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The Endless Steppe: What is worth saving?

Today is the birthday of Esther Hautzig, who as a child of ten in 1941 was torn from her happy home in Vilna, Poland, and sent by Russian forces to a Siberian work camp with her family.

There she endured several years, and after she emigrated to New York, Hautzig wrote a novelized version of her memories of that time. The resulting book is the award-winning The Endless Steppe, which conveys the anguish of what the Jews and other prisoners endured, but without romanticizing the characters or browbeating the reader into feeling a sensationalized anguish. There is tragedy in the book, but also humor, sweetness, irony, and enough earthy details to make every page ring true.

I read this book obsessively as a child, and can still almost recite certain passages: The way her elegant little grandmother insisted on performing her daily pedicure even as they rattled through the wilderness packed into a cattle car on the way to Siberia; how her mother, tormented with respiratory problems, would put a glass of water by her bedside every night, and would wake to find it frozen.

Her family, like most of the Jewish population of her home city, were known for their education and cultivation, and the privations of their new life as prisoners cannot entirely change who they are. Esther ventures out one day, driven by starvation, to sell some of her precious volumes of Chekhov, and the reader feels the full force of her horror when she realizes the rotten-toothed buyer intends to tear out the pages and use them to roll cigarettes.  He’s feeling the pages to see how thin they are, how well they will burn. She snatches her books away and flees. This compromise, she will not make.

Especially taking is the way Hautzig never romanticizes her own motivations or her family’s response to their trials. The voice of the narrator is an authentically young teenage voice, a girl sees plainly that her family is in real danger of being destroyed, but who also feels the true anguish of every girl coming of age: falling in love for the first time; having to appear in school shoeless and wearing rags; suffering when a local queen bee is pampered and favored, while she is scorned for her backward ways.

Along with bugs, filth, danger, privation, deadly freezing cold, degradation, and the constant fear of death, there are bright moments: the rough kindness of their Siberian neighbors; the stark beauty of the steppe itself; and a sort of stone-soup moment when everyone contributes to make a goulash to celebrate Esther’s birthday.

They even contrive to hold a masquerade ball, and Esther relates how a friend has miraculously brought along a “flimsy blue georgette with great billowing sleeves, the sort of thing she wore tea dancing in Vilna. Where had she expected to wear this in Siberia? I wondered.” Her friend is willing to share; so

the collar, which came down to my navel, would be drawn into a ruff and the waist would be pulled in. And what would I be going as? I wanted to know rather belatedly.

“As something you’re not,” Mother said. Then she added, “In Siberia, you’re always in masquerade–“

Without a heavy hand, much of the book deals with themes of what is worth saving and what can be abandoned; what is part of you and cannot be thrown off or compromised, and what can be faked or endured for the sake of survival. Enduring themes for a coming-of-age story. The book opens with a dreadful decision of what to pack in the one suitcase they are allowed by the soldiers to bring. She must leave behind her pretty clothes and all the happy memories they represent, and also her cherished photo albums (“someone was bound to ask questions about the people in those albums”). What is worth saving? What is identity, and what is only trappings?

The family does hold together, as best it can. Once, as Esther is caught outside when a terrible, blinding Siberian storm blows up without warning, her life is saved only because her mother does what she always does: sings out the Sh’ma, the Jewish morning and evening central prayer. She hears her mother’s voice and knows how to get home.

If you haven’t read The Endless Steppe, you’re missing out. To my mind, the book is even more captivating and affecting than The Diary of Anne Frank. Of course I realize that a diary by a young girl is not a polished novel by an adult! But for purposes of reaching today’s kids, who need to know and understand what happened in this dreadful era of history, I’d like to see The Endless Steppe used more widely. A mature third grader would enjoy the book, but it would not be out of place in an eighth-grade classroom. It is one of a kind.

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