Title: The Endless Steppe
Author: Esther Hautzig
Major Themes: 1940s, Russia, Historical Nonfiction, Second World War, Communists
Synopsis: Esther and her family are sent off to Siberia in 1941 by the Russians and must fight to stay together and remain alive.
The main plot of this book isn’t as clear to me as some books are. But one thing stands out in my memory: The steppes of Siberia are rough, and living there is a living to just get by. This book is clear, coarse, heartrending, and real. Esther Hautzig, the author, is the main character of The Endless Steppe. Through the pages, we can feel her deep sorrow as she recounts what happened to her. This book is, for the most part, not humorous. It is an autobiography of a young girl who has lost everything—and has to build it all back up from nothing.
Esther was ten years old in June 1941. Her life in Poland revolved around her family, school, and tending the family’s extensive garden. Wars and bombs happened away from them, across the gate, not touching her and her family—until one day when, suddenly, Russian soldiers arrived and began ransacking the house. When they arrived at her parent’s apartments, she asked the soldiers why they were under arrest.
“…you are capitalists and therefore enemies of the people…you are to be sent to another part of our great and mighty country…”
She didn’t understand what “capitalist” meant, but she understood the warning in her mother’s voice. Soon, they were forced to leave the dear home they had had, and were pushed into the back of a truck. Then, the motor started, and they rumbled away from the only home Esther had ever known. They arrived at a railroad station, and her grandfather was called to leave. It was the first of many, many separations for the family. All their pleading did no good. He was taken away from them, and for all they knew they’d never see him again.
Then they were sent to cattle cars, where they were loaded up and sent off. Six weeks later, the train stopped and they were unloaded. Marching through the stifling heat, Esther was amazed at how bare, bleak, and flat the place was.
“This is Siberia,” he said quietly. If I had been told that I had been transported to the moon, I could not have been more stunned. Siberia was the end of the world, a point of no return … I had been careless. I had neglected to pray to God to save us from a gypsum mine in Siberia.
So began her life—a life of grief, hunger, and much physical work. Could she—and her family—live under such rough conditions? And if they did, would they ever be able to go back to their beloved Poland? This book is rough, one that takes us there and gives us a raw view of what life was like for so many Poles—and others—who were shipped off by the Russians and never returned. Or if they did, they were scarred for life.
I loved The Endless Steppe. It brought the Russian communist regime to life, and through Esther telling her sorrowful story, we can understand what it was like and how it happened. It’s not an easy story to read, but the content is wonderful. And it is written very well. I believe children and young adults aged 11 – 16 will especially benefit from this book. It is a great reader, and also works well as a read-aloud.
WARNING: Some parts may be intense for younger readers.
Read Aloud—Ages 10 – 13
Reading Independently—Ages 12 – 15, 15 and Above