Gabriele Eckart

The Functions of Multilingual Language Use in Katja Petrowskaja’s Vielleicht Esther 

This article examines several examples of code-switching between languages in Katja Petrowskaja’s narrative Vielleicht Esther. The text of this German-Ukrainian writer (born in 1970) about her genealogical research is written in German, but there are seventy-two instances of mixing German with other languages. The languages are English, Russian, Polish, Yiddish, Hebrew, Italian, and French. According to Istvan Kecskes, code-switching is a term that is used “to cover various types of bi- and multilingual practices” (258) as, for instance, the mixing of two languages within a sentence or the change in language between sentences. This study will examine the most important functions of this code-switching in Petrowskaja’s text. As will be seen, they are mainly related to the negotiation of the first-person narrator’s identity, as, for instance, her Jewishness and her post-Soviet and, above all, her linguistic identity.

Since the first-person narrator (the author’s alter ego) came as a native speaker of Russian to Germany after the fall of the Wall and speaks and writes in German now, it is not surprising that she is highly sensitive to the implications and consequences that the use of one language instead of another has for human existence. Raised in the Soviet Union, German was for her “die Sprache des Feindes” (80)1. However, her roots are mainly Jewish and most of her Jewish ancestors, as she finds out during her genealogical research (it goes back to 1864), spoke German fluently and were proud of it. In addition, she loves Goethe; parts of her narrative rely on an intertextual play with Goethe’s poems “Wanderers Nachtlied” and “Erlkönig” – “unübersetzbare[] Leitsterne” (79) which had directed her in the process of learning the German language. About the intensity of her longing for the German language, the narrator states:

Mein Deutsch blieb in der Spannung der Unerreichbarkeit und bewahrte mich vor Routine. Als wäre es die kleinste Münze, zahlte ich in dieser spät erworbenen Sprache meine Vergangenheit zurück, mit der Leidenschaft eines jungen Liebhabers. Ich begehrte Deutsch so sehr, weil ich damit nicht verschmelzen konnte, getrieben von einer unerfüllbaren Sehnsucht, einer Liebe, die weder Gegenstand noch Geschlecht kannte, keinen Adressaten, denn dort waren nur Klänge, die man nicht einzufangen vermochte, wild waren sie und unerreichbar. (78-9)

Julia Kristeva notes about writers who decide to write in a language other than their native one: “Object of lucid love and nonetheless passionate, the new language is a pretext for rebirth: new identity new hope” (287). This is certainly true for Petrowskaja’s relationship to German – expressing herself in this new language, she can play with different possibilities in the negotiation of her identity after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the discovery of her Jewish roots; it leads to a spiritual rebirth.

Also the following example will demonstrate Petrowskaja’s positive relationship to multilingualism. While the narrator is in Poland to conduct research on her great-grandparents, the first-person narrator states: “nirgendwo habe ich mich so perfekt verloren gefühlt wie hier […]. Ich dachte auf Russisch, suchte meine jüdischen Verwandten und schrieb auf Deutsch.” (115) As the word “perfekt” already indicates, she interprets this feeling of loss positively. She states: “Ich hatte das Glück, mich in der Kluft der Sprachen, im Tausch, in der Verwechslung von Rollen und Blickwinkeln zu bewegen.” (115) In other words, while switching from one language to another the narrator discovers new meanings of words and expressions and with them new perspectives from which to look at herself. To bring the famous tower of Babel into the discussion, Kathryn Starkey should be quoted, who asks in her examination of Wolfram von Eschenbach’s medieval text Willehalm (1217) if the author sees the multilingualism that resulted from the tower’s destruction more as a curse or a blessing. She answers: “the narrator ultimately recognizes that despite the potential problems of communication, linguistic difference is divinely sanctioned” (30). God obviously did not want to punish humans by giving them different languages, but force them to mobilize all their creative potential when they must learn to cope with multilingualism. In regard to this positive effect of multilingualism, Manfred Schmeling and Monika Schmitz-Emans refer to Wilhelm von Humboldt who had pointed out that every language enabled “einen eigen-artigen Zugriff auf die Welt” and concluded “warum sollte es für die Menschen dann erstrebenswert sein, nur eine Sprache zu haben?” (13) Without doubt, also Petrowskaja evaluates linguistic difference positively; changing back and forth between languages enriches her first-person narrator’s self-perception and her perception of the world: “die sprachwechsel, die ich unternehme, um beide seiten zu bewohnen, ich und nicht ich zugleich zu erleben, was für ein anspruch” (117-18). But, there are problems connected with the use of more than one language as will be seen in the following.

