Urban Zintel/Laif/Redux

Katja Petrowskaja at a demonstration against Russian interference in Crimea, Berlin, March 2014

Lenin believed that history could be rushed. For decades after the Bolshevik Revolution, everyone dreamed of flying. “The entire Soviet Union was against the force of gravity,” writes Katja Petrowskaja in her incandescent family history, Maybe Esther. Like other forms of bourgeois oppression, gravity would soon be overcome. After Lenin’s premature death in 1924, Stalin spent the 1930s intent on “catching up and overtaking” the West. The catching up was desperate and brutal. People vanished. Millions starved to death; about a million more were shot. “Stalinism might be one way of attaining industrialization, just as cannibalism is one way of attaining a high-protein diet,” quipped the historian Robert Conquest. At times—during the 1932–1933 famine in Soviet Ukraine, for instance—the cannibalism was literal.

This was before Petrowskaja’s time; she was born in 1970. “I grew up not in the cannibalistic but the vegetarian years,” she writes. The phrase “the vegetarian years” was coined by the poet Anna Akhmatova, herself a survivor of the cannibalistic ones. It was adopted by Petrowskaja and her contemporaries, who, by grace of a later birth, had been spared a direct encounter with Hitler and Stalin. “War losses were said to constitute an inexhaustible supply of our own happiness,” Petrowskaja explains, “because the only reason we were alive, we were told, was that they had died for us, and we needed to be eternally grateful to them, for our peaceful normality and for absolutely everything.”

Maybe Esther, composed of small narrative pieces, flows among multiple generations, lingering inevitably in the cannibalistic years. Early in the book, Petrowskaja tells the story of her father’s older brother, named by his parents “Vil,” an acronym for Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. Vil, she writes,

could have stepped right out of the Soviet air force hymn everyone sang back then: We were born to make fairy tales real, to overcome space and expanses, we received steel arm-wings from Reason, our heart is an engine in flames.

When on June 22, 1941, Hitler broke the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact and attacked the Soviet Union, Vil, eighteen years old, was sent to the front. Under German crossfire in the Caucasus, he and other recruits threw their bodies into an antitank ditch; the tanks rolled over them. Vil was later found at the bottom of the ditch “squashed and shot through the groin.” He survived. Afterward he suffered from epileptic seizures, during which Petrowskaja’s father, Miron, had to hold his brother’s tongue to stop him from choking.

No one escaped those years unmaimed. Petrowskaja’s maternal grandfather, Vasily, a Ukrainian from Rivne, also went off to fight in the war; his wife, Rosa, a Jew from Warsaw, fled Kiev with their two young daughters, Lida and Svetlana. They traveled by cattle car; Svetlana fell ill with measles. Once when the train had stopped and Rosa had run with her jug to fetch water, the train started again suddenly, with no warning, and only through a superhuman sprint and the strength of the hands of the other women in the cattle car did Rosa avoid losing her children, perhaps forever.

Eventually they arrived in a small town in the southern Urals, where Rosa was put in charge of two hundred half-starved orphans from a music school in besieged Leningrad, who might or might not actually have been orphans. When later in the war there was a bit more food and the children regained some strength, they began to dance and sing. There were no ballet slippers at the orphanage, and so necessity brought them to modern dance; they leapt about barefoot and free. In this way Rosa and her two daughters—Petrowskaja’s mother, Svetlana, and her aunt Lida—survived the war. Until the end of her long life, Rosa loved to dance.

When Rosa and her daughters fled Kiev in July 1941, Rosa’s sister, Lyolya, and her mother, Anna, stayed in their home. Soon afterward, the Red Army lost Kiev to the Wehrmacht. When the Germans arrived, Kiev was burning. “The center of the city had been on fire for days,” Petrowskaja writes of the morning in late September 1941 when all Jews in Kiev were ordered to report to the corner of Melnik and Dekhtyarev Streets. When they learned about the summons, Anna’s maid, Natasha, began to cry. Anna chastised her: “Calm down, we’ve always had a good relationship with the Germans.” Petrowskaja suspects that her great-grandmother must have known better, that she could not have believed this herself. Yet many Jews had this feeling then: the German occupations of World War I had been endurable—in any case, most Jews had endured them.

