Encountering the archive in Katja Petrowskaja’s Vielleicht Esther

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In Vielleicht Esther (2014), the literary debut by Ukrainian-born Katja Petrowskaja, the narrator attempts to trace her family history. She realizes that she can no longer rely on the memories of her relatives, but rather, as part of what Marianne Hirsch calls the "generation of postmemory," is dependent on the material that remains. She encounters various archive spaces and resources, but these fail to provide easy access to her family's past. This article argues that Vielleicht Esther is thus a pivotal example of an archival turn in memory culture, which signals not only the central position of the archive in retracing the past, but also the increasing critical scrutiny of the status and role of archive in this endeavour. Petrowskaja's narrator comes to see how the archive is implicated in the control of history and memory, and that what remains is also an indicator of what is missing - specifically the European Jewish tradition that once defined her ancestors. Moreover, the archive confronts her not only with what remains (and what doesn't), but also with questions about who remains (and why), that is, with questions about the circumstances of survival. On the one hand, her encounters with the archive allow her to address its gaps through narrative, but on the other, they confront her with unpalatable truths that force her to rethink her family narrative.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)255-272
Number of pages18
JournalSeminar: A Journal of Germanic Studies
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 1 Sept 2016


  • Katja Petrowskaja
  • Vielleicht Esther
  • Achival turn
  • Memory culture
  • Postmemory
  • Warsaw
  • Babi Yar
  • Mauthausen


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