We all meet on Google Maps: young and old, living and dead. The search engine is our modern oracle, our muse: in the words of the French historian Jean-Pierre Vernant, it gives us knowledge of “all things that were, things to come and things past.” It may do even more. As Katja Petrowskaja writes in Maybe Esther: A Family Story, her debut memoir, translated from the German by Shelley Frisch, “Google watches over us like God, and when we search for something, it fleshes out our story, just like when you buy a printer on the Internet and you continue to be offered printers for a long time to come.”
Boarding the Warszawa Express in Berlin, Petrowskaja encounters an elderly Jew from Tehran who says his name is Sam. He has set out to find his wife’s ancestral home, a Polish village now called Janów Podlaski, which he located online: “Five kilometers from the Belarussian border, thank Google. There was even a horse cemetery there, no, the Jewish cemetery was not preserved, that was on the Internet as well.”
Like Sam, Petrowskaja boards the Warszawa Express hoping to retrace the flight of her ancestors from their bygone world, part of a journey that takes her readers to Moscow, Paris, Salzburg, Kalisz, Kiev (now Kyiv), and Kinel-Cherkassy, in the South Ural region, where her grandmother Rosa was evacuated during World War II. “I had thought that telling the story of the few people who happened to be my relatives was all that was needed to conjure up the entire twentieth century,” she writes. So she begins by offering a partial inventory of her relatives: a revolutionary “about whom nothing is known,” a physicist who disappeared in the Stalinist Purges, a phantom, a war hero, “Anna and Lyolya, who died in Babi Yar,” Shimon the Hearer, and her great-grandmother, “Maybe Esther,” whose name might have been Esther but who was always called “babushka” (grandmother) and also lies in Babi Yar. Maybe, there was a second Esther, but no one is quite sure.
In this maybe — one Esther or two? — an unfathomable uncertainty appears. The precise number of people shot to their deaths at Babi Yar will never be known — most estimates suggests it is between 100,000 and 200,000, with most of those zeroes representing Kiev’s teeming Jewish community, which included Petrowskaja’s family and mine. “It is not even clear whether there was one Babi Yar or two,” Petrowskaja writes. The closer she comes to understanding the past, the more swiftly it spirits itself away. The best she can do is speculate. Maybe Esther dwells between memory and oblivion, among the maybes, what-ifs, shoulds, and coulds of history.
And history, for Petrowskaja, begins only when its subjects lie in their graves, “when there are no more people to ask, only sources.” Born in Kiev in 1970, she grew up, as most of us do, with only a vague sense of her historical inheritance, only the slightest notion of which war was which. “We attributed all losses to the war that was long since over, the war that bore no article or adjective, we simply said war; there aren’t any articles in Russian anyway, and we did not specify which war, because we thought that there was only one, erroneously,” she writes. “We were Soviet children all the same, with the same haze surrounding our family histories.”
Confronted with this dearth of resources, Petrowskaja turns to the internet to cut through the haze. She types her ancestors’ names and workplaces into Google’s search bar and scrolls through the results to see what has survived. “The search engine knows my preferences — catastrophes first,” she writes. On Amazon, she finds the memoirs of a long-lost relative, who turns out not to be a blood relative at all. Through eBay, she comes across a photograph of her grandmother’s apartment block that had been sold by a former member of the Wehrmacht “for seventy euros, a good price.” But it turns out to be the wrong block — her mother misremembered. On Google Maps, she traces the routes her family members took to their deaths, from Kiev to Babi Yar, 6.5 kilometers, from Mauthausen to Gunskirchen, 55.2 kilometers. But she doesn’t know what these relatives looked like, or who they were, or if, indeed, they took these routes. She spends her Friday mornings scrolling through emails from Soviet prisoners of war, hoping that one might illuminate her grandfather’s fate. “Every morning we woke up and found dead people dying on both sides of us,” one letter begins. Distributed via a listserv, these missives from the past — from Königsberg, Nuremberg, Küstrin, Bielefeld, Hanover, Munich, Bochum, Graz, and Strasbourg — have been collected, translated, archived. “Since getting an iPhone, I’ve been reading them in bed,” Petrowskaja writes. “Facebook messages from night owls blend into a morning greeting from a prisoner of war. Who reads these letters with me, every Friday at 7:00 a.m. in bed; who shares my Friday ritual with me?”
