The Endless Steppe
|Cover artist||Caroline Binch|
|Media type||Print Hardcover, Hardback & Paperback|
In 1941 Esther and her family are arrested by Soviet troops because they were capitalists and were taken away from their home in Vilna, Poland and transported to Siberia in Russia. On arrival, Esther's mother and father are forced to work in a gypsum mine, and Esther and her grandmother must work in the fields. Eventually Esther and her family get a hut of their own, and Esther attends a local school in Rubtsovsk, but they still have to face the cold of the Siberian winter, summer heat, constant hunger, and the conscription of Esther's father into the Red Army. There are some similarities between this work and The Diary of a Young Girl (Anne Frank's Diary), as both are non-fiction books dealing with the horror of World War II, each told through the perspective of an adolescent Jewish girl; however, the background of The Endless Steppe is much less well known, and has a different outcome.
In 1941, young Esther Rudomin (as she was then) lives a charmed existence in the pretty town of Vilna (Wilno) in northeast Poland (now capital Lithuania). She is a somewhat spoiled only child living with her large extended family, and her parents are wealthy and well-respected members of the Jewish community, largely due to her father's skilled trade as an electrical engineer. Despite the Nazi invasion and the Soviet occupation of their region, to 10-year-old Esther the war is something that ends at her garden gate. One June day, Soviet soldiers arrive at their house declaring the Rudomins as "capitalists and enemies of the people." Their house and valuables are seized, and Esther, her parents, and her grandparents are packed into cattle cars and "relocated" to another part of the great and mighty Soviet Union, which turns out to be a forced labour camp in Siberia.
This first half of the book is the most vivid as Esther recalls the horrors of this insane world: the customary division of the healthy and weak, so that Esther; the nightmarish two month train journey with nothing more than watery soup to sustain them; the disorienting arrival in the camp; and the backbreaking work in a gypsum mine that they are forced to do. She also describes the unexpected mercies that existed alongside it: the local children who smuggled food to the slave labourers at considerable danger to themselves; the amnesty, requested by Britain, that allows the Poles to be released from the camp and to move to Rubtsovsk, a nearby village; and the kindness of the villagers, people with almost as little as the Rudomins, who enable them to survive their exile.
This is a book of many ironies. The Rudomins go from privileged complacency, in which they rely on servants to do everything for them, to a world where the growth of a potato plant can mean the difference between life and death. Esther is also forced to rely on making clothes for the few rich people of the village—the sort of people they had been in Poland—for the price of a bit of bread and milk. She almost absorbs the harsh Soviet message of their exile, feeling a perverse pride that "the little rich girl of Vilna survived poverty as well as anyone else."
In essence the book is a tribute to the resilience of human spirit and especially the adaptability of youth. Esther marvels at the irony of a "little capitalist" singing the Internationale, learning Russian, and eventually falling in love with the unique, unspoiled beauty of the steppe, so much so, that when the war ends and the Rudomins are abruptly informed that they are to be returned to Poland, Esther doesn't want to leave. She thinks of herself as belonging there: she's a Sibiryak, a Siberian.
Despite all its horrors, this is still an easy-to-read book, since it is mostly written without hindsight, retaining the perspective of the adolescent Esther was then. (For a long time she feels that she is to blame for their exile by stepping out of the house on her left foot—a definitely unlucky omen.) This child's-eye view gives it a freshness and immediacy lacking in other memoirs, making it is a highly recommendable introduction to WW2 history for younger readers. Esther's concerns are typically about fitting in and making friends with the local children, and her obsession with owning a fufaika (a quilted jacket), shows that adolescent girls are the same, even in war and in Siberia.
Donald Cameron Watt (1989), How War Came, New York: Pantheon Books.