Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 918
The grim historical circumstances of war, deportation, and racial prejudice provide the context for the human dramas in The Endless Steppe, but Hautzig does not dwell on the intense moral questions raised by the atrocities of the war. Instead, the characters in her story accept the tragic aspects of existence and, though often sad, sick, and demoralized, go about the business of coping with the many challenges to their bodies and their spirits. Hautzig also refrains from explicitly stating the importance of religious faith as a defense against adversity. The strength of character that Esther and her family convey grows out of the story itself rather than from any commentary on its significance; the narrative is its own best testimony to Hautzig's theme that human beings must look within themselves for the strength to persevere against evil.
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Although the Rudomins seem resilient and courageous, Esther's struggle gives The Endless Steppe its form and makes it a genuine bildungsroman—a story of a young person's growth and initiation— and Hautzig's theme develops as Esther grows up in the story.
In the course of a few short weeks, ten-year-old Esther is torn from her childhood home of sunshine, flowers, and family; endures a long, grueling journey to an unknown destination with her uncharacteristically shaken parents and grandparents; witnesses the forced separation of her grandfather from his wife and family; and arrives, along with other "capitalist enemies," in a barren village in Siberia.
Esther does not understand what she and her family have done to deserve arrest and punishment, and because she is an intelligent and inquisitive child, she constantly questions their situation. When the Russian soldiers come to her home and order her parents to the ground, she disregards her mother's warning and asks for an explanation of the arrest; when she is being shipped to Siberia in the cattle car she innocently asks her mother where the bathroom is; similarly, at Rubtsovsk she asks the hateful Comrade Popravka, a soldier from the gypsum mine who supervises the barracks, where she can get a drink of water. After the initial shock of her sudden departure, Esther accepts her situation and fearlessly asks questions that will help her adjust. As she grows older, Esther's spirited curiosity remains a strong character trait. Although she lives during a time of war, under harsh conditions in a foreign land, she remains a little girl who grows up wondering about the world around her.
It seemed impossible that the force of the turbulence, churning over thousands of miles of steppe, would not carry the tiny hut along with it.
At school, she confronts the impatience of her stern instructor, Raisa Nikitovna, and meets Svetlana, who eventually becomes her best friend. Retaining great pride in her Jewish-Polish heritage, Esther still wants to be accepted by the other children. She tries to live as normal a life as possible and delights in making new friends, editing her school paper, and pursuing a crush on a handsome classmate, Yuri Shurik. She also reads voraciously, inspired in part by her literature teacher, Anna Semyonovna.
At the same time, however, Esther worries about her father, who after almost two years in Siberia, is ordered to work near the front lines. She tries to comfort her mother and grandmother in her father's absence and uses her knitting skills to earn extra money for the family. Esther copes with these worries by tirelessly fulfilling the stabilizing, but difficult, demands of a normal schoolgirl's life in Siberia.
Esther's father, Samuel Rudomin, whom Esther calls "Tata" ("Papa" in Polish), dotes on Esther, whom he affectionately nicknames "Lalinka." Although he is an electrical engineer, he works in Siberia driving a horse and cart at the gypsum mine. Frustrated by his inability to protect his family from what he calls the "insanity" of the war, he continually tries to lift their spirits through his humorous stories and optimistic outlook.
Raya Rudomin, Esther's mother, is a stalwart woman who provides a strict upbringing for Esther, even after their deportation. After dynamiting in the gypsum mine for several months, a radical departure from her daily activities in Vilna, Raya takes a job in a bakery, where she works long hours. She strives to maintain her dignity by not accepting charity. Like Anna Rudomin, Esther's grandmother who grieves privately for her husband, Solomon, she teaches Esther self-discipline by her example.
During her five years in Siberia, Esther encounters a variety of people who teach her to be adaptable, creative, and even happy in the face of adversity. Mrs. Marshak and her son Boris are acquaintances from Poland who become close friends to the Rudomins in Siberia. Boris, in particular, looks to Samuel Rudomin for a father figure, and Esther becomes a surrogate sister to him. Nina and Nikita Alexandrovich, a peasant couple who share their lodgings with the Rudomins, are alternately kind and callous in their treatment of the family; Nina cannot believe that the Rudomins are Jews because they do not have the "crooked noses" or "long beards" that her prejudice leads her to expect. Marya Nikolayevna, a woman of high social status before the German invasion forced her flight to Siberia, tries Esther's patience when she grows too fat to fit into a sweater Esther painstakingly makes at her request and then blames the ill fit on Esther. Despite the horrible circumstances under which Esther and her family came to Siberia, Esther finds a diverse community there that challenges her to grow up with hope and pride.