Esther Hautzig’s The Endless Steppe was re-issued a few years ago now, and it has been sitting on my close radar ever since. I knew it’d be good, but perhaps not quite this good. It’s the kind of book you kick yourself for not having got to sooner. But I comfort myself in the knowledge that I finished reading it on – what would have been – Esther’s 85 birthday. She celebrates a few birthdays in the book, so it seemed appropriate.
If you’ve read Ruta Sepetys’ Between Shades of Gray, this – especially the beginning – will seem awfully familiar. Nothing to do with copying; it’s just that both are describing the same event, for very similar people. It’s when the Russians rounded up the Jews in Vilnius in 1941 and put them on goods trains to Siberia.
Ten-year-old Esther gets taken from the large house, and loving home, where she lived with nearly all her relatives. Many of them disappeared that morning, and it’s only Esther and her parents and grandparents who are put on the back of a lorry. But they were the ‘lucky’ ones, as everyone else eventually died in the concentration camps.
They spent five years in Rubtsovsk, which was then merely a village. After a tough start planting potatoes and trying to make them grow in the harsh Siberian conditions, the family ended up working and living mainly in Rubtsovsk. It sounds good, but life for them was very difficult. Even for people who had been born there life was hard. The winters sound so cruel you can’t believe anyone could survive.
Her beautiful mother almost kills herself working in one job worse than the other, and her father is often forced to work away, while living conditions [renting a small corner of someone else’s very small home] meant that they couldn’t always be with Esther’s grandmother. As for herself, at the end she almost comes to love it in Siberia. She has friends and she adores school.
This being an account of what happened to real people it is very inspiring while also being quite awful. You have all the memories of the hunger and the cold, beautifully combined with the tale of a child growing up, and all the humour that this entails, as well as ordinary childhood angst. Written in the 1960s, it’s not that long afterwards, so I imagine Esther remembered most of the details. I was left wanting to know more about her life, and that of her parents. I hoped she’d still be alive, but she died in 2009.