THE ENDLESS STEPPE by Esther Hautzig (HarperCollins 1968)
What It's About (from Goodreads):
In June 1941, the Rudomin family is arrested by the Russians. They are accused of being capitalists, “enemies of the people.” Forced from their home and friends in Vilna, Poland, they are herded into crowded cattle cars. Their destination: the endless steppe of Siberia.
For five years, Esther and her family live in exile, weeding potato fields, working in the mines, and struggling to stay alive. But in the middle of hardship and oppression, the strength of their small family sustains them and gives them hope for the future.
The first winner of the Sydney Taylor Awards was Esther Hautzig's The Endless Steppe: Growing Up in Siberia, and 2018 marks the 50th anniversary of this powerful classic.
"The morning it happened--the end of my lovely world--I did not water the lilac bush outside my father's study.
The time was June 1941 and the place was Vilna, a city in the northeastern corner of Poland. And I was ten years old and took it quite for granted that all over the globe people tended their gardens on such a morning as this. Wars and bombs stopped at the garden gates, happened on the far side of garden walls."The Mafioso's Thoughts:
I'm currently writing an adult novel, loosely based on my grandfather's escape from revolutionary Russia, through Siberia and into China. I've therefore been reading a lot for research, since I've never been to Siberia and doubt I'll get there anytime soon. Esther Hautzig's luminous memoir was one of the books recommended on my library's website, and I was jolly glad I read it.
It is quite amazing what the human body and soul can survive. In this age of a viral pandemic, this is uppermost in my mind, but at least my family and I are not being forced onto cattle cars, or being bombed out of our home. Esther, her father, mother, and grandmother, are separated from grandfather in one of the book's opening and highly emotional scenes. The Russians who have invaded Vilna are capricious, and the grandfather is the only one of the family sent elsewhere (we later learn it is to one of Stalin's labor camps, and that he doesn't survive.)
The journey is a tribulation, and they arrive in Siberia half-starved. They are first put to work in a gypsum mine, and then told they can work in the village--on condition they can find housing. Everyday living is a huge chore: they have only the clothes they arrived in, have to scrabble to find food, and have to walk miles to school and to their jobs. But despite this, they make friends with the Siberians, who seem unconcerned that the family is Jewish. Esther proves herself a good student and shows great initiative, knitting clothes for some of the locals in payment for potatoes and milk.
In the end, Esther doesn't want to leave her new home. She has Russian friends, and a boy who is fond of her. As she says, "I was desperately, terribly afraid of change. Perhaps the thought of going back to a world no longer inhabited by the people I loved had something to do with it."
The Endless Steppe would be an excellent classroom read-aloud, and a great addition to any study of family survival in the second world war (or any war, for that matter!) I found it immensely moving.
About the Author:
Esther R. Hautzig (1930-2009) was an American writer, best known for her award-winning book The Endless Steppe. Esther Rudomin was born in Wilno, Poland, now known as Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. Her childhood was gravely interrupted by the beginning of World War II and the conquest in 1941 of eastern Poland by Soviet troops. Her family was uprooted and deported to Rubtsovsk, Siberia, where Esther spent the next five years in harsh exile. Her award-winning novel The Endless Steppe is an autobiographical account of those years in Siberia. After the war, when she was 15, she and her family moved back to Poland, although in her heart, Esther wanted to stay.
Rudomin met Walter Hautzig, a concert pianist, while en route to America on a student visa in 1947. They married in 1950, and had two children, Deborah, a children's author, and David. Hautzig reportedly wrote The Endless Steppe at the prompting of Presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson, to whom she had written after reading his articles about his visit to Rubtsovsk. She died on November 1, 2009, aged 79, from a combination of congestive heart failure and complications from Alzheimers disease.