Marci Shore

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Maybe Es­ther: A Fam­ily Story by Katja Petrowskaja, trans­lated from the Ger­man by Shel­ley Frisch

Maybe Es­ther:

A Fam­ily Story by Katja Petrowskaja, trans­lated from the Ger­man by Shel­ley Frisch. Harper, 254 pp., $25.99

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 half­s­tarved 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 great­grand­mother 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 grea­tun­cle. 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 “half­words,” 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,

1In the orig­i­nal: “Es ist unerträglich. Doch für das Un­erträgliche gibt es kein Wort. Wenn das Wort es erträgt, dann ist es auch erträglich.” Katja Petrowskaja, Vielle­icht Es­ther (Ber­lin: Suhrkamp, 2014), p. 247.

2The Rus­sian word is (os­tra­ne­nie). See Vik­tor Shklovsky, “Art as De­vice” in The­ory of Prose, trans­lated by Ben­jamin Sher (Dalkey Ar­chive Press, 1990). kept me from fall­ing into a rou­tine,” Petrowskaja re­flects.

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.

3Peter Pomer­ant­sev, Noth­ing Is True and Ev­ery­thing Is Pos­si­ble: The Sur­real Heart of the New Rus­sia (PublicAf­fairs, 2014). On the war in the Don­bass, see Paweł Pieniążek, Greet­ings from Novorossiya: Eye­wit­ness to the War in Ukraine (Uni­ver­sity of Pitts­burgh Press, 2017); Mykola Bal­a­ban et al., Don­bas in Flames: Guide to the Con­flict Zone, edited by Alina Maiorova, trans­lated by Artem Va­ly­chko et al. (Lviv: Prometheus, 2017); and Tim Ju­dah, In Wartime: Sto­ries from Ukraine (Tim Dug­gan Books, 2016). 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.

4In Ger­man, Petrowskaja trans­lates her fa­ther’s “truth” with the ad­jec­tive wahrheits­ge­treu—in English “true” or “truth­ful,” more lit­er­ally “faith­ful to the truth.”

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

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

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