Seek­ing An­swers, Find­ing Only More Ques­tions

MAYBE ES­THER: A FAM­ILY STORY By Katja Petrowskaja; trans­lated from the Ger­man by Shel­ley Frisch Harper, 272 pages, $25.99

Forward Magazine - - Reviews - By Ju­lia M. Klein

More than seven decades af­ter World War II and the Holo­caust rup­tured civ­i­liza­tion, we’re still try­ing to make sense of the fall­out.

In­ti­mate first-per­son ac­counts have ceded ground, in large part, to archival his­tory: the long view, com­pet­ing the­o­ries of cau­sa­tion, new de­tails. Even so, the stream of mem­oirs con­tin­ues to flow. Mostly, now, we are in the realm of third- and fourth-gen­er­a­tion mem­oirists, in­ves­ti­gat­ing the lives of their grand­par­ents’ gen­er­a­tion and be­yond, ex­pe­ri­enc­ing largely vi­car­i­ous losses and strug­gling with the art of sto­ry­telling it­self.

Daniel Men­del­sohn’s 2006 me­moir “The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Mil­lion,” a clas­sic quest story, stressed the lim­i­ta­tions, ar­ti­fice and moral quan­daries in­volved in shap­ing un­cer­tain truths into nar­ra­tive. An­other bril­liant third­gen­er­a­tion me­moir, Sarah Wild­man’s “Pa­per Love: Search­ing for the Girl My Grand­fa­ther Left Be­hind” (2014), ably balanced the gift of a prodi­gious epis­to­lary record with the chal­lenge of re­cov­er­ing a van­ish­ing past.

Katja Petrowskaja’s “Maybe Es­ther” tack­les sim­i­lar is­sues, al­beit with less suc­cess. Its very ti­tle cod­i­fies doubt, putting even the name of this pa­ter­nal great-grand­mother in ques­tion. The win­ner of Aus­tria’s pres­ti­gious 2013 Ingeborg Bach­mann Prize, Petrowskaja’s

of­ten frus­trat­ing me­moir de­lib­er­ately em­bod­ies the frag­men­ta­tion of his­tory, mem­ory and ex­pe­ri­ence. It­self a col­lec­tion of frag­ments, “Maybe Es­ther” turns out to be a show­case for Petrowskaja’s lit­er­ary af­fec­ta­tions as much as an ex­pres­sion of nar­ra­tive hu­mil­ity. Writ­ing it was no doubt a strug­gle; so is read­ing it.

A na­tive of Kiev, Ukraine, non­re­li­gious but of Jewish de­scent, and a sur­vivor of the Soviet era who stud­ied in Moscow, Es­to­nia and the United States, Petrowskaja has worked as a jour­nal­ist in Ber­lin since 1999. Her fam­ily, like many, was splin­tered and dis­persed by the trau­mas of 20th-cen­tury his­tory, among them the Bol­she­vik Rev­o­lu­tion and the Holo­caust.

For seven gen­er­a­tions, mem­bers of her ma­ter­nal line worked across Europe as teach­ers of deaf-mute chil­dren, in some cases found­ing schools or or­phan­ages. It’s a fact that strains in­evitably, if clum­sily, to­ward metaphor. “As I saw it,” Petrowskaja writes, “our Jewish­ness was deaf-mute, and deaf-mute­ness was Jewish.”

Petrowskaja lost a ma­ter­nal great­grand­mother and great-aunt and, it seems, the tit­u­lar Es­ther to the in­fa­mous shoot­ings at Babi Yar, in Ukraine, where about 34,000 Jews were killed in just two Septem­ber days in 1941. (Be­tween 100,000 and 200,000 Jews, Roma, par- ti­sans and oth­ers were mur­dered over a two-year pe­riod, Petrowskaja writes.) Other rel­a­tives of hers per­ished in Nazi con­cen­tra­tion camps.

One pa­ter­nal great-un­cle, Ju­das Stern, was an as­sas­sin: He shot a Ger­man Em­bassy coun­selor in 1932, in Moscow, and was tor­tured and ex­e­cuted as a re­sult. Petrowskaja digs up the tran­script of his trial and muses freely about his mo­tives.

The book be­gins in a Ber­lin train sta­tion at the start of a jour­ney to Poland. The sur­round­ing waste­land, Petrowskaja ob­serves in one of her sig­na­ture run-on sen­tences, “still attests to the dev­as­ta­tion of this city, a city that was bombed and re­duced to ru­ins in the course of vic­to­ri­ous bat­tles, as retri­bu­tion, it seemed to me, see­ing as how the war that had been the cause of im­mea­sur­able dev­as­ta­tion, far and wide, had been steered from this very city, an end­less bl­itzkrieg on iron wheels and with iron wings.”

In a sec­tion ti­tled “Fam­ily Tree,” she seeks to ex­plain her project: “I had thought that telling the story of the few peo­ple who hap­pened to be my rel­a­tives was all that was needed to con­jure up the en­tire 20th cen­tury.” She lists some of those rel­a­tives, and the rest of the book hop­scotches among their sto­ries.

Petrowskaja is af­ter not just facts, but also un­der­stand­ing and em­pa­thy. In the course of her trav­els, she vis­its Babi Yar; Mau­thausen, the one­time Nazi con­cen­tra­tion camp in Aus­tria, and War­saw, where she sees “di­lap­i­dated build­ings that looked like open books.” She scours archival records and longs for wit­nesses to in­ter­ro­gate. She re­joices in fam­ily recipes, handed down through the gen­er­a­tions, and snatches of Yid­dish song — wel­come traces of a lost world. “His­tory be­gins when there are no more peo­ple to ask, only sources,” she writes.

There are some mem­o­rable mo­ments, mostly when the past and present con­verge un­ex­pect­edly. A one­time stu­dent of Petrowskaja’s mother calls from Is­rael and dis­cov­ers that the two were also once neigh­bors. Bet­ter yet, Petrowskaja finds an 87-year-old woman, a dis­tant re­la­tion by mar­riage who sur­vived con­cen­tra­tion camps, liv­ing in Oak Ridge, Ten­nessee. The woman con­nects her to long-lost cousins in Eng­land. Petrowskaja also tries to flesh out the fairy-tale-like story of a grand­fa­ther, a for­mer Soviet pris­oner of war, who dis­ap­peared for decades and then re­turned, briefly, to his wait­ing wife, Rosa.

She chron­i­cles all this in her sec­ond lan­guage of Ger­man: “the lan­guage of the enemy… a love that does not leave if it does not get, a gift and a goad….”

“Maybe Es­ther” doesn’t add up to much — at least not for those of us who’ve taken sim­i­lar, more sat­is­fy­ing lit­er­ary jour­neys be­fore. Yes, the ef­fort, like every at­tempt at a reck­on­ing, still mat­ters. But wrestling with form and lan­guage is no sub­sti­tute for telling a good story, es­pe­cially when the wrestler seems over­matched.

Ju­lia M. Klein, the For­ward’s con­tribut­ing book critic, was a fi­nal­ist for the Na­tional Book Crit­ics Cir­cle’s Nona Balakian Ci­ta­tion for Ex­cel­lence in Re­view­ing. Fol­low her on Twit­ter, @ Ju­li­aMKlein

Her fam­ily was splin­tered and dis­persed by 0th cen­tury trau­mas.

COUR­TESY OF HARPER

SEARCH­ING THROUGH UN­CER­TAIN­TIES: Katja Petrowskaja is the au­thor of

“Maybe Es­ther: A Fam­ily Story.”

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