The Endless Steppe

by Esther Hautzig, Esther Rudomin Hautzig

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Diplomat and politician Adlai E. Stevenson III inspired Hautzig to write The Endless Steppe when he visited postwar Rubtsovsk and published several articles about the trip. Hautzig wrote Stevenson about her own memories of Rubtsovsk, and he encouraged her to write more: “I think you should write a book about life on the frontier of the Soviet Union during those trying war days. It would be a more useful contribution to our understanding than my pieces—and better literature!” Thus, Hautzig chronicled her years of exile in Siberia—in an account that is personal and yet reflective of so many lives displaced by war.

The uniqueness of Hautzig’s memoir lies in its setting, as Siberia remains a place of mystery. When young Hautzig learns that the train has taken them there, she reacts with shock, as Siberia is “the end of the world, a point of no return.” As her first days there turn into years, however, Siberia becomes for Hautzig a real place, like any other and yet unlike any other.

The uniqueness of the setting contrasts with the universality of Hautzig’s theme. In dealing with what it means to survive the harshness of wartime Siberia, Hautzig explores what it means to be human. Because her story is told through the eyes of a child whose familiar world has been torn away, Hautzig writes about hunger of many kinds—hunger for milk and meat instead of rationed bread and thin soup, for warm clothes and ample fuel instead of life-threatening cold. She writes about the hunger to be like the other children, to trade long European braids for the close-cropped hairstyle of the Siberyaki, and to wear the native fufaika (vest) and sapogy (boots). She reveals the hunger for the wider world, reflected in the occasional American film that reaches wartime Rubtsovsk.

Hautzig handles the horror of the Holocaust suitably for a young audience. By looking at those terrible days through a child’s memories, Hautzig’s readers are spared a reality that is too intense to handle. The horror is always shrouded. The family members left behind and lost in Vilna remain shadowy figures in the mosaic of a child’s past rather than real characters in Hautzig’s story. Grandmother’s mourning for her dead husband is done alone on the steppe. The dangers facing Tata on the front lines remain unspoken.

Moreover, bitterness does not dominate the story. Those who inflict the exiles’ suffering, or look the other way in the face of it, are not overtly condemned. Instead, the author allows their actions to speak for themselves. Hautzig’s readers witness how the jailor Popravka relishes his power over the frightened exiles. They feel Marya Nikolayevna’s indifference when she refuses to pay the starving Hautzig for a knitted sweater too small for her own milk-fattened frame. They hear the icy tones of Raisa Nikitovna when the teacher bars the shoeless Hautzig from the declamation contest that means so much to her. Hautzig counterbalances the cruelty of Popravka with the generosity of nameless children who bring a gift of watermelon to the exiles under cover of darkness. She contrasts the indifference of Nikolayevna with the concern of friends such as Uncle Yozia and Aunt Zaya. She balances the coldness of Nikitovna with the warmth of Anna Semyonovna, the teacher who ignites in Hautzig a love of Russian literature. Thus, Hautzig manages to present an objective account of her war years, rather than a diatribe on its horrors.

For all its dinginess, the Rubtsovsk of Hautzig’s exile is a place of miracles. From Polish Jews such as the Rudomins to European Russians fleeing the German invasion, the exiles of Rubtsovsk are displaced, deprived, and often degraded. Yet courage surfaces, strength is found, and love survives. It is the celebration of these miracles that moves Hautzig’s book beyond mere historical recounting and makes it a piece of literature especially worthy of a juvenile readership.

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