BOOKS Katja and Her Great Jewish Novel. The First Translation Is “Made in Italy”

katjaBy Daniela Gross

The competition was tough, but it was the Italian publisher Adelphi that won first position. “Maybe Esther” – the literary debut of Katja Petrowaskaja, by many critics considered a masterpiece – was in fact published a couple of weeks ago in Italian, beating, in time, the French and American publishers who also obtained the rights to the book.
So, the Italian public, second only to the Germans reading in the original language, have now the great opportunity of being the first to approach, this autobiographical deeply tragic novel, in which Katja Petrowskaja tells the history of her multi-branched family, spread across many countries.

Many disturbing questions run through the book, written in German although the author’s mother tongue is the Ukrainian.
Was the name of her great-grandmother on her father’s side, who stayed behind in the empty apartment in Kiev in 1941 really Esther?

And what about the Yiddish words with which she trustingly addressed the German soldiers asking them where Babi Yar was, the forest where in 1941 about 34,000 Jews where massacred? And when the soldiers shot the old babushka, “with routine indifference”, who was standing at the window, watching?

In a series of short chapters, we read about the student Judas Stern, a great uncle of hers, who was sentenced to death for the attempted assassination of the counselor at the German embassy in 1932. We read about Stern’s brother, an Odessa revolutionary, who adopted the name Petrowski when he went underground; we learn about how one of the great-grandfathers founded an orphanage in Warsaw for deaf-mute Jewish children.

Rather than developing this monumental material into a sweeping epic, Petrowskaja writes about her journey to visit the scenes of these events, reflecting on a fragmented and traumatized century, and placing her focus on figures whose faces are no longer visible. Therefore, we have the unique opportunity of travelling through time, back to the past century, reconnecting to the immense Jewish world that before World War II flourished across Eastern Europe and spoke Yiddish, Polish, Ukrainian, Russian, German and Hebrew.
What astonishes literary critics, is Katja Petrowskaja’s ability of bending German, a language she recently acquired, to the imperatives of a so intimate narrative that someone has already compared it to that of Sebald.

Petrowskaja was born in 1970 in Kiev, and after her studies at the University of Tartu in Estonia and at the University in Moscow, she decided to move to Berlin in 1999, where she now lives and works. “When you write about this period in Russian, you inevitably get trapped in a moral discussion about victory and willingness to sacrifice”, she said in a interview to the website Deutsche Welle.

“Writing about the same events using German words, means imagining a German counterpart. And in that way I was able to explain that the history of victim and perpetrator is passé for me. Those who continue in these roles inevitably get trapped in them, with understanding them.” Anyway, writing in German is always challenging for her. “I humbly call it ‘my struggle’. It’s a struggle with this language. But the difficulties imply a certain quality. Writing must be difficult and complicated.”