This time was different. During the next two days, not far from the center of Kiev, in the ravine called Babi Yar, German soldiers assisted by Ukrainian auxiliaries killed 33,771 Jews, including Lyolya, Anna, and Petrowskaja’s paternal great-grandmother, whose name was, perhaps, Esther—although it is also possible that Esther, then elderly and barely mobile, was shot to death on the street and never reached the ravine at all. The information about Anna is more definite:


Anna was killed in Babi Yar, although my parents never used the word killed. They said, Anna is lying in Babi Yar…. They found it painful to ponder the question of originators of the deed…. For them, the events assumed mythic proportions, no longer accessible to us mere mortals, an incontestable occurrence that could not be subject to human scrutiny.

Petrowskaja grew up in Soviet Ukraine, in Kiev, on the left bank of the Dnieper River, on a street named Ulitsa Florentsii, in a fourteen-story apartment building some ten miles from Babi Yar. She spent her childhood surrounded by the presences of family members who had survived the war and the absences of those who had not.

Freud wrote that all history is family history. And Heine is said to have exclaimed that Jews are just like everyone else, only more so. In Petrowskaja’s stories what is Jewish cannot be extricated from what is Ukrainian, Polish, Russian, Soviet—as if Jewishness accentuated already rich colors in a tapestry. Her family members include a Bolshevik revolutionary, a war hero, a physicist who vanished during the purges, a seamstress, an assassin, seven generations of teachers of the deaf and mute, and a grandmother named Rosa “who waited for her husband longer than Penelope had.”

The assassin’s name was Judas Stern; he was Petrowskaja’s paternal great-uncle. On March 5, 1932, in Moscow, Stern fired seven shots with a pistol at the German embassy counselor Fritz von Twardowski. Twardowski survived. “When are you sending me into the world of unstructured matter?” Stern asked at his trial. He was shot two days after the trial ended.

Petrowskaja is fascinated by the aftereffects of actions, which can so far exceed the intent, or imagination, of the actors. Stern’s attempted assassination of a German diplomat on Soviet soil—just eight days before German presidential elections and five months before early parliamentary elections—set in motion a chain of events that left Petrowskaja feeling somehow responsible for the greatest catastrophes of the twentieth century. “A Jew making an attempt on the life of a German diplomat,” she writes, “was like a thing summoned by Goebbels and his propaganda, a perfect creation.”

At the time of the assassination attempt and trial, Stern’s brother Semion, Petrowskaja’s paternal grandfather, and his wife, Rita, were living in Odessa. Rita was pregnant. On May 8, 1932, in connection with Judas Stern’s case, officers from the State Political Directorate (GPU) burst into their Odessa apartment. The fright sent Rita into early labor. She delivered Petrowskaja’s father at home, prematurely, surrounded by GPU officers.

Semion, born Semion Stern, had taken the name “Petrovsky” when he entered the Bolshevik underground. (“Petrowskaja” is the German transliteration from the Russian of the feminine form of “Petrovsky.”) “When I found out our original family name,” Petrowskaja writes, “I knew instantly that we are really the name we now bear; the Sterns are and will remain specters, I will never be a Stern.” Yet her brother, the historian Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern, felt differently; he took the name Stern.

“In every Jewish family there is one meshuggeneh,” Semion Petrovsky told his son. “My grandfather had five siblings and could get away with a statement like that. I have only one brother, so is he the one, or am I?” Petrowskaja asks.

The reader senses that this is not a rhetorical question. In Maybe Esther, the most unmediated family drama is the one between the author and her brother. It is articulated only in “half-words,” as the Russian expression goes. “My big brother taught me the negative numbers,” she writes. “He told me about black holes, as an introduction to a way of life. He conjured up a parallel universe where he was forever beyond reach, and I was left with the negative numbers.”

Petrowskaja and her brother were both raised secular in Soviet Kiev; their native language is Russian. As an adult, he learned Hebrew, studied kabbalah, and became an observant Jew. His sister, in turn, approaches Jewishness with uncertainty about what belongs to her and what does not, where she does and does not have a right to impose herself. She compares her Jewish heritage to the deaf-muteness that was the professional focus of her family for generations.

