Esther and her family are ripped by the Soviets from a comfortable life in Vilna, Poland, when Esther is ten. They are crowded into cattle cars. Esther is shocked when they arrive at the small town of Rubtsovsk in the middle of the Russian steppe. As she notes:
Siberia was for criminal and political enemies … where people died liked flies. … [It was] mountainous drifts of snow. Siberia was wolves.
She can hardly believe her family has ended up here, though they have been transported as capitalists (political enemies) who have to be reeducated through hard work.
In Rubtsovsk, the adult family members face hard labor in the gypsum factory which is the reason for the town's existence. Esther's mother is part of a female team dynamiting in the factory, while her father has to drive a horse and cart. The children work tending the potato field, which is a source of food that will keep them from starving.
The family has to work very long hours and also suffers from the severe cold, especially as they only packed summer clothes when they were hurried away from their home in June 1941. They have to contend with lack of privacy, as they are herded with the other arrivals into a schoolhouse that has been converted into crude living quarters. Later, they live in barracks and most of the time share small spaces with other families.
Despite the potatoes, the rations the family has are not enough to keep away hunger. The family has to live on bread and grains, with very small meat and sugar rations. Esther herself gets sick from hunger and cold, and has to contend as well with the lack of basic supplies at her school. Her father is forced in the midst of this to fight in World War II.
In sum, the family suffers from want of food, lack of adequate shelter and warmth, and overwork in a harsh and isolated steppe environment. They live in risk of death because of these conditions.