Book review: Maybe Esther

Madeleine Kingsley admires a historical reconstruction.


Maybe Esther By Katja Petrowskaja
Fourth Estate, £12.99

When the bough broke in 20th-century Europe, it seemed that Katja Pe-trowskaja’s family tree fell, entirely forgotten — one more casualty in the forest of Jewish loss. Now, from faint fragments of story, here a name, there an address, a leftover personality trait or trade, Kiev-born Petrowskaja has replanted and restored.

Maybe Esther is a mesmerising memoir of her tribe from the mid-19th century, tracking singular histories, language and destinations from Berlin to Babi Yar, Mauthausen to Moscow. A scattering of 19th-century ancestors took up the cause of deaf mute children in Vienna, Warsaw and Kiev, teaching them “how to speak so they would be heard” and not shamed by society. “Sound by sound, word by word, day by day, they learned to pray.”

When the cattle-train trundled away from the halt where Grandma Rosa had leaped off to fill a water jug, she was left behind on the platform. But for a sprint as heart-stopping as any movie stunt, Rosa would have lost her small daughter and never grown old, singing the Yiddish songs of her youth. Petrowskaja’s Ukrainian grandfather disappeared during the War only to re-emerge 40 years later, a contented gardener of roses and rare white raspberries.

A Nazi killed the eponymous Esther, too frail to flee, outside her own house. But the stand-out character is Petrowskaja’s great-uncle, Judas Stern, assassin, who, in March 1932, gunned down a German diplomat in central Moscow. Despite a show trial, enthrallingly narrated, Stern’s motive remains obscure.

Did he seek to destabilise Russian-German relations? Was he protesting at popular hunger, caused by forced grain exports? Or was there a calculated intent to inspire copycat killings like the Reichstag fire of 1933? “Every family has its one meshuggeneh” shrugs Petrowskaja’s father when she probes this long-held family secret.

Maybe Esther is a lesson in luminous genealogy. What Petrowskaja calls “the rubble of history” is not sifted with a hefty spade. It is spun with the finesse of a lacemaker. It is not always pretty: “The search engine knows my preferences — catastrophes first,” Petrowskaja writes. But even the tragedies are leavened by wit and lyricism, by dreaming up the past where archives, letters, museums and death camps fail to deliver it.

Petrowskaja embraces uncertainty as part of the process (hence the title’s conditional adverb), and accepts that chance often dictates life’s direction. Her brother embraced the Judaism their father had left, starting to learn Hebrew as Petrowskaja herself fell in love with a German and moved to Berlin.

She has written, undoubtedly, to make sense of the world and her place in it. “Maybe,” she writes, “— and this is only a bold assumption on my part – I stirred up the ghosts of the past…touching a tender membrane somewhere in the lowest layer of heaven, one that a human being might still reach.”

Madeleine Kingsley is a freelance writer

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