The Endless Steppe

by Esther Hautzig, Esther Rudomin Hautzig

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What challenges does Esther's family face in Siberia in The Endless Steppe?

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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.

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What are the conflicts faced by Esther in The Endless Steppe?

The Endless Steppe follows ten-year-old Esther Rudomin and the challenges she is forced to face at such a young age. It is a coming-of-age story that truly showcases Esther's strength and resilience.

Esther is in fact taken away from her home and is forced to endure a very difficult journey without knowing where she is being taken. She arrives, after many troubles, in a village in Siberia which is far from hospitable.

However, despite being only a little girl, she is inquisitive and rather brave. She confronts the Russian soldiers when they reach her house, demanding an explanation for her family's arrest. In other situations, she continues to ask questions, confronting some authority figures while also making new friends.

Esther remains inquisitive, curious, and brave throughout the novel. She fearlessly adapts to any situation and refuses to be subjugated, even during such a difficult time as World War II. At school, she studies hard and reads anything she can get her hands on, encouraged by her literature teacher; on top of that, she uses her knitting skills to get a job in order to earn more money for her family.

Esther is proud and determined and learns to have hope and be happy even in the face of adversities.

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What were the major difficulties faced by Esther in The Endless Steppe?

Esther experiences a number of major difficulties in the story. For one thing, she and her family are suddenly uprooted from their beautiful home in the city of Vilnius, the capital of modern-day Lithuania. As members of the privileged social elite, they're regarded with suspicion by the Soviet authorities, who see them as bourgeois oppressors.

Forcibly removed from the place they've always called home, Esther and her family are sent on a long, hard train journey in appalling conditions to the remote Siberian steppes where they are somehow expected to start a new life in this harsh, unforgiving environment.

Once there, Esther is faced with a fight for survival in a forced labor camp where she has to toil long hours in truly wretched conditions. Esther is effectively a slave in the gypsum mines—performing backbreaking work in return for very little food. It is only after Esther is released from the camp (as part of an amnesty) that conditions slightly improve.

But even so, challenges still remain. Esther and her family, so used to having servants that do everything for them, have to learn how to be self-reliant, and at first, that turns out to be very difficult for them.

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