"Maybe Esther": Storytelling and the Unpredictability of the Past

by Abigail Mullin

On October 21, the Pacific Regional Office of the German Historical Institute Washington, in cooperation with the Institute of European Studies and the Institute of Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies, were pleased to host the Third Annual Bucerius Lecture, sponsored by by the ZEIT-Stiftung Ebelin und Gerd Bucerius. This year’s lecture featured a conversation with Katja Petrowskaja, author of Maybe Esther, and Sven Spieker, professor of Comparative Literature at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Axel Jansen, deputy director of GHI West, Hans-Ulrich Südbeck, German Consul General in San Francisco, and Anna Hoffman, Program Director of ZEIT Stiftung Ebelin und Gerd Bucerius, all gave opening remarks before the main discussion between Petrowskaja and Spieker.

Petrowskaja began with an introduction on her family background and its influence on the narrative style of her book. In particular, Petrowskaja owes many of the tales, as well as the occupation of storyteller, to her father. Under the Soviet Union’s rule, her family used stories to reclaim their Jewish identity and preserve their memory during a period where their safety and identity were infringed upon. Many of the family stories in her book, including the titular Maybe Esther, come from her father. Indeed, her father’s inability to remember the name of a female relative killed in broad daylight in Kiev catalyzed her creation of this book. Petrowskaja stated that the book’s title is an intellectual and emotional description of embracing uncertainty. The book is framed with short stories of a family history, as this avenue of storytelling allowed her to write about small fragments of the world. In this way, it is not history the way that the Soviets told it, but instead history as remembered and recounted by her family.

One of the most important themes that Petrowskaja discussed was her conscious decision to write the original book in German, which is not her native language. She chose not to write in Russian because the Soviets claimed Russian discourse about victors and victims and “corrupted” certain words, as she put it. German, instead, was an “innocent” language in her family’s history. Writing in German thus represents freedom and a means of escaping through language, working against the assumption raised by Spieker that writing in a second language means that you do not master the language but rather the language masters you.