As an adult, Petrowskaja learned German, studied literature, and married a German man named Tobias. She writes in German. At moments her thoughts in Russian are nearly audible, as if whispered between the pages. Her German is very beautiful and very delicate, imbued with an ethereality that almost does not feel like German at all. And in its original language, Maybe Esther (Vielleicht Esther) is a kind of meditation on the capabilities and inadequacies of words, on what can and cannot be expressed in German. “Unbearable, you might say,” she writes, describing her venture into Mauthausen, where her grandfather, Vasily, had been a prisoner. “It is unbearable. But there is no word for the unbearable. If the word bears it, it’s bearable.”1 In one of the book’s early chapters, she writes about visiting a museum in Germany with her eleven-year-old daughter, who insisted on going straight to the part of the exhibit that dealt with the war:


When we were standing in front of the chart with the Nuremberg Laws and the tour guide—the Führerin, funny that’s the word for the woman doing this job, she was just in the middle of talking about the Führer—launched into an explanation of who, and what percent, my daughter asked me in a loud whisper, Where are we here? Where are we on this chart, Mama? The question really ought to be asked not in the present tense but in the past, and the subjunctive: where would we have been if we had lived then, if we had lived in this country—if we had been Jewish and had lived here back then. I know this lack of respect for grammar, and I, too, ask myself questions of this sort, where am I on this picture, questions that shift me from the realm of imagination into reality, because avoidance of the subjunctive turns imagination into recognition or even statement, you take another’s place, catapult yourself there, into this chart, for example, and thus I try out every role on myself as though there was no past without an if, as though, or in that case.

Entering a foreign language brings not only expressive limitations but also epistemological advantages: it lays bare the palpability of words. It induces what the Russian Formalist Viktor Shklovsky calls “estrangement”: the familiar is made unfamiliar.2 This strangeness disrupts our habituation and awakens us to the world. “My German, still taut with unattainability, kept me from falling into a routine,” Petrowskaja reflects.

Vossische Zeitung

Judas Stern on trial in Moscow for the attempted assassination of a German diplomat, April 1932

It is not only the foreignness of German words that estranges her. Even Arbeit, “work”—an indispensable word—has been deprived of innocence. Arbeit irresistibly suggests “Arbeit macht frei,” which takes us at once to the gates of Auschwitz. In the summer of 1989, when she was not yet twenty, Petrowskaja visited the camp. It was her first trip abroad. At the small shop by the gates, she was overcome by the desire to buy silver jewelry. The desire was mimetic: all of her fellow passengers on the bus wanted to buy cheap silver in Poland; they considered it an “investment.” Immediately Petrowskaja was ashamed of the silver chains she had bought, ashamed of having even wanted to buy them.

During that 1989 trip, Petrowskaja also visited Warsaw, where she began to decipher the Polish graffiti and saw “that the walls were covered with countless expressions of hate for the very people who were no longer there.” Years later, when the Soviet Union no longer existed and Poland was a member of the European Union, Petrowskaja was drawn back to Warsaw by the memory of Rosa. “I wanted to go there,” she writes, “if only to smell the air.” Rosa had fled Warsaw with her family during World War I; although she had been not yet ten years old then, to the end of her life she spoke Russian with a slight Polish accent. As a child, Petrowskaja had always been proud of this: in the Soviet imagination, Poland was the West, civilized and elegant. In fact Rosa had been born in Warsaw in 1905, when there was no Poland, and Warsaw was still part of the Russian Empire.

A century later, in Warsaw, Petrowskaja found the Jewish Genealogy and Heritage Center next to a supermarket and an automobile showroom. There, on the ground floor of a “dark blue mirrored Peugeot skyscraper,” an archivist helped her research the fate of her relatives who had remained in Poland: Rosa’s half-brother was deported to Lublin and shot to death in 1943; his wife, Hela, was deported to Treblinka. Nearby, at the Jewish Historical Institute, a seventy-year-old genealogist named Jan Jagielski showed her a photograph of the building on Ulica Ciepła where her great-grandfather had once run a school for deaf and mute children. Jagielski had acquired the photograph through eBay. “I bought this photo from a member of the Wehrmacht,” he tells her, “for seventy euros, a good price.”