One of the reasons that the narrator considers speaking German as beneficial to her is that it functions as a mask. “[G]etarnt mit meiner deutschen Sprache,” she feels more secure: “alle denken, ich gehöre dazu, dabei bin ich nicht von hier.” (116) However, in a nightmare, feelings of insecurity arise when a German word that comes from her lips in a dream slips into a Hebrew word that she experiences as threatening. It happens in Warzaw, after a visit to the Jewish ghetto and a performance of the video artist Katarzyna Kozyra the same day. The artist, playing a man in a sauna, shocked the audience when she, while standing on a table, dropped the towel – showing a false penis that was only “angeklebt[…]” (116). Afterwards, the first-person narrator dreams “von der sauna, vom ghetto, von nackten körpern, gekrümmt im tod oder im genuss” (117). In this dream, she tells Katarzyna, the artist, that because of her first name she also could be “polin” (117). Because this statement implies that, as a Polish Jew, she certainly would have ended up in the ghetto and afterwards in a German extermination camp, the dream becomes threatening when the German word “schau” slips into the Hebrew “shoa” and she accuses the Polish artist of having brought up this word. In this somber dream, she also realizes that losing control over certain words in her newly acquired language can lead to exposure because panicking about the word “shoa” might reveal her Jewish roots: “ich könnte jede sein, aber doch besser nicht, nie würde ich es tun, nein, lieber nichts tun, ich habe mich auch unter anderen versteckt, oder nein, eher zur schau gestellt, schau, ich habe nicht shoa gesagt, du hast shoa gesagt.” (117) The dream – as can be seen, Petrowskaja does not capitalize the nouns in dream texts – continues with a reflection of the narrator’s otherness and leads from the word “scheu” through the force of alliteration once more to the word “shoa”: “ich bin anders, aber ich verstecke mich nicht, warm, und sonst bin ich scheu, schau, shoa, kalt, wieder ganz kalt” (118). In the following, the dreamer dramatizes the question of belonging and her difficult relationship to German: “aber ich kann so tun, und ich und ich und ich, was für ein seltsames wort, wie ort, was für ein ort, als ob ich zu jemandem gehörte, zu einer familie, zu einer sprache, und manchmal sieht es sogar so aus, als wäre es so, ich kann mich nicht verstecken, und das alles auf deutsch” (118). At this point, the memory of the artist’s performance in the setting of the sauna dramatically influences the reflection of the narrator’s relation to German:

diese sprache, mein angeklebtes geschlecht, auf deutsch ist die sprache weiblich und auf russisch ist sie männlich, was habe ich mit diesem wechsel getan? ich kann mir das ankleben, wie du, katarzyna, ich kann mich auf den tisch stellen und es demonstrieren, schaut alle, ich habe es! hier unten, o mein deutsch! ich schwitze, mit meiner auf die zunge geklebten deutschen sprache (118).

Perhaps, the compulsive switch from “schau” to “shoa” that happens repeatedly in this dream has to do with the fact that the narrator learned German at the same time as her brother learned Hebrew; the reverberating sounds must have mixed with astonishing results in their small apartment in Kiev. In the following, the narrator reflects upon the question of how their study of languages was connected with their negotiation of new identities after the collapse of the “Nation der Proletarier und Übermenschen” (18), as she calls the Soviet Union:

Er wandte sich dem orthodoxen Judentum zu, aus blauem Himmel, wie wir alle dachten, ich verliebte mich in einen Deutschen […]. Sein Hebräisch und mein Deutsch – diese Sprachen veränderten unsere Lebenswege, Betreten auf eigene Gefahr. Wir waren eine sowjetische Familie, russisch und nicht religiös, das Russische war das stolze Erbe aller, die wussten, was Verzweiflung ist, angesichts des Schicksals der eigenen Heimat […].” (78)

After quoting from a poem that praises the Russian language which, for her, has the same emotional value as the German line “o du fröhliche, o du selige” (87), the narrator points out: “[W]ir bestimmten uns nicht mehr durch die lebenden und die toten Verwandten und ihre Orte, sondern durch unsere Sprachen.” (78) According to this last statement, the languages you speak define who you are. This would mean that the narrator sees herself as a Russian-German. However, it seems that she cannot find rest in this new bilingual post-Soviet identity since something drives her to travel obsessively in search of her family’s roots. The book Vielleicht Esther is the testimony of this search; the theme is, as was mentioned before, the first-person narrator’s genealogical research. She travels to Kiev where she grew up, to Poland where her great grandparents are from, and to the concentration camp Mauthausen in Austria where one of her grandfathers was imprisoned. Especially the searches in Kiev and in Warsaw turn into a discovery of her Jewish roots – roots she was not aware of during Soviet times. For generations, she finds out, the family had made a living by running schools for deaf mute children of Jewish families. In different European countries, mainly Poland, Russia, and Austria, they had taught their students in unique ways to speak by learning prayers. These prayers were in Yiddish and Hebrew because they were Jews. Her family had kept this knowledge secret from her for reasons of safety. After all, as the narrator demonstrates with abundant examples, Stalin’s and his followers’ politics were appallingly anti-Semitic. During her research in Kiev, the narrator discovers that for older Jews of the city, Yiddish was their first language “egal ob sie religiös waren und die Traditionen achteten oder ob sie ihren Kindern hinterherstürzten, geradewegs vorwärts in die helle sowjetische Zukunft.” (213) She also discovers that many of them were proud of speaking German as their third language; when Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941 some of them did not escape because they hoped that their lives would improve under German rule: “beruhige dich, zu den Deutschen hatten wir schon immer gute Beziehungen” (197).

