Form and Content
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.
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 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...
(The entire section is 1,506 words.)