I learned about Katja Petrowskaja’s book from Jurko Prochasko, the Ukrainian translator she shares with Freud and Robert Musil. Jurko told me about Maybe Esther when we were both in Vienna, talking about Ukraine, whose capital city had recently once again been burning; and Russia, where “nothing is true and everything is possible,” as Peter Pomerantsev wrote; and the grotesque war in the Donbass, where thousands of people are being killed in a rebellion against imaginary American-sponsored Ukrainian fascists, conjured up by Russian television.3 As one does when an American and a Ukrainian meet in Austria to talk about Russia, we were speaking in Polish. And Jurko told me that he was absorbed in conversations with Katja Petrowskaja in Russian about his translation into Ukrainian of the book she had written in German.

Petrowskaja tells in German translation a story whose original Russian version does not exist. This “questionable translation without a source text,” as she calls it, evokes the slipperiness of borders—between different places and different times, between what is one’s own and what belongs to others. The most provocative of these porous borders is the one between innocence and guilt. Whenever she meets someone from Poland, Petrowskaja writes, she reflexively begins by apologizing, as if on behalf of the Soviets, and the Russians before them: for the partitions of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth; for the Polish officers massacred in Katyń; for the Red Army’s having watched passively from the other side of the Vistula River while the Polish underground rose up against the Germans and Warsaw burned to the ground. She knows this all happened long before her birth, but even so.

It is a guilt perhaps related to her father, who came from a Polish-Jewish family yet grew up in Kiev, who knew that Poles had not been innocent in their behavior toward Jews yet who

forgivingly grieved for Poland when contemplating the sewers, the Warsaw uprising, the Polish partitions, Katyń. He regarded the Polish tragedy as a source of anguish, as though he could fathom his own pain only in the pain of others, in an act of translation.

In the postwar years, her father and many of his friends in Soviet Ukraine were drawn to Poland; they read literature in Polish translation, “and when I asked my father how it was possible for them to love Poland so devotedly when Poland didn’t love them back, he said, Love need not be requited.”

Petrowskaja does not fully share this love, but she does share an empathy. The thought that Jewish ghosts would haunt Poles living on an invisible Jewish cemetery brings her no gratification: “I did not want the residents of Kalisz, when they withdrew money from the bank on the spot where the synagogue once stood, to think of these dead strangers, as though they were paying interest on their own lives.” This is not a sentiment to be taken for granted. Maybe Esther is rare in its lack of interest in requiting past wrongs. Petrowskaja reaches for neither repentance nor vindication, but rather an understanding of self, family, and history that can never be fully consummated.

The book’s title, Maybe Esther, acknowledges this impossibility of perfect knowledge. The “maybe” comes from Petrowskaja’s father, Miron:

What do you mean, “maybe”? I asked indignantly. You don’t know what your grandmother’s name was?

I never called her by name, my father replied. I said Babushka, and my parents said Mother.

Her father accepts the possibility of error with composure. He survived the war because in 1941, his parents, Semion and Rita—like Rosa—decided to flee Kiev with their children. Semion yelled for his family to be ready in ten minutes. Outside there was a truck and a loading platform already crowded with two families, their belongings, and a ficus in a pot. There was not enough room. Semion grabbed the ficus and pulled it off the platform to make space for his family. Long ago, Miron told his daughter about that ficus; later, though, as she worked on this book, he could no longer remember whether the ficus had in fact been there among those bundles and suitcases, parents and children.

Petrowskaja was distraught: she had long been convinced that she owed her life to this sacrificed ficus, whose place on the truck her father had taken. The ficus was essential to the story. This time, too, her father was composed: “Even if it didn’t exist, these kinds of mistakes sometimes tell us more than a painstaking inventory,” he tells her. “Sometimes that pinch of poetry is the very thing that makes memory truth.”4

Here as elsewhere in Maybe Esther, Petrowskaja plays with a distinction, which exists in neither German nor English, between the two different Russian words for “truth,” pravda and istina. Pravda could be translated as “empirical truth” or “factual truth.” It need not be singular. Istina could be translated as “transcendental truth.” It is singular and not countable. This book is about borders and translation, about what can and cannot be reached. Petrowskaja, by apprehending some facts and failing to grasp others, writes with the faith that istina can reveal itself even when pravda remains uncertain.