At this point of the narrative, code-switching into Yiddish or into a mixture of Yiddish and German becomes very important for discovering and telling the story of the narrator’s great-grandmother Esther. Due to her difficulties in walking she could not follow the German army’s call to all Jews of Kiev to gather at the corner of Melnik and Dokteriwiski Streets at 8 a.m. on Monday, September 29, 1941. Esther felt bad about it; after all, the call sounded so typically German: “[d]eutlich, klar und verständlich” (214) –a clarity that pleased Esther. In addition, there was a threat in the call: “Es stand da noch etwas über Erschießung. Bei Zuwiderhandlung Erschießung. […] Also nur, wenn man sich nicht an die Regeln hielt.” (214). The narrator describes the old woman moving very slowly down the stairs and along the street until she reaches a German checkpoint and utters the following bilingual mix to the soldiers:

Cherr Offizehr, begann Babuschka mit ihrem unverkennbaren Anhauch [of Yiddish], überzeugt davon, sie spreche Deutsch, zeyn Zi so fayn, sagen Sie mir, was zoll ick denn machen? Ikh hob die plakatn gezen mit instruktzies far yidn, aber ich kann nicht so gut laufen, ikh kann nyscht loyfn azoy schnel. (220)

The narrator guesses that the soldiers just shot Esther, perhaps even without interrupting their conversation, “ohne sich ganz umzudrehen, ganz nebenbei” (221). Or, this is another possibility: Esther might have asked them: “seien Sie so nett, Cherr Offizehr, sagen Sie bitte, wie kommt man nach Babij Jar?” (221) and they shot her because this was annoying: “Wer mag das schon, auf dumme Fragen antworten zu müssen?” (221) In the end, Esther’s body ended up with those of the approximately hundred thousand other people from Kiev who were shot by the Germans and the local police during German occupation and thrown into the infamous ravine Babij Jar. It perplexes the narrator to think that if her grandparents and parents had not left Kiev before the arrival of the German army, they also would have been killed and she would not exist. Therefore, she cannot stop thinking about the massacres that had not bothered her so much when she was growing up in Kiev not knowing about her Jewish roots. In the following, she reflects on the notion of “the Other” and switches into Russian to point out the precise location of these horrible events:

Ja, man nennt diese Opfer für gewöhnlich Juden, aber viele meinen damit nur die anderen. Das ist irreführend, denn die, die da sterben mussten, waren nicht die anderen, sondern die Schulfreunde, die Kinder aus dem Hinterhof, die Nachbarn, die Omas und die Onkel, die biblischen Greise und ihre sowjetischen Enkel, die man am Tag des 29. September auf den Straßen von Kiew in diesem endlosen Zug ihres eigenen Begräbnisses die Bolschaja Shitomirskaja entlanggehen sah. (185)

Walking around the ravine with the strange name Babi Yar (a Turkic word meaning ravine) that an ignorant German librarian mistook for “Baby Jahr” (183) when the narrator asked for books about it, she struggles with the negotiation of her identity:

Ich möchte von diesem Spaziergang so erzählen, als ob es möglich wäre zu verschweigen, dass auch meine Verwandten hier getötet wurden, als ob es möglich wäre, als abstrakter Mensch, als Mensch an sich und nicht nur als Nachfahrin des jüdischen Volkes, mit dem mich nur noch die Suche nach fehlenden Grabsteinen verbindet, als ob es möglich wäre, als ein solcher Mensch an diesem merkwürdigen Ort namens Babij Jar spazieren zu gehen. (184)

That she reflects on the possibility of walking around here as an “abstrakter Mensch” has to do with her former Soviet identity that excluded knowledge of her ethnicity. This exclusion had created a “Nebel in der Familiengeschichte” (91) that was beneficial; all Soviet children had to live with different exclusions in the history of their families, be they ethnic, political, or religious; it had made them equal. However, what was good then is not good anymore today for the narrator; she wants to know about her ancestors. Therefore, she searches in the past to lift this “Nebel” and worries at the same time that the result of her search could undermine what she has seen until now as the person she was.