Online, Petrowskaja looks for, and finds, fellow-travelers: “that’s how it is with the search, you come across like-minded people, God googles our paths, so that we stay put in our grooves, I always meet people who are looking for the same thing I am.” She delights in the certainty of search results, in the algorithm’s confident claim to untangling and ordering the past. Yet the search engine is in fact a product of probabilities, of maybes — Google’s PageRank algorithm spits up the links that are most likely to be relevant, most likely to please (catastrophes first, indeed).
History, too, is a matter of probability — it is the product of the small fraction of the pasts that are saved, the results that Google spits up when we type in the names of our ancestors. For the ancient Greek sophists, probability (eikos) determined the course of events and the outcome of a trial in the absence of evidence. Even then, history was understood as a chain of likelihoods, of maybes; there was no truth, only a series of possible worlds. The first histories dwell in this ambiguity, between Aletheia and Lethe, truth and oblivion. “There can be no Aletheia without a measure of Lethe,” the classicist Thomas Cole writes. “The antithetical powers are thus not contradictory but tend toward each other.” As it was then, so it is now: just as Petrowskaja seems to have grasped a glimmer of truth, her search renders it suspect — she has misremembered, misdirected. “The past betrayed my expectations, slipping out of my grasp and committing one faux pas after another,” she writes. “It lives as it pleases, and just does not manage to die.”
So it is fitting that Petrowskaja portrays her family history as an epic, casting her ancestors at times as demi-gods, at times as mere mortals beneath the sword of Damocles. The memoirs of another grandmother, Rosa, written in haste as her eyesight expired, are indecipherable, “a thickly woven, unbreakable Ariadne’s thread.” She reimagines her first known ancestor, Shimon Heller, as Shimon the Hearer, he who founded the first of her family’s schools for deaf-mute children, he who “taught children how to speak so that they would be heard.” But Petrowskaja’s mythology of the 20th century is most forceful in its description of Maybe Esther’s last minutes of life. Too frail to join her family when they evacuated Kiev before its occupation by German forces, Maybe Esther remained in the city and even looked forward to their arrival. She writes,
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 they, they in particular, were the closest relatives of the occupying troops, having that special entitlement of those for whom the word is everything.
But then came the order for “All Jews” to gather “at the corner of Mel’nikova and Dorohozhytska streets” on the morning of September 29, 1941. Maybe Esther’s neighbors told her not to go (“You can’t even walk!”), but she was determined. “If All, then All,” Petrowskaja imagines her grandmother telling herself, “as though it was a matter of honor.” Maybe Esther descends to the street, sees a German patrol unit, and walks toward them:
Her walk developed like an epic event, not only because Maybe Esther moved like the tortoise in the aporias of Zeno, step by step, slowly but surely, so slowly that no one could catch up with her, and the slower she went, the more impossible it was to catch up to her, to stop her, to bring her back, and, above all, to overtake her. Not even the fleet-footed Achilles could have done that […] In the time it took Babushka to walk, battles could have broken out, and Homer could have begun cataloging the ships.
Aporia comes from the Greek aporos, “impassable.” An aporia is an expression of doubt, a logical contradiction. Zeno’s aporias argued that movement is impossible, that an arrow shot from a bow must remain eternally at rest. And so Petrowskaja imagines her great-grandmother at a perpetual standstill, always walking toward her death but never quite arriving, like the frozen babushka that Google Maps caught rounding the bend at Babi Yar. Until, maybe, she does: “Please be so kind Kherr Offizehr, and tell me how to get to Babi Yar?”
Imagining this great-grandmother she never knew, who maybe wasn’t named Esther, or maybe wasn’t her great-grandmother at all, Petrowskaja wonders whether someone, somewhere, might have observed this encounter, whether there might be a definite account of this event rather than just a probable one: “Who whispers unwitnessed stories to us, and for what reason? Does it matter that this old woman is my father’s babushka? And what if this wasn’t the grandmother he loved?” But the possible witnesses — passersby, neighbors, “salesladies” — they are gone. “They are the last storytellers. Where did they all move to?”
They have escaped, anonymously, into an impassable past, into the haze of her family history. There were surely witnesses to Maybe Esther’s death, Petrowskaja writes, but all they have left behind is the absence of evidence. As she desperately tries to extract these last storytellers from their chosen oblivion, Petrowskaja assumes their forsaken role, bearing witness to events that she can only just imagine.
Linda Kinstler is a writer based in Berkeley, California.