WHEN KATJA PETROWSKAJA began to explore her family history, she found that the more she approached the past, the more it eluded her: deteriorating archival documents crumbled in her hands, relatives’ stories had vanished from historical records, names had been changed, and memories were incomplete.
One of her Jewish great-grandmothers was killed by German soldiers in 1941, unable to escape Kiev, Soviet Union (now Ukraine), with the rest of her family. Although Petrowskaja managed to piece together the story of this woman’s final days, she never learned her name. Petrowskaja’s father recalled only that she was, perhaps, called Esther.
Stories such as this form the basis of Petrowskaja’s book Maybe Esther, which appeared in Shelley Frisch’s English translation in January 2018. Drawing on several generations of Petrowskaja’s family — including a revolutionary in Odessa, a prisoner of war who reappeared after a 40-year absence, and a great-uncle who shot a German diplomat in Moscow in 1932 — the book weaves together a multilayered history of 20th-century Europe.
The stories Petrowskaja explores are marked by absences, bearing painful witness to the murder of family members in the Holocaust and the state-sanctioned destruction of historical memory. Stories often emerge through coincidences, as the author stumbles across fragments and traces. Informed by her own experience of growing up in the Soviet Union and writing in a second language, Petrowskaja also thematizes issues of translation, the transformations that occur when writing across cultures, countries, and languages.
While concerned with the material and emotional dimensions of what has been lost, Petrowskaja also writes of the ethical need to find a voice that doesn’t merely mourn, but opens up new ways of thinking through history. The uncertainties Petrowskaja encounters in her research engender the provisional, not-quite-historical, not-quite-fictional stories that form the substance of her text. Nuanced, evocative, and often humorous, these stories enact remembering through the lens of “perhaps,” gesturing toward the other possibilities — potential stories that are present, yet unspoken, at every moment.
I caught up with Petrowskaja to discuss the process of writing her book, her childhood in the Soviet Union, and her approach to the ethics of writing history.
MAYA CASPARI: You have described Maybe Esther as “Geschichten” — which means both stories and histories in English. Why do you choose to describe it in this way?
KATJA PETROWSKAJA: This is how the book is subtitled in German and in other languages. In the English edition it is “a family story.” The book consists of 70 small stories. I used the word “Geschichten” because small stories reflect the “big history.” Moreover, the idea of a “novel” still implies an attempt to depict something as a whole. I recall, restore, or experience only the fragments of a lost epic, as if the world is broken and you can find only pieces. It was also a kind of modesty not to regard my book as a novel, although many European reviewers did. The stories are just findings, scattered across an unknown space.
It’s interesting that you describe the stories as “findings,” as if you have stumbled across them. Can you tell us more about how you see your role as a writer?
I didn’t want even to pretend to have one explanation, or to create only one paradigm that is the key to everything. I was taking a trip through modern Europe starting in the Berlin railway station, and traveling back home to the east, toward Kiev, through family legends, historical research, documents, and languages. I do not have mastery over the material — or rather, over history. Each piece of memory, each document or sensation demands its own method of narration, be it the simple ficus plant that saved my father’s life in 1941, the story of my Jewish great-uncle, who shot a German diplomat in Moscow in 1932, or the recipe for a strange drink, which I inherited from my aunt. And of course, there was the encounter with Babi Yar, the ravine where all the Jews of Kiev were killed during World War II. This ravine is now part of a city of over three million inhabitants; it was part of my childhood. It demands its own language of description.
How did you deal with the particular ethical demands of drawing on material that often details extreme violence into your book?
When you write about violence, you are at risk of multiplying that violence. We say “never forget,” and I try to remember. I am confronting readers with mass graves and a whole set of losses to uncover. But, I grew up in the Soviet Union in a typical intelligentsia family. Our official history didn’t tell us anything about the Holocaust, the gulag, about Soviet crimes in Hungary, Prague, Afghanistan, and so on. So, my parents told me and others everything in great detail. They — and this was typical — felt they had a mission to remember by telling the missing truth. When I came to write myself, I felt lost, torn between the ethical demand to tell and the sensation of not being able to bear it. How to keep memory going and not destroy your own soul or those of others? How to tell these missing parts in a way that is not violent or voyeuristic? How can one talk about brutality in a tender way?