Besides her great-grandmother Esther, she discovers traces of another relative in Kiev whose Jewishness had been kept secret from her, her great-uncle Arnold. Stories about Arnold’s miraculous survival of all kinds of disasters had become legend in the family. Now, at a closer, post-Soviet look, it turns out that his real name was the Jewish Abram (he changed it after the war to avoid being the victim of anti-Semitism) and the legendary disasters that he had survived were caused by his Jewishness. The narrator reflects: “Mein ganzes Leben wäre anders verlaufen, komischer, aber auch jüdischer, so glaube ich heute, wenn ich von Anfang an gewusst hätte, dass wir einen Abrascha [the Russian form of Abram] in der Familie hatten, ein Name, den ich nicht aus dem Leben, sondern nur aus Witzen kannte […]” (205) Hinting at anti-Semitic stereotypes, she comments on these jokes: “die so endlose Folgen erzeugten wie Arnolds Überlebensfabeln, und vielleicht gab es diese Fabeln nur wegen der Witze.” (205) Later, when the narrator reflects on the reasons for the suppression of Jews and other ethnic minorities in the Soviet Union, she states with sarcasm: “Im großen Garten des Landes wurde jahrzehntelang versucht, möglichst vieles zu pfropfen, besonders Apfelsorten, gleichzeitig wurde zielstrebig an der Reduzierung der Menschentypen gearbeitet.” (236) This example shows how closely the examination of code-switching as, for instance, in the changes of the uncle’s name from Yiddish to German, is connected with her struggle to come to terms with her identity after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Is she Jewish or an “abstrakter Mensch” and if both, to what degrees, and how should she feel about it?

Since the narrator also searches for her family’s roots on the Internet, most switches in Petrowskaja’s text (there are thirty) go from German to English, the language of Google. Other English expressions are used as tools in the narrator’s genealogical research, as for instance, in the sentence, “Ein Adolf unter meinen Juden, related through, damit hatte ich als letztes gerechnet.” (131) However, there are also switches into English that touch difficult political matters and interfere with her former Soviet beliefs in what was right and wrong in history and with the meaning of historical dates. One relative, Mira, the author of the book Life beyond the Holocaust, lives, as the narrator discovers, in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, in the United States. But, this was the location of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory that, according to its website, was founded “für die Atombombe, die den zweiten Weltkrieg beendete.” (120) In her attempt to grasp “die inneren Verbindungen meiner Familie, unsere Leitmotive” (120), she studies the Laboratory’s website according to which the atom bomb saved the world: “Oak Ridge hat die Welt gerettet!” (120) In the Soviet Union she had learned that differently. The “Graphitreaktor” (120) at Oak Ridge, she reads, was launched on November 4, 1943. The narrator thinks: “Dieses Datum haben wir in der Schule gelernt, an diesem Tag begann die Schlacht um die Befreiung von Kiew, meiner Heimatstadt.” (120) As has been seen in other instances, crossing borders into other languages undermines the basics of her former Soviet identity and influences her in the negotiation of a new one.

Dorothea Lauterbach, examining the functions of code-switching into French in Rilke’s novel Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge (1910), states that in Rilke’s time bilingualism in a literary text belonged to the “erzähltechnische[n] Innovationspotential” (175) of modernity. In the globalized world of today, in which also code-switching into local dialects is highly valued as enriching the complexity of a literary text, we can claim the following: A text written in standard German that has no traces of other languages or dialects at all is aesthetically not up to date. In Petrowskaja’s text Vielleicht Esther, of a total of two-hundred eighty-three pages, there are seventy-two cases of switching from German into seven different languages; the text looks and sounds like the explosion of multilingual fireworks.

