The Endless Steppe

by Esther Hautzig, Esther Rudomin Hautzig

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Esther Rudomin Hautzig’s story, told in The Endless Steppe: A Girl in Exile, begins as it ends, in her native Poland. The sudden appearance of Russian soldiers in chapter I is as shocking an intrusion into Hautzig’s idyllic picture of upper-class European family life as their actual arrival in the Rudomin home in Vilna that morning in June, 1941. The security of the ten-year-old Hautzig’s world is shattered by the soldiers’ insistent ringing of the Rudomins’ doorbell. Her belief that parents are all powerful—that her father, “Tata” (the Polish word for “father”) can simply explain to the soldiers that there has been a mistake—is shaken when the soldiers place the Rudomins under arrest as “capitalists and therefore enemies of the people.” As Hautzig and her family are transported out of Poland, jammed with hundreds of other bewildered deportees in the stifling closed cars of a cattle train, the lovely world of Esther’s childhood disappears forever.

The next twenty chapters of The Endless Steppe are set in the frontier village of Rubtsovsk, a tiny speck in the vast space of the flat, treeless Russian steppe. The village exists to support a gypsum mine, and it is to this mine that the exiles are first taken. Men are ordered into the mine to dig the grayish white powder that is used in making plaster casts. Women are set to work dynamiting, and the elderly shovel gypsum onto trucks. Hautzig and the other children tend the puny potato crop that is their only shield against starvation.

When Russia is drawn into the war against Germany, amnesty frees the prisoners to find work and lodging in the village. Hautzig’s family struggles with the perennial problems of life in Siberia. They must survive frigid temperatures in the hastily gathered summer clothing of their exile. They must exist on inadequate rations of bread, flour, millet, and occasional bits of meat or sugar. In addition, they must keep the family together when finding lodging means finding a Siberian family willing to share its one or two rooms with strangers.

In their second year of exile, the Rudomins’ efforts to stay together are defeated by orders that send Tata to the front lines. Life without Tata is even more desolate. Added to the problems her family faces, Hautzig struggles with difficulties of her own: the struggle to overcome illness brought on by shortages of food and fuel, the struggle to stay in school with no books and no paper, and the struggle to fulfill an adolescent’s need for belonging when that adolescent is a stranger among strangers.

Hautzig and her family struggle, and they survive. They even survive after learning that relatives in Vilna who had escaped arrest by the Russian troops did not escape the German massacre there. Their exile, they realize, has saved their lives. Hautzig’s narrative ends with the journey back into Poland, aboard another cattle train, in the spring of 1946. Fifteen-year-old Hautzig and her family are reunited with Tata in postwar Lodz, their exile ended.


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Esther begins her story on a sunny morning in June 1941, at her spacious home in Vilna, Poland, where she lives with her parents, grandparents, and other relatives. Her life is busy with family activities, school work and lessons in music and dance, but on this particular summer morning, she looks forward to a quiet day of reading and tending her garden. These plans change dramatically when Russian soldiers arrive and arrest her with her parents and paternal grandparents on the charges of being "capitalist enemies of the people." Separated from...

(This entire section contains 319 words.)

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Esther's paternal grandfather, the rest of the family is transported from Vilna, Poland, in filthy, crowded railway cattle cars, to the remote Siberian village of Rubtsovsk, where they live from 1941 until 1946. Initially, the family stays in the barracks outside of town. During the day, Esther works in a potato field, her mother dynamites in a gypsum mine (gypsum is a grayish-white powder that was used to make plaster casts for soldiers), and her father drives a cart at the mine. For their labors, each receives a daily ration of bread and salty sheep cheese known asbrinza.

After the Polish deportees are granted amnesty in early September, Esther and her family move into the village, where Esther attends school and even earns a little money through her knitting and sewing skills. She and her family live in several different homes over the next few years, and life in the village is extremely difficult, though a distinct improvement over the barracks.

