The Endless Steppe: Growing Up in Siberia
The Endless Steppe: Growing Up in Siberia
by Esther Hautzig
THE LITERARY WORK
A young-aduit autobiography set in Siberia, Russia, from 1941 to 1946; published in 1968.
Esther Hautzig recalls her early adolescent years when her family was taken from their home in Soviet-occupied Poland and forced to live and work in labor camps in the Siberian steppes.
Esther Rudomin Hautzig was born in Vilna, Poland, on October 18, 1930. She was ten years old when her family had to leave their comfortable upper-middle-class home in Poland to live in Siberia by order of the Soviet government. Because they were prosperous, the authorities considered them capitalists and enemies of the state. Before writing The Endless Steppe, which recounts her experiences in Siberia, Hautzig published several other children’s books, which were more or less “how to” manuals for cooking, gift-making, and room decoration. Undoubtedly she drew some of her knowledge for these books from her childhood as well, having survived those years with few or no materials for such routine activities. An inspiring tale of the survival of the human spirit, The Endless Steppe has been well regarded since its initial release.
Russia and Germany divide and occupy Poland
At the beginning of World War II, on September 1, 1939, Germany’s Nazi army invaded Poland from the western end and overwhelmed Polish forces, turning their country into German-occupied territory. Sixteen days later Russia invaded Poland from the east, splitting the country in half. A pact was drawn between Germany and Russia to each occupy the half of Poland they had respectively invaded. The Soviets proceeded to occupy eastern Poland from September 17, 1939, through late June 1941. Thereafter Germany invaded Russia and the two countries declared war on each other, further adding to the list of Nazi Germany’s enemies in World War II. At this point the Polish government, in exile in Great Britain, allied itself with the Soviet government. Viewing the Russians as the lesser of the two evils that occupied their land, the Poles hoped that the original boundaries of Poland could be restored after the war was over and Germany defeated.
In western Poland the Germans busied themselves with reorganizing and dividing the Polish people. Some of them were being used to strengthen Germany’s armed forces, while others, the Polish Jews, were being herded first into ghettoes and then into concentration camps. Meanwhile, with Germany now as their enemy, the Soviets in the east occupied themselves with establishing a Soviet/Polish army composed largely of war prisoners taken after the occupation;
they also began deporting hundreds of thousands of Polish citizens to industrial work camps located throughout Russia. It was during this type of deportation that Esther Hautzig’s family was relocated from Vilna (a city then described as being located in eastern Poland) to Siberia. In The Endless Steppe, Hautzig writes that the Russian police forced her family to vacate their home and relocate. Hautzig’s father was accused of being a “capitalist”—a term equated with “criminal” in the communist Soviet Union. The political police were constantly carrying out roundups of suspected capitalists in the cities and townships in Poland, then sentencing them to work on one of the new industrial enterprises. Mass deportations of such “capitalists” commonly took place in Soviet-occupied territories.
Russia’s five-year plans
In 1921, after a great famine had plagued Russia, the government instituted a so-called New Economic Plan. This plan was to be carried out in five-year stages—hence the term “five-year plans.” During these economic campaigns the Soviet government would use unskilled labor to develop industries from its natural resources such as coal, lumber, and gypsum (a white mineral used to manufacture plaster, cement, wallboards, and fertilizers). The third set in the series of five-year plans was to take place from 1938 to 1942, but it had been interrupted by the outbreak of World War II and the ensuing conflict with Germany. It would resume with the help of forced labor. The Soviet police transported Russian peasants and wealthier citizens alike to work at labor camps located throughout the country. There the people were forced to work for the barest rations of food, clothing, and shelter.
After the Russian invasion of Poland in 1939, during the third five-year plan, the Soviet government began deporting Polish people to the industrial work camps. Forced labor on a large scale was imposed on the various social classes in Poland, whose members received equal treatment under Soviet communist policy. The Soviets had built so many mills, mines, and factories during the first two five-year plans that a labor shortage was created and now these industrial sites were in dire need of human labor for operation. By the time World War II erupted, the Soviet Union had also organized most of its agricultural land into state and collective farms. Private farming had not, however, been completely eliminated since peasants were permitted to work small household plots for their own use. Hautzig frequently refers to the plots of land allotted to her family on which they grew small potato crops.
When Esther realizes that her family is being deported to Siberia, her first thought is:
Siberia! Siberia was the end of the world, a point of no return. Siberia was for criminals and political enemies, where the punishment was unbelievably cruel, and where people died like flies.
(Hautzig, The Endless Steppe, p. 42)
Before the Russians expanded into and conquered Siberia—the vast territory west of the Ural Mountains and north of China—in the early 1600s, it was populated with people indigenous to the area. These were, among others, the Buryat Mongols, Yakuts, Tatars, Samoyeds, Tunguses, and Chukchis. After the Russians invaded the area, many of these natives were massacred defending themselves against the Russians. The area subsequently became a place for those sent into punitive exile by the Russian government, including convicted criminals, political prisoners, and prisoners of war. By the mid-1600s, exile to Siberia had become a punishment for any number of offenses, from suspicion of treason to a show of disrespect for the czar. By the 1930s the Soviet government had established industrial sites in Siberia, which would now be manned with Eastern Europeans, mostly prisoners of war such as Esther and her family.
In early June 1941, in the city of Vilna located in the eastern region of Poland, ten-year-old Esther Rudomin (Hautzig’s maiden name) and her upper-middle-class Jewish family, which included her parents and grandparents, were ordered by the Russian police to pack whatever they could in fifteen minutes because they were being deported. Without notice or explanation, the Soviet political police had begun conducting raids that morning, confiscating homes and businesses of upper-middle-class citizens and herding them into cattle-car freight trains heading for Russia. Esther’s grandfather was separated from the family at the train station, and they were never to see him again. Young Esther felt confused and bewildered about why her contented existence in Vilna was coming to an end. Several dozen people were forced to endure a six-week journey by cattle car in nearly unbearable conditions until they reached their final destination of Rubtsovsk, located in the eastern Siberian steppes. (Steppe is a term originally applied to the level, treeless, grassy plains in southeastern Russia.)
At first, Esther’s family was assigned to work at a gypsum mine. The men were to work in the mines or run the horse carts back and forth, as Esther’s father did. Her mother and the other women worked with explosives, and her grandmother shoveled piles of gypsum with the elderly. Esther and the other children were sent to work in the potato fields weeding the crop. They lived in huts made of cow dung and clay, sleeping and eating on the floors. Esther’s family had to share their cramped hut with other workers. Each person was rationed one piece of bread and a slice of cheese a day. Occasionally they would be treated to a bowl of weak potato soup.
Once the Polish government began negotiations with Russia, the Polish citizens who had been deported were given the right to move out of the mining camps and closer to the town of Rubtsovsk, where they could perhaps find jobs. However, because of the war, they were not yet permitted to leave Siberia. Esther was ecstatic at the chance to move closer to Rubtsovsk, having once been to its marketplace with her grandmother on a weekend pass from the camp. The family moved into living quarters just outside town with a young couple. Esther’s father found work as a bookkeeper and her mother worked in a bakery. Her grandmother was considered too old to work and stayed home with Esther. Because they were on the outskirts of town, Esther was not eligible to attend the school. On one occasion the Soviet police took Esther’s father away for a night, promising him a house to live in and food for his family if he would act as a spy among all the deportees. Esther’s father refused.
Eventually he gained permission to move his family into their own hut, after which Esther became eligible to attend the town school. She felt excited to be with other children, learn more Russian, and read as many books as she could, since reading was her passion. Esther did not win immediate acceptance by the other children because she had long beautiful braids and they were envious. She begged her mother to cut them off so she would be accepted, a request her mother finally granted.
Shortly after war with Germany was declared, Esther’s father was called away to work near the front lines. Esther stayed behind with her mother and grandmother, and they missed him terribly. They now had to survive on only her mother’s meager income. Winters proved especially difficult, though food was scarce throughout the year. Esther decided to earn money knitting sweaters for those who couldn’t do it for
themselves. Once she knitted a red sweater made from the wool of an old skirt for a woman who had obviously come from a wealthy home before being relocated to Siberia by the government. Esther did this in exchange for milk and potatoes. Although Esther’s mother became good friends with a Polish couple who worked in the new factory and had better wages and living quarters than her own family, she always refused any handouts from them.
The years passed, and Esther entered her teens. She was now quite fluent in Russian and studied all the famous Russian authors. Esther made some good friends, with whom she sang folk songs and even went to see an occasional American movie if the rubles could be spared for the admission price. She participated in poetry recitals and ran for editor of the high school newspaper, her ulterior motive being to place herself in a highly visible office so she would get the attention of a certain boy she wanted to attract. Esther became close to her high school teacher, who encouraged her to enter another poetry recital, but word had come from her father that the Nazis were defeated and he was sending for them to return to Poland. Esther’s mother and grandmother were much grieved to find out that nearly all of the family they left behind in Poland had been killed in Jewish concentration camps. In effect, by being sent to work in Siberia their lives had been spared. Esther was torn between wanting desperately to see her father again and leaving Siberia, which she had adopted as a home for five years.
In March 1946, three days before Esther was to participate in her poetry recital, she and her mother and grandmother boarded the same cattle train on which they had arrived and left for Poland. Esther was fifteen years old when she returned home.
Peasants and “kulaki.”
Because of the abysmal economic conditions in Russia’s past, in the late 1930s there was a high population of peasants throughout the country. The government rounded them up and put them to work in labor camps under near subhuman conditions. Yet as noted earlier, the communist government did not discriminate by social class when choosing the workers for these camps. In fact, a systematic roundup of the upper and middle classes who had been enjoying comfortable lives under the precommunist government forced them as well as the less fortunate to occupy these work camps. These rich peasants were referred to as “kulaki.” In The Endless Steppe Esther Hautzig’s family were at first considered kulaki in the sense that they came from an upper-middle-class background. Though they had been taken from their homes with nothing more than the clothes they could wear and carry, these were still nicer garments than those worn by the common peasants with whom they would find themselves sharing quarters in the Siberian camps. When Esther first enters school, she finds it difficult to make friends with even the better-off peasant girls because in spite of the enforced poverty of her family, she had a fancy hairstyle (braids) and her clothes, though dirty and deteriorating, were of fine quality. Her family, in their desperation for food and necessities eventually sells or trades all of their finer, unnecessary garments and accessories at the open market. After a few years of peasant-like existence in Siberia, Esther and her family can identify other kulaki as they are brought in with their nicer clothes and goods.
Composition and sources
Esther Hautzig attributes the impetus for writing The Endless Steppe to the political figure Adlai Stevenson. In 1958 Stevenson visited Rubtsovsk, Siberia, and published a few articles about his experiences. When Esther read these articles she wrote to Stevenson and shared her own experiences with him. He wrote her back and suggested that she write a book about her five-year stay in the Soviet steppes during World War II. Esther heeded his suggestion and began writing The Endless Steppe in 1959. However, the book was not published until 1968. Hautzig originally submitted the work to publishers as an adult book and received several rejections. It was only when she submitted it as a young-adult/children’s book that it was published.
Although The Endless Steppe is an autobiography, Hautzig states in the opening pages that she changed some of the names of the people in the story. Despite these alterations, Hautzig reports that the portraits of all the people in her book are accurate portrayals of their characters.
Esther Hautzig had begun writing The Endless Steppe in 1959, during immense anti-Soviet sentiments in the United States. Her autobiographical account of life in Siberia during World War II complemented these sentiments in that it was not necessarily a flattering portrait of the Russian government—she describes how the Russians literally tore her family from their home and deported them thousands of miles away to endure horrible living conditions. Although the book was not written with the intent to disparage the Russians, by some accounts, Hautzig’s novel was seen as a testament to the Soviet government’s abuse of its prisoners of war as well as other laborers whom it forced into difficult living conditions.
The Cold War
The term Cold War refers to the competition for international domination that existed between the United States and Russia following World War II. The competition began shortly after the post-World War II Soviet expansion of political influence in Eastern Europe and North Korea. It came to a head in 1962 during the Cuban missile crisis, a confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union that developed over the presence of missile sites in communist Cuba. This island nation, situated near to the Florida coastline, had become a communist country after the success of the Cuban Revolution in 1959 (the year Hautzig began writing The Endless Steppe). It was learned that Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was placing Soviet military missiles there with Castro’s approval, presumably pointed at the U.S. mainland. President John F. Kennedy put pressure on the Soviets by setting up a naval blockade outside Cuba and insisting that Khrushchev remove the missiles. Khrushchev complied and the incident went down in history as a significant victory on the part of the United States in the Cold War. Meanwhile, on the other side of the globe in Southeast Asia, the United States was becoming more and more involved in the war against Vietnamese communists. In 1968, when The Endless Steppe was finally published, the number of U.S. troops in Vietnam reached its peak at 543,000. Within a few years the U.S. withdrawal of troops would serve as a pointed reminder of the West’s ultimate failure to contain communism.
Immediately recognized as an important piece of young-adult literature, The Endless Steppe received several awards, including the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award in 1969 as well as the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award for 1971. It would also become a National Book Award finalist in 1969. There has been some dispute over just how authentic is Hautzig’s language. An article in the New York Times Book Review (May 5, 1968, p. 2) argues bluntly that Hautzig isn’t a writer, suggesting that her words would have rung truer if she had spoken rather than written them. Contrarily another review in the Times Literary Supplement (April 3, 1969, p. 349) argues that the firsthand account is “told with a regard for emotional as well as literal truth,” concluding that from this “magnificent” and “heartening” book that “Mrs. Hautzig is a born writer” (“Facing Life—and Death” in Senick, p. 80). A third review maintained that it is the attention to detail in The Endless Steppe, “the minutiae of existence, which more than anything else makes the emotional impact of the book so forceful” (Rees in Senick, p. 81).
Adelman, Jonathan R. Prelude to the Cold War. Boulder, Colo: Lynne Reinner, 1988.
Davies, Norman, and Anthony Polonsky. Jews in Eastern Poland and the USSR, 1939-46. New York: St. Martin’s, 1991.
Forsyth, James. A History of the Peoples of Siberia. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992.
Hautzig, Esther. The Endless Steppe: Growing Up in Siberia. New York: HarperCollins, 1968.
Rubinstein, Alvin Z. Soviet Foreign Policy since World War II. Cambridge, Mass: Winthrop, 1981.
Senick, Gerard J., ed. Children’s Literature Review. Vol. 22. Detroit: Gale Research, 1991.