The color that shines the brightest in this display, accompanied by a whistling that sounds the most delighted, is Polish. There are thirteen examples of switching from German into Polish; one can feel the narrator’s fingers trembling with happiness while she types this multilingual mix “Polen, Polyń, Polonia, Polania, polan-ja, hier-wohnt-Gott, drei hebräische Wörter, die aus dem slawischen Polen ein gelobtes Land der Juden machten” (55)2. One of her favorite Polish expression is the first verse of the Polish national anthem ”jeszcze Polska nie zginęła, noch ist Polen nicht verloren” (91). She loves Poland so much that she regrets that she cannot be Polish because, when her grandmother was born in 1905, Eastern Poland belonged to the Russian empire and in addition to that, as she knows now, her Polish family was Jewish. Her father also loved Poland; she had grown up listening to his praises of “Polscha” (the Russian word for Poland) that, according to his point of view, “war die weiblichste Erscheinung unserer sozialistischen Welt.” (92) And she remembers how deeply he was mourning over what was done to Poland by its neighbors, including the Soviet Union: “der Kanal, der Warschauer Aufstand, die polnischen Teilungen, Katyń.” (92-3) The narrator remembers: “Die polnische Tragödie schmerzte ihn, als dürfe er das eigene nur im Schmerz der anderen erkennen in einer Art Übersetzung.” (93) When she asked her father how he could love the Poles who obviously did not like Russians and Jews too much, he said to her surprise: “Liebe muss nicht erwidert werden.” (93) Many insertions of Polish in Petrowskaja’s text are quotations from Polish poetry. Others have to do with her former dreams of traveling to Poland – “ein unerreichbares, schönes Ausland” (91) when traveling there was forbidden. As soon as the travel restrictions were lifted after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, she set out to go there – a trip that through spectatorship and comparison with her homeland started producing a basis for her post-Soviet self. During her latest trip to this country, most important were encounters with Poles who helped her in researching her family’s Jewish roots and also enabled her to abandon some of her stereotypes about Poles, as for instance, they would all be Catholic. As Edzard Obendiek pointed out, communicating with people from other countries is the aspect of traveling that enables the travelers the most to access suppressed possibilities in their own lives, a space he calls “die Fremde in sich selbst” (120). This certainly is true for the narrator’s encounter with Pani Ania, a Polish woman who shows her “die schönsten kościoły, der Stadt, die Reliquien der heiligen Ursula.” (134) The narrator goes on to remember that she wanted to see the chalice of King Kazimierz at all costs, but when she expressed her admiration for Catholizism, Pani Ania told her in flawless English that she had studied for four years in England and was a practising Moslem. Astonished, the narrator reflects: “Sie war die perfekte Andere, fremd und doch wie ich, und ich dachte, mit solchen Menschen ist Polen tatsächlich nicht verloren.” (134)

Pani Ania surprised her even more when she showed her the Hebrew letters in the pavement of the streets in Kalisz. The emotional impact of the letters’ discovery and the history of Polish anti-Semitism connected with it, is so strong that the narrator realizes, despite her new dreamed-of post-Soviet Russian German identity, she is also Jewish. As we remember, her brother had learned Hebrew when she had learned German; therefore, the letters must be familiar to her; she has seen Hebrew letters before. As Pani Ania told her, after the Germans had exterminated all Jews of Kalisz, the inhabitants of the town removed the “Mazewen” (tombstones) from the local cemetery, cut them and used the stones to pave the streets: “Mit der Rückseite nach oben, so dass man die hebräischen Buchstaben nicht sah, wenn man auf die Steine trat.” (135) Bitterly, the narrator – whose voice had always sounded so delighted when she talked about things she encountered in Poland before – comments: “Es war ein System der Vernichtung mit mehrfacher Sicherung. Ob man davon weiß oder nicht, jeder, der die Straßen von Kalisz entlanggeht, tritt die Grabsteine mit Füßen.” (135) When pipes had to be laid a few years before the narrator traveled to Kalisz, the workers took out the stones and put them back afterwards. However, in this process it happened by accident that some of the stones were turned around and the Hebrew letters appeared. After Pani Ania pointed to some of the Hebrew letters, the narrator tries to find more on her own on this “unsichtbaren Friedhof der fremden Nachbarn, die nicht mehr da waren” (136), as she sadly comments. Discovering them here and there, sometimes far apart, was a “Glücksspiel, dessen Regeln niemand festgelegt hat und das jedem offensteht” (136). Switching to English, she calls it a “Memory for Erwachsene” and adds bitterly that nobody played along because nobody noticed these letters. Overwhelmed by a grief not known to her until now, she has to go on code-switching from German to English to express her feelings: “Ich war so auf meine Buchstaben fixiert, dass ich die Autos nicht hupen hörte, nur ein Lied in meinem Kopf: ‘Hey, Jude’, summte es, ‘and any time you feel the pain, hey, Jude, refrain.’” (136) As the reader of Vielleicht Esther is aware of at this point, the narrator read Mira Kimmelmann’s book Life beyond the Holocaust (2005). Therefore, we can assume that for Petrowskaja’s first-person narrator, the proper language for grieving about matters related to the Holocaust is English – a language she had learned in high school. Reflecting upon the book’s title, she thinks, mixing English with the title of a book by Friedrich Nietzsche: “Beyond steckte in meinem Kopf, auf Deutsch Jenseits, ein apokalyptisches Wort, Jenseits von Gut und Böse.” (121) When Kimmelmann asked her via e-mail which language she preferred, English or German, the narrator felt relieved because she had worried about that her address in Berlin, Germany, could offend her. Listening on the phone to Mira calling from Oak Ridge takes her breath away: “Sie sprach nicht nur besser Hochdeutsch als ich, es war Vorkriegsdeutsch, langsam und gepflegt […]. Kein Hauch von Jiddish, kein polnischer Akzent. Deutsch war Miras Muttersprache.” (123) Mira told her about other Jewish relatives from Poland who had survived the Holocaust, many of whom the narrator had never heard of; they lived now scattered all over the world. Very surprised, she thinks, in a mixture of German and English: “Und so habe ich eine neue Familie, related through Adam, sozusagen, über tausend Ecken.” (126) In this context of passionately searching for her Jewish roots, the narrator stumbles over another multilingual thought in her mind that is especially important for the negotiation of her post-Soviet identity since it includes Russian. Mira had told her Rabbi, Victor, in Oak Ridge about the narrator’s search for her ancestors. Recognizing her name, he calls her in Berlin to tell her that he knew her father; they both had been political dissidents in Moscow during the Soviet regime until Victor had left for the United States. Very surprised, she thinks:

