Thursday 13 December 2018

Making sense of generations of suffering

Memoir: Maybe Esther, Katja Petrowskaja, 4th Estate, €14.99

Gates to hell: Auschwitz entrance
Gates to hell: Auschwitz entrance
Maybe Esther

Hilary A White

Europe is as exceptional for its vigorous diversity of cultural expression as it is for being the cradle for some of humanity's darkest nightmares. In terms of the 20th Century, it is hard to think of a book in recent years that has depicted the changing fortunes of the region in a way that transcends mere historical record quite like Maybe Esther.

Katja Petrowskaja, the Ukrainian-born Berliner who studied in Estonia before completing her PhD in Russia, has gone within herself to explain things that happened long before she was born. Reading Maybe Esther, it is hard to know whether or not Petrowskaja's family are extraordinary or just one of any number of beleaguered Jewish family trees that got uprooted, pruned and scorched while merely seeking to make enduring contributions to society.

Over seven generations and 200 years, Petrowskaja's family on her mother's side were devoted to educating deaf and mute children, giving them language and comprehension. Language, spoken, written or typed into search engines to the past, provides a thematic thread throughout. The author considers her own desire to learn German, the language of her family's historic enemies, while her brother learned Hebrew in order to "recapture" tradition. The moves are at odds with her Soviet upbringing, but language can be a way to "balance out provenance".

It's quite the cast of characters she assembles. Petrowskaja's background as a journalist comes to the fore as she moves about the former haunts of her family members - Ukraine, Russia, Poland and Germany - trying to colour in corners and layer flesh on to relatives and dates as they found themselves at various crossroads in their own destinies and that of modern European history.

Take Rosa, her opera-loving grandmother. At 36, while fleeing the war, she found work in the Urals setting up and managing an orphanage for 200 half-starved children left behind from the Siege of Leningrad. In 1941, when Rosa fled Kiev by train with her two daughters and legions of other scared refugees, the calm way the experience is retold is chilling in its banality. Rosa is no longer the ailing family relic of the grainy black and white portrait in the pages, scribbling down formless memories on notes of paper, but the type of hero that can emerge only from conflict.

Then there are characters such as Uncle Vil, the Soviet soldier who was pulled alive from the bottom of a pit of dead troops who had been run over by a tank. He would go on to become a hydroacoustics specialist. Various other revolutionaries, war heroes, teachers, and phantoms about whom little is known, populate these magnetic pages.

As we continue on the journey, as physical as it is emotional, with Petrowskaja, the feeling starts to dawn on you that it is the blurred outline to many of these things that make them so enigmatic. A simple couple of paragraphs from the author about the wording on the sign above the gates to Auschwitz becomes less a vignette than a psychological deconstruction of how such an evil context can taint semantic meaning and thus an interpretation of the tangible. She reaches very far within herself, sometimes self-indulgently so, in her search for meaning.

The understated, self-involved voice adopted by Petrowskaja throughout Maybe Esther brings chilling immediacy to the details of what befell her family tree, as if her existence itself is a miracle given the persecution her forebears experienced. A chapter on Kiev's Babi Yar massacre is unflinchingly potent in this respect.

Maybe Esther's sometimes slippery texture might not suit those who like their historical non-fiction served dry and direct. Those looking for a unique approach to the memoir are advised to investigate, however.

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