Esther Hautzig wrote one of the most beautiful, unique contributions to WWII children’s literature—The Endless Steppe. It was a story based on her own childhood, banished with her family from Poland to Siberia because her father was denounced as a capitalist. When she passed away earlier this month, one of my bookselling colleagues, Rondi Brower from Blackwood & Brouwer Booksellers in Kinderhook, N.Y., shared a personal tribute to Ms. Hautzig, and I’ve asked if we might share it with ShelfTalker readers.
Because ShelfTalker is a booksellers’ forum, we like to share the platform with guest columnists when we encounter something especially beautiful or funny that is relevant to the interests and concerns of children’s booksellers at large.
For readers who aren’t familiar with Ms. Hautzig and her marvelous books, here’s a snippet from her Wikipedia entry:
"Esther Hautzig (née Rudomin) ([…] born October 18, 1930, died November 1, 2009) is an American writer, best known for her award-winning book The Endless Steppe (1968). She was born in Vilna, Poland (Vilnius, Lithuania today). Her childhood was interrupted by the beginning of World War II and the conquest in 1941 of eastern Poland by Soviet troops. Her family was uprooted and deported to Rubstovsk, Siberia, where Esther spent the next five years in harsh exile. The Endless Steppe is an autobiographical account of those years in Siberia. After the end of the war, Esther and her family moved back to Poland when she was 15. She married Walter Hautzig, a concert pianist, and had two children, David and Deborah, one of whom (Deborah) grew up to be a children’s author." (The image of Esther Hautzig comes from her HarperCollins author page; I couldn’t find the photographer’s name for attribution; will happily add it if anyone has the info.)
And now, here’s Rondi Brower’s lovely piece about Esther Hautzig. Thank you so much, Rondi, for writing it and sharing it with our readers:
I hadn’t thought of Esther Hautzig lately. It has been several years since I’ve seen her, maybe not since the Jewish Publication Society reissued her translation of The Seven Good Years and Other Stories of I.L. Peretz (2004?). I first met her in the early 1990’s, when she did a book signing at a Jewish Book Fair I was providing books for in Hudson, N.Y. She and her husband Walter had a house in Columbia County and they came up from New York City. She was a vibrant, fun woman, with an inner light, a spirit I can’t describe, but something very special. It was always a joy to speak with her.
Recently, I have been thinking about survivors. What is it that makes it possible for some people to get up every day and go on, no matter how terrible their surroundings or situation or prospects? And not just continue, but succeed and find joy in life. It started when I read David Kherdian’s book about his mother’s experiences during the Armenian genocide (The Road from Home: The Story of an Armenian Girl, HarperCollins). Then last week I listened to Jennifer Roy’s Yellow Star (Marshall Cavendish, Recorded Books), the true story of her Aunt Sylvie, one of the eight child survivors of the Lodz Ghetto. Where did these children find enough inner strength? How did life continue to have meaning? How did they manage to put it all behind them and LIVE and find some happiness? I don’t think I could do it, but I am inspired by the stories of people who have.
So it turns out I have been thinking of Esther. Because she was another one of those amazing people. She was one of the "lucky" Polish Jews. The Russians sent her family to Siberia for the crime of being capitalists before the Nazis could send them to concentration camps for being Jews. She told her own story beautifully in The Endless Steppe (HarperCollins). She experienced cruelty, horror, and starvation, yet still managed to survive, and thrive. She gave us beauty, laughter, light and literature — gifts to treasure.
Here’s an obituary, and here are Esther’s books still available in print:
The Endless Steppe (Harper digest size) 9780064405775 $5.99
The Endless Steppe (Harper mm – teen) 9780064470278 $5.99
A Gift for Mama (Puffn) 9780140385519 $4.99
Remember Who You Are: Stories About Being Jewish (Jewish Publication Society of America) 9780827606944 $16.95
If anyone has memories of Esther Hautzig and her books to share, please do. And here’s to all survivors — may the inspiration of their efforts and courage never meet an indifferent heart.
I believe that Esther Hautzig also organized the publicity for the initial release of Betsy’s Wedding, by Maud Hart Lovelace (recently reissued by HarperCollins). She created a bride doll which traveled the country (and currently resides in the Blue Earth County Historical Museum in Mankato, MN), organized a luncheon, and created a little booklet celebrating Betsy’s Wedding. I think she had some fun with it! The Endless Steppe is still residing on my bookshelf, looking very worn.
I loved The Endless Steppe. It’s one of those books I read so many times as a kid that I felt like I lived inside it: the gauze curtains dyed yellow with onionskin, the unraveled and re-knit sweaters, “An awesome dream Tatyana’s dreaming…” Yitgadal v’yitkadash sh’mey raba…
These are the things I remembered, too. Those things and the trip on the train. How Esther’s grandmother selected a place near the wall for the family to spend the night when the train stopped. I also was interested in how Esther’s family lived in Poland. I was adopted, but my biological mother’s father came from a family of German engineers whose family homestead dated back to 1640. It is a hotel now. Her family situation at the beginning of the book gave me insight into how they must have lived. I gave my original copy 1968 copy of this book to a girl I baby sat when I was 15. I rediscovered it again when my son was young. We used to read books together every night when he was growing up. I think I might have heard reference to Ms Hautzig the other day on NPR. I didn’t catch the entire thing, just something about a book by a Lithuanian Jew who chronicled her experiences in a work camp in Siberia. That’s what made me look for her today.
Me too, I read it as a child at school in England in the 70s.
It had an indelible effect on me and that passage in particular is imprinted on my memory.
I could see and smell that hut, and the fortitude and joie de vivre of the mother bringing beauty to shabbiness.
And the descriptions and sense of desolate beauty of the Steppes haunted me far more than similar works from more famous Russian authors.
Im saddened selfishly by her passing, my youth has long passed and this is another marker.
I have been reading The Endless Steppe since I was a teenager. I grew up to see the classy book in my father’s drawer. I have picked up the book again and I read chapter 1 yesterday so I decided to google more info about this great author. So painful to learn that she has gone to meet the Lord.
Esther Hautzig was my mother. Is my mother. I’ve never come across this before. Thank you to all the people who wrote about her so lovingly. Marina, I wish I could meet you. I miss my mother every minute of every day and my only comfort is having been privileged enough to have had her. I still do. I am infused by her courage and humor and deep love of life, despite all she went through.