Der einzige Rabbi, den ich kannte, war der Rabbi der einzigen Überlebenden unserer polnischen Sippe. Victor hatte auch keine Erklärung, und Mira brauchte keine. Dann riefen sie mich beide an, Victor und Mira. Erst sprach Victor. Ich dachte kurz über das Paradoxon ihrer beiden Namen nach, als ob Sieg (Victor) und Frieden (Mir) mich gleichzeitig anriefen, aber dann begann Mira, mit mir Deutsch zu sprechen. (123)

Both the English word “victory” and the Russion word “Mir” (peace) were used in post- Wall West- and East-German literature for very different reasons, as post-modern ornaments or to express political concerns. As critics pointed out (see, for instance, Eckart 57), the West German writer Karen Duve in her novel Regenroman (1994) uses the word “Victory” as a linguistic ornament: “Die weiße Schnecke bäumte sich auf wie ein Zirkustier, reckte den Vorderkörper in die Luft und spreizte die Fühler zu einem V. V wie Victory.” (123) By contrast, the East German writer Grit Poppe uses the same English word in her novel Andere Umstände (1998) with a mimetic function for reasons that are clearly political. Remembering the events that led to the fall of the Wall, she mentions a woman who “hielt ein Pappschild mit dem Wort Freiheit in die Höhe, darunter das gezeichnete Victory-Zeichen” (138). In the East German author Helga Schütz’s novel Knietief im Paradies (2005), the Russian word “Mir” (peace) was also used for political reasons. Spelling it according to the Cyrrilic alphabet as MИP (peace), Schütz uses it to point out one of the most controversial watchwords of socialism that became a slogan during the Cold War in the East. According to Schütz’s novel, in the early phase of the GDR, “MИP” was used to justify the exercise of Stalinist power politics that led to the arrest of many, sometimes innocent, people. Playfully translating the word MИP from the Cyrillic alphabet into German, Helga Schütz’s young first-person narrator creates a new word, “Mup” (149) – a morpheme that in German does not mean anything. However, it sounds interesting, somehow like a playword for children, a nickname for a doll perhaps. As it turns out later in the novel, it is much more than a word for fun but rather, serves as a password for the liberation of a sixteen-year-old poet who was sentenced unjustly to ”fünf Jahren verschärfter Erziehung im Jugendwerkhof” (120). With the help of the neologism “Mup,” she helps him to escape. In other words, while at first glance code-switching from German into Russian in Schütz’s novel and the coinage of the word “Mup” seems to be merely for the purpose of post-modern play (similar to Duve’s use of the English word “victory”), on a second look, this is not true at all. Schütz plays with the Russian word and its translation into German for political reasons in the context of Soviet domination and hegemony.

What functions do the English word “Victory” and the Russian word “Mir” have in Petrowskaja’s novel? They are certainly not post-modern ornaments; there is something political in the way they are used. However, this is not all. Being placed so close to each other in one sentence, they suggest a celebration of the fact that the Cold War is over and with it the struggle for the meaning of words and dates. Simultaneously, the use of the words “Victory” and “Mir” deeply touches at the narrator’s preoccupation with topics of home, belonging, and identity. After all, both Victor (standing for the word “victory”) and Mira (standing for the word “peace”) are Eastern European Jews – one Jew who escaped from the Soviet Union for political reasons and another Jew who survived the Holocaust in Poland during German occupation. Both live in Oak Ridge in the United States where the first nuclear bomb was created, while the narrator herself is a Russian, now officially an Ukrainian, with Jewish roots (as she recently discovered), living in Germany and speaking German. That she tries to negotiate her identity in this context of national, political, and ethnic complexity, goes beyond mere aesthetic or political reasons; it is, as the narrator puts it, an “existentielle Gymnastik im Kampf um das Gleichgewicht.” (22)

