The Endless Steppe
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|Cover artist||Caroline Binch|
|Media type||Print Hardcover, Hardback & Paperback|
The Endless Steppe is about Esther Hautzig’s childhood. When Esther is 10 years old she and her family are taken from their home in Wilno, Poland by the Russians. She and her family are sent on a long train ride to Siberia, separated from one another, and are forced to work in horrible conditions in a gypsum mine. After some time her family are allowed to live in a hut in the nearby town of Rubtsovsk, but do not have much money and need to find creative ways to make a small income. They also have trouble with the Russian language, and with the fact that Esther's father is conscripted to the front lines of the Russian army. After several years and the conclusion of the war, Esther's father returns and brings the family home to Wilno, where they find that none of the people they knew before remain and unwelcoming responses from the new inhabitants.
In 1941, young Esther Rudomin (as she was then called) lives a charmed existence in the pretty town of Vilna (Wilno) in northeast Poland (now the capital of 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 to be "capitalists and enemies of the people." Their house and valuables are seized, and Esther, her parents, and her paternal grandparents are packed into cattle cars and "relocated" to another part of the Soviet Union, which turns out to be a forced labour camp in Siberia.
This first half of the book, Esther recalls the horrors of this world: the customary division of the healthy and weak, so that Esther, her parents, and her grandmother are separated from her grandfather; 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 exist alongside it: the local children who smuggle 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.
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."
Besides the hardships of Siberia, other horrid news comes, first that Esther's paternal grandfather was transported to a logging camp in another part of the country where he soon fell ill. His problems are overlooked, not losing sight of the "big picture", as "there were trees that needed to be cut down", and he soon died from pnuemonia and bronchitis. Much later in the story, she learns her maternal grandmother and virtually all her family members perished in the Holocaust. Her father, who flees Rubtsovsk and eventually finds his way back to Vilna, writes that he visited their former house one last time (now in possession of an NKVD chief in the city), but failed to find photographs or like family mementos, the house having totally looted by the Germans. For Esther, this represents crushing news that her past is gone forever.
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.