The Endless Steppe

The Endless Steppe: Growing Up in Siberia - Esther Hautzig

An excellent introduction to children about World War II. It is written from the perspective of a Jewish 10-year old from Vilna. Vilnius, as it is called today, is now the capital of Lithuania. In 1941 it was part of Poland. The book is an autobiographical account of the author's childhood in Siberia.

I was impressed by the amount of history incorporated into this slim book: deportation of the Jews to Siberia, three years spent in a small village on the Russian steppes, the events of the war in Russia and finally "Polish" repatriation. It is all written tastefully for the ears of young readers. It is exciting: It is about getting friends, winning a school contest and a Siberian snowstorm. If focuses upon those themes that are of interest to young children: familial bonds and how they change as we grow older and become more independent, school and getting friends, clothes and hairstyles and how to "fit in", learning a foreign language, discovering literature and intellectual awareness, becoming one of a group, seeking acceptance and quite simply growing up...and that first boyfriend too. The book states what happens in the war but its main perspective is a child's life during that war. The events are related honestly; you don't always get the boyfriend you heart is set on or win the contest, do you?

The book radiates optimism and human resilience, but never is the truth shied from. Two examples: after the war, when the Jews returned, again in cattle cars, they are denounced. Even after the war, the Jews are not welcome! The second example is a woman in the Siberian camp who never had to work; it remained a mystery as to how she got food. An adult may guess why, but that is not discussed. Nothing is misrepresented, but neither are the details sordidly portrayed. The facts are stated and the story continues.

The language used by the author is simple, but actually beautiful in all its simplicity. Try this sentence: "Grandmother and I had this in common, we were 'very' people - either very sad or very gay, with nothing in between." (page 71) The story is exciting and there is humor.

I think it is wrong to state that this book is for adults. It isn't; its prime audience is children of about ten years of age. It is written for them and it is written beautifully. It is not overloaded with historical facts and dates or gruesome details. Why shouldn't a book be written just for this age group?! It is lovely and educational at the same time.