Although there are only two examples of Yiddish in the novel, it plays perhaps the most important role in the negotiation of the narrator’s new identity. She does not speak Yiddish, but discovers that most of her ancestors did; they had spoken it as their first language. When she brought her grandmother Rosa a record with Jewish songs from Eastern Europe as a gift from her first journey to Poland, the grandmother, whom she had never heard say a word of Yiddish, suddenly started singing in that language; during these moments, the narrator was able to glance into her grandmother’s Jewish childhood. The narrator remembers only one Yiddish word that was still used in her family, the word “meschugge”: “So ein Meschuggener” (144), her grandfather had said about her great-uncle Judas Stern. This process of thinking about Yiddish turns into the biggest blow to her old Soviet belief system. It is the discovery that not only the Germans, but also Stalin was responsible for the disappearance of that language in the Soviet Union. Authors of books, as, for instance, the important Schwarzbuch über die Massenvernichtung der Juden (produced by Soviet Jews and immediately destroyed by the Soviet government in 1948), were persecuted along with Jewish physicians who were accused of being poisoners. Outraged, she states: “Die Erschießung des Jüdischen Antifaschistischen Komitees war eine der letzten Aktionen Stalins.” (188) Among the members of the committee were writers – the last ones who still wrote in Yiddish. When she discussed this discovery with her father, he summarized the disappearance of this language saying: “Hitler hat die Leser getötet und Stalin die Schriftsteller.” (188) Troubled by this statement, she reflects upon the history of surviving Jews in the Soviet Union after World War II and concludes: “Sie wurden als heimatlose Kosmopoliten stigmatisiert, vielleicht weil man sie ungeachtet aller Grenzen tötete, sie, die verbotene Beziehungen mit dem Ausland unterhielten und deswegen nicht zur großen Familie der sowjetischen Brudervölker gehören durften.” (188-89) As can be seen clearly, the identity crisis caused by the discovery of her Jewish family-roots that had been kept secret from her goes hand in hand with the collapse of the narrator’s old Soviet belief system.

Petrowskaja’s text also contains two cases of code-switching into French and three cases of code-switching into Italian. As exemplified by the following quotation from the guest book of Mauthausen “à la mémoire du mon grand-père” (254), French is mainly used for the insertion of documentary material into the text. Code-switching into Italian, on the other hand, has the function of consolation since the Italian expressions are mainly lines from famous Italian operas that family members repeated in times of distress; they have the function of bringing relief, as can be seen in the following:

‘Warum bin ich schuldig, dass ich mich in Alfredo verliebt habe’, sang sie [her greandmother Rosa], wie die russische Übersetzung seltsamerweise lautet – ‘L’amore d’Alfredo perfino mi manca’. Jahre später fand ich heraus, dass es sich um die Arie der Violetta aus La Traviata handelte, ich erschrak jedesmal, so leidenschaftlich sang Rosa, so fremd erschien mir diese Leidenschaft meiner Babuschka, die seit vierzig Jahren ohne Mann lebte, und so gegenwärtig. (66)

As can be seen in this last quotation, there are different languages attached to certain memories and the narrator switches back and forth between them with ease. “Babuschka” is the Russian word for grandmother, not written in Cyrillic, but in Latin letters. Similarly, in researching her grandfather’s life, she uses the word “Deduschka” (225) instead of the German word “Großvater.” Arriving at this point, the reader of Petrowskaja’s text might assume that the search for a new post-Soviet identity has ended with her becoming Jewish; however, that is not so. Instead, the awareness of her Jewish roots becomes an important part of her new identity that is in balance with others, especially her passion for German. Remembering the time after the collapse of the Soviet Union when her brother learned Hebrew and she German, the narrator thinks: “Gemeinsam schufen wir, mein Bruder und ich, durch diese Sprachen ein Gleichgewicht gegenüber unserer Herkunft.” (78) The “Herkunft” referred to here signifies the siblings’ Soviet past, a time when asking for your family’s roots had been politically incorrect. While her brother, learning Hebrew, decided to become an Orthodox Jew, the narrator, while learning German, decided to marry a German and to express herself from now on in that language. Referring to her Jewish ancestors’ profession of teaching deaf mute children to speak, she notes about her Jewishness: “Unser Judentum blieb für mich taubstumm und die Taubstummheit jüdisch. Das war meine Geschichte, meine Herkunft, doch das war nicht ich.” (51)

The last chapter of Vielleicht Esther is dedicated to the description of her search for the history of her beloved “Deduschka” who survived the concentration camp of Mauthausen. As the only one of her four grandparents, he was not Jewish, but Ukrainian. As the narrator discovers in the documents, he was a Soviet prisoner of war who, in order to survive the camp, had to renounce his Jewish wife and children. Was this the reason that he did not return to his family after the war for so many years (the narrator was twelve when she met him the first time)? Far from reproaching her grandfather, she tries to understand the situation of being a Soviet prisoner of war in a German concentration camp that had caused his distress. On the way to Mauthausen, she read Thomas Bernhardt. Having the “Geschrei auf dem Heldenplatz” (245) in her ear that he describes so well, she is able to forgive her grandfather.