Historically, the story takes place during World War II, after Germany's invasion of Poland and annexation of Danzig in September 1939. Following the German occupation of western Poland, the U.S.S.R. invaded Poland from the east. Although Esther, her parents, and grandparents were victims of the Russian government, all of their relatives, except for two cousins and an aunt, were killed in the German massacre of the Jews.

Literary Qualities

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Hautzig's fluid narrative style makes The Endless Steppe an extremely readable book. She carefully paces the story of her five years in Siberia, vividly recreating significant characters through dramatic dialogue and description. Condensing her experience into a series of exciting, moving incidents, Hautzig forgoes depth of characterization or complex analysis of issues. Emphatic one-line paragraphs—such as, "But in 1939 Hitler's armies marched on Poland."—and brief, cliff-hanger chapters quickly draw the reader into the story and propel the action forward.

Despite its deceptively simple and straightforward style, The Endless Steppe uses understatement and symbolism that deepen the meaning of the story. The book opens with a statement that demands further explanation and therefore immediately piques the reader's interest: "The morning it happened— the end of my lovely world—I did not water the lilac bush outside my father's study." In this typically dramatic opening sentence, Hautzig jumps into the primary action of her tale by letting the reader know that a very sudden, jarring incident irreparably changed her life in the course of a morning; but at the same time, she sets up the subplot and underlying theme of the story by referring, in the same sentence, to the seemingly trivial, personal recollection that she neglected to water a bush that morning. The overriding plot is about war and its consequences for a deported Polish family living in Siberia, but the story Hautzig emphasizes concerns the observations and memories of Esther as she grows up in unfamiliar, harsh surroundings.

The lilac bush that stands outside her father's study thus seems to symbolize Esther as "Lalinka," her father's pet, who, until the soldiers' intrusion, lives a life of beauty, security, and order. At the same time that ten-year-old Esther worries about missing her morning routine of watering the growing, fragrant lilac bush, the chaotic forces of war threaten her very existence. Uprooted from the life of leisure and education represented by her father's study by the garden, Esther, like the lilac bush, must struggle to survive without the sustenance of her home.

Hautzig also presents the Siberian steppe as a symbol of oppression, an often personified "accomplice" of the Russians. The vast, barren landscape of the "endless" steppe represents the overwhelming emptiness experienced by deportees who have been forced from their families and homes and who have no idea of when their exile will end. Throughout the story, the steppe looms as a cruel and fickle presence with its sudden, blinding snowstorms and unyielding, fruitless land.

Social Sensitivity

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Although Hautzig lived through a time of fierce oppression by both the Russians and the Nazis, her autobiography focuses more on childhood memories of life with her parents in Siberia than on descriptions of wartime brutality. Physical and emotional violence for example, are downplayed, as the reader only learns in a brief passage toward the end of the book that most of Esther's relatives in Poland were killed by the Nazis. But this focus allows Hautzig to subtly raise questions about the inhumanity of war. Esther and her family are considered "enemies of the state" because of their economic status, and they are also the targets of anti-Semitic sentiments, but they combat this oppression by relying on their traditional family structure and faith. Hautzig's presentation of these issues is never offensive and instead encourages further research and discussion.

For Further Reference

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Conquest, Robert. The Great Terror: Stalin's Purge of the Thirties. New York: Macmillan, 1968. This study is concerned mostly with events that occurred before the Rudomins' deportation, but the epilogue, "Heritage of Terror," touches upon the Nazi-Soviet Pact, and the bibliography contains a useful list of books on police, trials, prison, and camps.

Herling, Gustav. A World Apart. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1951. A dramatic and highly readable account of another deportee's grueling experience in a Siberian camp.

Solzhenitsyn, Alexander. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. New York: Putnam's, 1963. The famous dissident's first account of life in the gulag. The movie version is also well worth watching.

Swianiewicz, S. Forced Labour and Economic Development. London: Macmillan, 1965. A scholarly study from the perspective of economics.


Critical Essays


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