Maybe Esther: A Family Story by Katja Petrowskaja

Given the prevalence of DNA testing to find out one’s ethnic heritage, which I find bizarre by the way, many people will enjoy reading Katja Petrowskaja’s story about the search for her family history. When you are searching in the killing fields of Europe, in what Professor Tim Snyder calls the ‘bloodlands’, the search is not always pretty.

Maybe Esther was published in German in 2014 and published in English in 2018 by 4th Estate. German is not Petrowskaja’s first language but she acknowledged that it was the language best suited to this research as it gave her a sort of distance to the material. I found that interesting.

Petrowskaja deals with the normal family mysteries, too: the mix ups with names, wives, children and memories of individuals that do not always match those of the other participants. But where this search for Esther is particularly moving is in the search for a history that had attempted to be wiped out from two sides many times. Petrowskaja approaches this story in a chronological order: the chronological order of her search. This highlights the growing knowledge and frustrating lack of knowledge when searching out details of long lost traditions and people and countries – even streets, in some cases. This can sometimes make for a slightly confusing narrative but again, this captures the research process: the uncovering of details that shed light on other details.

I found this book profoundly moving. As a ‘global citizen’ I can feel a little bit of the dislocation of not-knowing, except that if I wanted to I could probably trace the members of my extended family as far as possible – Scotland and Ireland, backwards and forwards. My husband’s immediate family are the only members for generations that ever left Norway. But to explore the lands of movable borders and seemingly invisible citizens to find family members and connections was a challenge for Petrowskaja but one that must have been ultimately rewarding. I know her recount of the journey was.

It is clear that the people and places haunted Petrowskaja as they haunted me as I read this book. But also they continued to stay around for me long after I had finished her story.

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