In this last chapter about the narrator’s non-Jewish Ukrainian grandfather, there are significant examples of code-switching into Russian. As she remembers, the grandfather hardly talked: “Er saß im Sessel, lächelte die Enkel an und schwieg.” (227) Looking more like a “vornehmer deutscher Greis” (229) than a Soviet pensioner, sometimes he said “da oder choroscho” (“yes or good”) (229); that was all. To his granddaughter, the narrator of Petrowskaja’s text, these snippets of the Russian language sounded as if he had a foreign accent “so merkwürdig und fremd tönten die Worte aus seinem Mund.” (229) The strange sound of the grandfather’s words, as well as his silence regarding his past, has not only to do with his guilt towards his Jewish wife and children to whom he had returned so late in life, as the narrator discovers, but also with the fact that, under Stalin, he was ostracized as a former prisoner of war. Because of that, he had to endure hardship in the Soviet Union after 1945, hardship that reminded him of the hardship suffered in the German concentration camp. In Petrowskaja’s text, her grandfather’s silence about his experiences during and after the war runs parallel to the silence of the narrator’s father about the reason why he had changed his name from the Jewish Schimon Stern to the Russian Semjon Petrowskij during the late 1940s; both men’s silences were necessary for them to survive before the end of the Soviet Union.

In addition, code-switching into Russian, as, for instance, in the description of the narrator’s walk through the Austrian landscape on the way to Mauthausen, has clearly nostalgic reasons:

Ich gehe zu Fuß, gemessenen Schrittes, wie man Gedichte schreibt, einem inneren Rhythmus folgend, denn alle russischen Gedichte über den Weg sind in fünfhebigen Jamben geschrieben, Vy-cho-shu-o-din-ja-na-do-rogu / Einsam geh’ ich auf dem Weg. (243)

Although the narrator puts a question mark on many of the Soviet ideological paradigms she had believed in, there is no doubt that she is still longing for the Russian language, as this last example of code-switching demonstrates. Besides quotations of poems, there are also references to Russian songs, fairy tales, and recipes in Petrowskaja’s text. The inserted Russian words are sixteen times in Latin and three times in Cyrillic letters – the latter ones look really foreign in the way they are inserted into the German text. However, there is one Russian word that is certainly not inserted for nostalgic reasons – the offensive expression for Jew. When the narrator’s great-grandmother Esther decided to follow the German military’s instructions on September 29, 1941, it had impressed her because of the precision: “Alle, 8 Uhr und die genaue Adresse.” (214) Thoughtfully, the narrator remarks: “Und weder die Friedhöfe noch das abwertende Wort żyd auf den russischen Plakaten haben sie beunruhigt.” (214) As in the cases of Yiddish and Hebrew, also this insertion of a Russian word enables the narrator to articulate her concerns about her disappeared Jewish ancestors and of all of those “verschwundenen Dingen, die ich nicht haben und nicht deuten konnte” (136) because the traces have disappeared.

As one critic pointed out, although Petrowskaja describes a century of genocide, deportations, and war in her autobiographical novel Vielleicht Esther, she does so playfully and keeps her “leise Heiterkeit” also in situations “wenn die Situation von bedrückendem Ernst ist” (Hammelehle). The crossing into other languages that has been examined in this study clearly helped Petrowskaja to achieve this wonderful tone. It eases what she calls the “Gewaltpotential” (9) of certain expressions and also gives her a special awareness of the ambivalence of meaning of certain German words. A good example is the word “heil.” About her investigation of the months before Hitler took power, the narrator remembers: “obwohl alles schon in Gang gesetzt ist, schien mir die Welt noch heil zu sein, wenn es nicht mehr so sein wird, wird man einander mit Heil begrüßen” (152)
Above all, as has been seen in this study, the multilingualism in Vielleicht Esther enables the narrator to negotiate her personal, ethnic, and linguistic identity after the collapse of the Soviet Union by looking at herself from different perspectives that come along with different languages.


1 All page numbers of Katja Petrowskaja’s text are taken from Vielleicht Esther. Berlin: Suhrkamp, 2014.
2 The homophony between the Slavic term for Poland and the Hebrew expression for “das gelobte Land” without doubt has to do with the history of the Jews in Poland that dates back over a millennium. Due to Poland’s religious tolerance, the country became a shelter for persecuted European Jews.


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