“Maybe Esther”: Storytelling and the Unpredictability of the Past

Please join us for our Third Annual Bucerius Lecture with Kiev-born German writer Katja Petrowskaja, followed by a conversation with Sven Spieker (UC Santa Barbara).


Katja Petrowskaja deals with the conundrums of making history. In her acclaimed novel Maybe Esther, a modern person undertakes a road trip through European landscapes of memory, languages, and family stories. The “maybe” introduces remembering as an act of defiance, as personal resistance against the firmly established, inevitable pace of history.


An old woman is killed on a sunny day in September 1941, in the very center of Kiev. We are certain where and how, maybe even why, but we do not know her name. Could this uncertainty change the course of events? Slow them down? How much uncertainty can historical truth bear? “Maybe” puts an emphasis on our ethical and intellectual limits in trying to grasp the past or reconcile with it.


The Bucerius Lecture is part of an annual lecture and workshop program at the Pacific Regional Office of the German Historical Institute Washington, funded by the ZEIT-Stiftung Ebelin und Gerd Bucerius, one of the major German private foundations active in the field of migration and transformation studies.


Born in Kiev, Katja Petrowskaja studied literature in Tartu (Estonia) and Moscow. Since 1999, she lives in Berlin. She garnered wide international acclaim with her 2014 book Vielleicht Esther (Maybe Esther), which has been translated into more than twenty languages. For an excerpt from its fifth chapter, titled “Vielleicht Esther,” she was awarded the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize in 2013. She also received the Ernst-Toller-Preis and the Aspekte-Literaturpreis in 2014, and the Premio Strega Europeo (for its Italian translation) in 2015.


Sven Spieker teaches in the Comparative Literature Program at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He specializes in modern and contemporary art and culture, with an emphasis on Russia and Eastern Europe, and a special interest in issues related to documentary and knowledge production. Spieker’s latest book publication is an edited volume devoted to the relationship between art and destruction (2017).