Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The Endless Steppe (1968)* * * *

The Endless Steppe (link to book on Amazon)
This is the autobiographical story of the childhood of Ester Hautzig who was born in Vilna, Lithuania in the late-1920s. She was from a rich Jewish family in a city that was one of the Jewish centers of learning and culture at that time. But this is not a story of Jewish ghettos and concentration camps. It is a story of being sent to Siberia. In 1941, Lithuania was in Soviet control. Her family owned a large business—they were bourgeoisie capitalists in the Soviet scheme of things. At that time, such people were being arrested and sent to Siberia. Her father and mother did not know it at the time, but being arrested was the lucky break that saved their lives. The rest their extended family, along with almost all the Jews in Lithuania and Poland, were killed by the Nazis when Germany marched across Poland and Lithunia on the way to Moscow. This book tells the story of travelling across Russia to Siberia in cattle cars and of growing up on the Siberian steppe with her mother and old grandmother. Her father was sent to Siberia with them, but he was soon conscripted for a labor brigade on the Eastern front. Although the book was written when she was an adult, it is told from the perspective of her youthful self. Youth has an odd way of not seeing hardship in quite the same light as adults. In the end in fact, the Siberian steppe becomes the place she thinks of as home. When the war ends, her father writes for them to join him in Poland. She begs her parents to stay in Siberia and make their home there. Her parents naturally think she has lost her mind. Ester and her mother return to Poland and later emigrate to New York.

The book is written for middle-schoolers and so is a quick read. I quite enjoyed the book and would recommend it to anyone interested in stories from this era. Hauzig is a very good storyteller and this is an entertaining story. She is never self-pitying, not only because it would be unseemly and ungrateful given what happened to the rest of her family, but also because she was a child of 10 and it was her parents who did the worrying and working. They had hardly anything to eat, but they did find food even if it meant scouring the frozen fields for half-rotten potatoes. They were crammed in with other families into tiny rooms, but they did have places to sleep. There are many funny stories in the book. One of my favorites is when they first arrive at the gypsum mines where they are to do forced labor. In the morning after their arrival, the adults are given their jobs. Her father is told that since he is an educated man, he will drive the horses. Her mother, being an educated woman, is told that she will be the supervisor for the women. “And what will we be doing?” asks the mother. “The women will be dynamiting,” replies the mine chief. Her alarmed father begs to take his wife place, but he is told that the rules are that the men dig the gypsum, the women dynamite it, and the old people load it. Those are the rules. Such ridiculous and nonsensical Soviet rules are the source of many of the funny stories in this book.

On the cover leaf, they liken this story to The Diary of Anne Frank. I have not read that for years, but somehow I think that Endless Steppe is not at that level for a variety of reasons—not the least of which is that Hautzig survived and tells her story from memory rather than the moment. Nonetheless, it is an excellent book and gives young teenagers a view of a unique WWII experience.

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