Maybe Esther: A Fam­i­ly Story

Kat­ja Petrowska­ja;‎ Shel­ley Frisch, trans.
  • Review
By – February 14, 2018

Maybe Esther: A Fam­i­ly Sto­ry by Kat­ja Petrowska­ja;‎ Shel­ley Frisch, trans.

Kat­ja Petrowska­ja, a native of Kiev who stud­ied lit­er­a­ture in Esto­nia and received her PhD in Moscow, has called Berlin her home since 1999. Although her first lan­guage is Russ­ian, Petrowska­ja chose to write Maybe Esther in Ger­man, which has been beau­ti­ful­ly trans­lat­ed into Eng­lish by Shel­ley Frisch. The author explains in a 2014 inter­view that she feels freed to write about her Jew­ish ances­tors not as part of the estab­lished vic­tim dis­course.” Instead, by using the lan­guage of the per­pe­tra­tors,” she writes as a mod­ern mem­ber of her far-flung fam­i­ly of Jew­ish intel­lec­tu­als, edu­ca­tors, human­i­tar­i­ans, authors, and social provo­ca­teurs. Just like her ances­tors, Petrowska­ja uses the lan­guage of the peo­ple around her, who she strives to under­stand and con­nect with.

Thus, Petrowskaja’s fam­i­ly sto­ry” is not only about Babi Jar and the Holo­caust; the book also assem­bles a fam­i­ly tree that extends as far back as the ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, illu­mi­nat­ing the full lives of her social­ly engaged rel­a­tives. She gives due recog­ni­tion to peo­ple whose exis­tence would have oth­er­wise been erased from memory.

In the process of search­ing for her ances­tors, Petrowska­ja vis­its many of the places they lived in Rus­sia, Ukraine, Poland, and Ger­many. She brings back reflec­tions on the task of liv­ing and appre­ci­at­ing the com­plex­i­ties of lives past with­out cen­ter­ing on their bru­tal end­ings. As an exam­ple of her wish to hon­or a greater con­text, she qui­et­ly states in the pre­vi­ous­ly cit­ed inter­view: Mau­thausen is also a beau­ti­ful baroque city.” In the first chap­ter of Maybe Esther, she also describes her shock at being greet­ed by a huge ban­ner stat­ing Bom­bardiers” at the main Berlin train sta­tion, not imme­di­ate­ly real­iz­ing that it was an adver­tise­ment for the musi­cal. Expand­ing beyond the imme­di­ate asso­ci­a­tions with war and destruc­tion, she puts the real­i­ty of the bombed-out Berlin of 1945, as a sig­ni­fi­er of the most trau­mat­ic peri­od in recent Euro­pean his­to­ry, next to Berlin’s pur­suit of peace­ful and cul­tured coex­is­tence today. Petrowska­ja lives in the present with keen aware­ness of the past, and is capa­ble to hold both with utmost respect. In her search to restore the pres­ence of her mur­dered or dis­ap­peared ances­tors, she allows for the untrace­able and unknow­able in their lives to stand with dig­ni­ty — her Maybe is the ulti­mate hon­or to the full real­i­ty of her ances­tors’ lives.

Rein­hild Draeger-Muenke left her native Ger­many as a young adult and has lived in the Unit­ed States for almost 40 years. She is a psy­chol­o­gist and fam­i­ly ther­a­pist in the Philadel­phia area, help­ing peo­ple heal from inter­gen­er­a­tional­ly trans­mit­ted trauma.

Discussion Questions