Did these concerns form part of your decision to write in German, when you are a Russian-speaker? Why did you make this choice?
That is the most important question! German is actually the only fictitious element in the book. And there were many reasons for using it. I started to learn German when I was 27. So, it was not easy for me. The endeavor to write in German reflects the difficulty of remembering, and the hardship of talking about violence. To write about losses one has to lose one’s tongue, even if it’s a mother tongue. I also tried to avoid a sense of predestination. If you write about World War II as a Jewish Ukrainian Russian-speaker, with your “kit” of Soviet war-prisoners and Holocaust victims, you have moral right on your side — you do, you are among victors and victims. By changing the language, I wanted to liberate myself. I didn’t want to have a “victim bonus.” It is my story, but it is not me. I am not better or worse just because I have a tragic family story. In a way, my book is an attempt to make the German language innocent again, for me. I had the secret hope of writing a piece of German Romantic literature: a Wanderung.
One more thing: In Russian I am an adult woman, in German I am still a teenager. This childish naïveté was also part of a radical refusal to understand labels and historical causality as if they were natural or inevitable. Not accepting brutality or violence is, in a way, very childish.
So, your use of German is an act of refusal?
Yes, labels suggest predetermination, as if these divisions and categories were natural. They feed into a reading of history as if it were always linear — as if there is fixed causality. That’s exactly what I don’t accept here. There shouldn’t be anything that says Jews had to be killed because there was a history of pogroms — that wars had to happen, just because it’s our nature.
The story of “the others” is a hidden leitmotif of the book — not a family, but neighbors, the people we come across. There are no “other” people; that’s a myth.
You describe the use of German as a “childish” way of confronting violence. Were there books from your actual childhood that influenced you?
Many! Legends and Myths of Ancient Greece by Nikolay Kun is how literature became part of my blood. I consider the disasters of the 20th century as a common narrative, as our common ancient story. Another is One Thousand and One Nights — the voice of Scheherazade, who is telling stories against death. And, of course, Alice in Wonderland, one of the most popular books of our childhood. Many knew it almost by heart. For a British or American, it’s about the absurd. But for us, it was a precise description of our crazy country and its rules. Our reality was so artificial that the most absurd literature provided the best description of it.
That’s interesting, in terms of how your own text interweaves genres and narrative modes. The material you work with is often very painful, but there is also often a lightness and humor in the narrative. Sometimes it feels melancholic, sometimes playful — or even both at once.
For me, different kinds of storytelling coexist. There’s absolutely no contradiction between, say, a fairy tale and the discovery of a political truth. It is also a search for the right intonation. I tried to avoid pure sentimentality and kitsch, which is certainly possible, when one is regarding the pain of others.
Humor is not just a joke. Humor is a way of thinking beyond a dominant system, a means of survival. It creates another point of view: like a clown who knows all the rules, but doesn’t respect them and answers his own questions. It’s also a matter of inner freedom, a step aside: not being caught.
Yes. One might suggest the book’s ethics lie in this idea of not “being caught”? It always foregrounds other possibilities — a kind of subjunctive remembering that attends to what might have happened, in order to speak about the realities of what did.
We certainly can’t change the pace of history. We can’t save millions of people. We didn’t. This helplessness was my starting point. It comes down to how you deal with historical uncertainty: maybe Esther herself is an example. I know exactly how she was killed, I have read everything about this day in Kiev. But I don’t know her name. If I called her Esther, it would be unethical, a lie. In a way, no “Esther” existed, but “Maybe Esther” did. And this doesn’t mean I’m relativizing history. This kind of modality is something we have to work into our history. “Maybe” and “perhaps” makes our truth certain. This is the level of “truth” we can gain.
History is a set of different possibilities. I was looking for turns, moments of bifurcation, moments of non-acceptance: a moment when you can change the shape of history, even if only in the subjunctive.
Maya Caspari is a writer, editor, and researcher, based in London. She is currently working on a PhD at the University of Leeds, exploring representations of empathy and touch in contemporary world literature.