Sunday, 4 February 2018

Maybe Esther by Katja Petrowskaja

Maybe Esther by Katja Petrowskaja
First published in German in Germany as Vielleicht Ester by Suhrkamp Verlag Berlin in 2014. English language translation by Shelley Frisch published by 4th Estate in the UK on the 30th January 2018.

Where to buy this book:

How I got this book:
Received a review copy from the publisher via NetGalley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Katja Petrowskaja’s family story is impossible to untangle from the history of twentieth-century Europe. There is her great-uncle, who shot a German diplomat in Moscow in 1932 and was sentenced to death. (Could this act have had more significance than anyone at the time understood?) There is her Ukrainian grandfather, who disappeared during World War II and reappeared without explanation forty-one years later. (How was it that he then went back to normal family life, as though nothing had happened?) And there is her great-grandmother (was she really called Esther?) who was too old and frail to leave Kiev when the Jews there were ordered to leave, and was brutally killed by the Nazis on the street.

Taking the reader from Moscow to Kiev to Warsaw to Berlin, and deep into archives and pieced-together conversations, photos and memories, Maybe Esther is a journey into language, memory, philosophy, history and trauma, and a singular, beautiful, unforgettable work of literature.

For me, reading Maybe Esther was like an in depth literary episode of the television programme Who Do You Think You Are, but one where all the relatives had interesting stories. Katja Petrowskaja shares her thoughts and emotions with us every step of the way so I was just as fascinated by her journey into her genealogical past as I was in what she discovered. This nonfiction book actually followed on well from my previous read, the novel The Woman At 1000 Degrees, because both explore darker aspects of twentieth century Europe and unveiled Second World War events about which I had not previously been aware.

Maybe Esther introduces a dozen or so of Petrowskaya's ancestors, most of them ordinary people who would otherwise probably never had chapters of books devoted to them. Other than one assassin, these people bore the brunt of history rather than making it, yet I felt I learned more about Ukrainian Jewish life from these vignettes than I would have done from a traditional history book. I liked how Petrowskaya repeatedly interlinks the stories so I came away with a good idea of everyone as part of a family, not just as individuals.

At one point, Petrowskaya talks about the difficulties of seeing past the Second World War and the Holocaust in her investigations. I admit when I realised the book was about a Jewish family in Eastern Europe, that was exactly where my thoughts turned and horrific events such as the Babi Yar massacres in Kiev must not be allowed to be forgotten again. This book however also explores the decades prior to the War and shows glimpses of life as a Soviet child of the 1950s. It is obviously a very personal memoir, but I felt it also has a wide appeal in its depictions of a family that could have been any one of millions.

Search Lit Flits for more:
Books by Katja Petrowskaya / Biography and memoir / Books from Ukraine


  1. This sounds interesting! I like how you pointed out that much of the book was just about ordinary people, the kind who don't get books written about them. But that does sound really powerful, in a way, since it shows you what life was actually like. Great review!

    1. Thanks Kristen! I enjoyed discovering these vignettes of different lives