Holocaust memoir Maybe Esther is a mesmerising work of reconstruction and reflection

Katja Petrowskaja turns a venerable literature of commemorative, respectful wartime suffering on its head.

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At the start of this mesmerising work of reconstruction and reflection, Katja Petrowskaja remarks that as a child she thought a family tree was something like a Christmas tree. A rooted and living thing, with relatives arrayed along its branches like ornaments, some fragile, some ugly. Then she tells us that a Christmas tree was the only family tree she ever knew growing up in Kiev, as the descendant of Polish Russian and Austrian Jews – teachers, tailors, farmers, plus a revolutionary or two – most of whom were murdered in the Holocaust. This bait and switch opener is typical of Petrowskaja’s style, as she turns a venerable literature of wartime suffering (commemorative, respectful) on its head, and then gives it back to us anew.

You might think there’s little more to add to the multitude of first-hand accounts of concentration camps and death marches, of pits teaming with bloodied naked bodies, of mass gassings and miraculous survivals  – especially by someone too young to remember any of it. But freed of the duty to bear witness, second-generation writers can come at the Holocaust askance, daring to question both the historical facts as well as the collective amnesia that sought to bury them. Think of Laurent Binet’s HHhH, Elisabeth Åsbrink’s 1947, or Nikolaus Wachsmann’s KL – intensely personal books that offer not just a “history from below” (an unearthing), but a kind of history from the imaginative hereafter, spurred not by memories or statistics, but by latter-day hauntings. As Petrowskaja puts it: “History begins when there are no more people to ask.”

Petrowskaja was born in Kiev in 1970 but has spent much of her adult life in Berlin; where her brother fell in love with Hebrew, she gave herself up to “the language of the enemy”. She writes in High German, expertly translated by Shelley Frisch into sentences that swoop and soar. It is writing that dazzles – deeply thoughtful and with insights that flash like sharp implements.

Petrowskaja begins with those who survived. Her aunt Lida, who encrypted the family’s Jewish recipes, because she “wanted nothing to do with the whole pain of saying ‘Jew’ and thinking of graves right away and who, because she was still alive, could not be a Jew”. She disguised her inheritance within a “Ukrainian cooking repertoire”. Petrowskaja’s grandfather Vassily  reappeared in Kiev 40 years after the war ended, refusing to speak, not least about the string of work camps he’d endured or death marches he’d survived. Instead he sat indoors for a whole year smiling at his rediscovered relatives before dying. Her grandmother Rosa took to writing her memoirs incessantly, in pencilled scrawl on loose white sheaves. Yet since she wrote several pages on the same sheet, one line overwriting the next, “like waves of sand on the beach”, her scratchings were unintelligible.

It is silences like these – the disappeared years and unspeakable (literally) experiences – that Petrowskaja excels at teasing back into life. Google is her friend; the archives at Mauthausen and Yad Vashem spill secrets; and journeys to Warsaw and Linz are undertaken with nothing but 19th-century maps and yellowing diary fragments for guides.

On one side of her family are generations of teachers of deaf-mutes. Petrowskaja hunts for the school her great-grandfather founded in Warsaw, seized after sign language (like all private communication) was banned by the Nazis. She is searching for records of death, but instead, a series of hidden clues lead to unexpected life: it turns out her grandfather Ozjel Krzewin had children from a prior marriage, one of whose descendants, now in her eighties, is alive and well in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

Her paternal line yields a grandmother with no name, the titular “maybe Esther”, casually shot on the streets of Kiev by a German officer from whom she’d politely asked directions, and an assassin great-uncle named Judas Stern, executed for shooting a German official in Prague in 1932. Briefly, Stern was infamous, but Petrowskaja suspects he was mentally unbalanced, most likely set up, certainly exploited. “When are you sending me into the world of unreconstructed matter?” Stern is recorded as having asked the prosecutor at his trial.

Petrowskaja herself is happiest in the world of unreconstructed matter – as opposed to when her personal history collides with the public record – her mind ceaselessly turning over the absence of facts, or asking questions whose answers can never be known. “There was nothing more to show – only to tell,” she writes, after describing how the Soviets pumped loam and sand and clay into the ravine of Babi Yar, where, over two days in September 1941, the Germans shot dead Kiev’s 33,771 Jews.

When she imagines the shooting of “Maybe Esther”, she says:

I observed this scene like God out of the window of the building across the street. Maybe that’s how people write novels. Or fairy tales. I sit up there and see everything! Sometimes I screw up my courage, draw near, and stand behind the officer’s back to listen in on the conversation. Why are they standing with their backs to me? I go around them and see nothing but their backs.

The image is perfect. For the impetus behind Maybe Esther itself arose when the past itself turned its back on the author and refused to offer up its truths. 

Marina Benjamin’s books include “Last Days in Babylon” (Bloomsbury)

Maybe Esther
Katja Petrowskaja
4th Estate, 272pp, £14.99

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia