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endless steppeThe Endless Steppe
Esther Hautzig

Esther Rudomin was ten years old when, in 1941, she and her family were arrested by the Russians for being ‘capitalists’ and transported to Siberia…

First published in 1968, Esther Hautzig’s memoir has been given a modern makeover by Penguin, as part of their ‘The Originals’ YA series.  My own daughter is around the same age as Esther was when she was exiled, which gives this story an added poignancy for me.  I desperately want her to read this book, as I think she has very little understanding of how fortunate we are here in the UK, living a life of relative affluence and peace.

I found this a very uplifting story, due to Esther Hautzig’s lack of self-pity, her fortitude and resilience. As the child of a cultured and affluent Jewish family, in what was then Poland and is now Lithuania, her wartime years of forced labour and harsh poverty in the Russian Steppe came as a bitter blow. On top of this, she had to contend with separation from her extended family, the death of her grandfather and a life of uncertainty and hardship, in what was essentially an open prison.

Geographically, Siberia has a real pull for me, as I am fascinated by its vastness. I have flown over the Russian Steppe a few times and, even in an aeroplane, it really did seem endless.  After weeks of travelling in a windowless cattle truck, Esther must have felt that she had been sent to the ends of the earth when she finally reached the remote village of Rubtsovsk.

I’m not sure why, but I find myself drawn to books about the former USSR, particularly life under Stalin’s regime.  I found this an interesting companion piece to One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch by Solzhenitsyn.  A more obvious comparison could probably be made to Anne Frank’s Diary, though I kept thinking of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, while I was reading it.  All of these are books which make me value my current freedoms and hope for a lasting peace; as these books show, war* really is a scourge on humanity and the cause of immense suffering.

*extreme ideologies and dictators?!