they may have thought, in spite of everything that was already being told, that hovered in the air and could no longer be dismissed as lies, that they, they in particular, were the closest relatives of the occupying troops, having that special entitlement of those for whom the word is everything."
For the Germans, however, there is no linguistic intimacy when it comes to those for whom they only have the derogatory word "Żyd." Over 33,000 Jews are rounded up and shot in Kyiv's Babyn Yar in 1941.
Piecing together the family mosaic
Katja Petrowskaja grew up in Kyiv, studied literature and Slavonic studies in Estonia, received scholarships to further her education at Stanford University and Columbia, and to do her doctorate in Moscow.
She has lived in Berlin since 1999. She has worked as a journalist for Russian and German media, including the newspapers taz, NZZ and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung.
For her, words are above everything. She writes in German, the language of the mute, as it is literally called in Russian. Perhaps it is precisely this language and the distance to Ukrainian and Russian that enable her, as she says herself, to unravel the painful fates of the people in her family.
If there is anything like a plot to these "stories," it is in the search for her family history that has Petrowskaja travel through Russia, Poland, Ukraine and Germany. To Kyiv, Babyn Yar, Warsaw, Mauthausen and back through her own youth to track down relatives who are essentially connected through their Judaism. And through their determination to survive long enough to be able to discover unknown relatives. In addition, what unites them is that, for seven generations, most of them have taught deaf-mute people in schools they have founded themselves.
Talking about horror in a floating language
Keeping with this tradition, Katja Petrowskaja has broken the muteness of history. In a light, levitating-like tone, she has found the golden key to design her family mosaic.
Everything she has written is based on facts, has been researched on site and in records and documents.
And yet, through the power of literary narrative, it has become something of a fable. The fact that she weaves the Achilles myth into the 39 sections of Maybe Esther in order to suggest her own vulnerability in this research reinforces this impression.
Nevertheless, she manages to not let herself be overwhelmed by the weight of her material. On the contrary, she accomplishes a paradoxical feat: telling the story of the indescribable horrors of the past century, while doing so with poetic beauty and in a conciliatory way.
Katja Petrowskaja: Maybe Esther, Harper Collins (German title: Vielleicht Esther, 2014). English translation: Shelley Frisch.
Katja Petrowskaja was born in Kyiv in 1970. She was awarded the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize, one of the most prestigious prizes for literature in the German language, in 2013 for her excerpt from the latter section of the fifth chapter of her novel Maybe Esther.