Esther Rudomin (Esther Rudomin) Hautzig (1930-)
"Haunting and spellbinding" is how School Library Journal critic Carol Fazioli summed up Esther Rudomin Hautzig's National Book Award-nominated autobiography The Endless Steppe: Growing Up in Siberia, a book that made Hautzig's name in literary circles. Polish by birth, American by nationality, Hautzig suffered persecution at the hands of the Soviets and lived to tell of it. Immigrating to the United States, she went into publishing, writing not only about her experiences in The Endless Steppe and in Remember Who You Are: Stories about Being Jewish, but also authoring books about home economics in titles such as Let's Cook without Cooking: Fifty-five Recipes without a Stove, Let's Make Presents: 100 Easy-to-Make Gifts under $1.00, Redecorating Your Room for Practically Nothing, and Life with Working Parents: Practical Hints for Everyday Situations. Also, writing with a young audience in mind, Hautzig published A Gift for Mama, Riches, and A Picture of Grandmother. Hautzig's award-winning titles also include a series on languages in the classroom, in the park, and at home, the "Four Languages" series.
Yet The Endless Steppe remains the book for which she is best known. In that memoir, she tells of her early life as the daughter of well-to-do Polish Jews, born in Vilna, Poland, in 1930 (the city is now Vilnius, Lithuania). When she was ten years old, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany signed a non-aggression pact, invaded her Polish homeland, and partitioned it between them. She, her parents, and her grandparents were arrested by the Soviets—because, being wealthy, they were considered capitalists and therefore "enemies of the State"—and sent to Siberia. "After six weeks in cattle cars, we were deposited in Rubtsovsk, a tiny village in the Altai region of Siberia," Hautzig wrote in her introduction to Remember Who You Are: Stories about Being Jewish. Hautzig grew up on the desolate steppes of Siberia and learned to love them.
The Nazis broke their alliance with the Soviets by invading Russia in 1941. At that time, all the Polish prisoners were given amnesty, but because of the war, they could not return home. This was perhaps just as well; the German army occupied Vilna in the summer of 1941, and most of her relatives who were not sent to Siberia were killed by the Nazis "in street actions," stated Hautzig in Remember Who You Are, "or slaughtered in Ponar," the killing ground outside Vilna where people were taken to dig their own graves and then shot into them. "Except for two of my mother's cousins, an aunt, and the child of a cousin in Kovno, none survived the Holocaust."
"We spent nearly six years in Siberia," Hautzig recalled in Remember Who You Are. "I went to school there, made friends, learned how to survive no matter what life brought. Mama worked at first in a gypsum mine, later in a bakery, at construction sites. . . . Papa was drafted into the army and fought along with Russian soldiers. Grandfather died in a slave labor camp, in another area of Siberia, hauling lumber at age seventy-two. Grandmother was with us in Rubtsovsk all through the war and returned with Mama and me to Poland in 1946. We met Papa in the industrial city of Lodz after he was released from the army."
The years immediately following the Second World War were traumatic for Hautzig. The Rudomins decided to stay in Lodz rather than return to Vilna, which, as part of Lithuania, was now in the Soviet Union. "I had forgotten what life was like 'back there,'" wrote Hautzig in The Endless Steppe. "Beautiful things and lovely cars and delicious food had become dim memories; life in Poland, even our home, had become a fantasy. Reality was . . . in Siberia; I could cope with reality." The year 1946 was a time "of untold grief and misery for me," Hautzig told Lee Bennett Hopkins in an interview for More Books by More People. "I was scared of crowds, noise—scared of my own shadow. I refused to venture out into the street for a long time. Perhaps I expected to be in some sort of heaven after the Siberian years. Instead I was thrust into a war-torn, largely bombed-out city where everyone still alive seemed, to my frightened eyes, to be in a desperate hurry to make up for lost time."
After only nine months in post-war Poland, the family moved to Sweden to await permission to immigrate to the United States. Esther's unhappiness deepened; she was "thoroughly miserable and then totally unhinged" when a close friend who had survived the Nazi occupation of Lodz committed suicide, she wrote in Remember Who You Are. Finally, in May of 1947, the Rudomins sent their daughter off alone to New York, an uncle having arranged a student visa. While en route Esther met Walter Hautzig, an Austrian-born American concert pianist, whom she married in 1950. "I entered publishing in 1951," she once stated, "and have been working at it ever since."
Many of Hautzig's early books are craft books for children; they give detailed instructions on how to make gifts or food with very little money or experience. For instance, her first book, Let's Cook without Cooking, gives fifty-five recipes that do not require a stove. These frugal methods arose partly out of Hautzig's Siberian experiences, when she and her family had to make do with so little. "One book I had written in the late sixties was called Redecorating Your Room for Practically Nothing," Hautzig once commented. "I had a letter from a girl in Colorado two years ago in which she said, 'Did you write a book called Redecorating Your Room for Practically Nothing because you dyed curtains with onion peels in Siberia?,'" an incident Hautzig recounted in The Endless Steppe. "She was so on target," Hautzig continued, "much more than people who say, 'Oh, I didn't realize you were the same person who wrote those craft books. How . . . well, strange.' I keep thinking, 'It's not strange! Everything I do comes from me.'"
"I'm frugal," Hautzig added, "and I think I'm frugal because I didn't have. I don't believe in waste, and I believed in recycling maybe before the word had been invented—in '58 or '59, when I started writing Let's Make Presents: 100 Easy-to-Make Gifts under $1.00. I never throw anything out, because something can always be made of something else. I still save ribbons and paper. . . . I can easily afford a new roll of gift-wrapping paper, but why just crumple something up and throw it out when it's perfectly good and I can save part of it? I think my craft books have a lot to do with me as a person, with my training as a child by my teachers and my mother and my grandmother to make presents."
The Endless Steppe began to take form in the late 1950s, when Hautzig read a series of articles about Russia, which included a visit to Rubtsovsk, that Adlai Stevenson, the noted politician, published in the New York Times. "I wrote a three-page, single-spaced, typed letter to him about my own experiences in Rubtsovsk, and he answered me," Hautzig explained to Hopkins. Stevenson's response encouraged Hautzig to begin the work, which took nine years to complete. It was published as a children's book in 1968—publishers felt that the work would not appeal to an adult audience—and has remained in print ever since, winning a National Book Award nomination and many other literary prizes. Reviewing the title in Emergency Librarian, Valerie White noted that this "story of courageous determination, faith and a quest for knowledge is based on the author's own war-time experiences. . . . Even under horrific conditions the human spirit perseveres." Horn Book's Virginia Haviland also found much to like in the memoir, describing The Endless Steppe as a "rare, affecting, and deepening reading experience," and one that "will take its place with Anne Frank's diary." Fazioli in School Library Journal found the book "up-lifting," detailing as it does the "strength of both the human spirit and family bonds."
Hautzig revealed to Horn Book that despite The Endless Steppe's success, "the only time when I am really, truly happy that I have written it is when letters come from young people, and old people, and middle-aged people, to tell me how much it has meant to them. The letters prove to me that the book has meant different things to different people, and the same things to all the people, too, and I take great pleasure in answering them. I am always amused, perhaps maliciously, when I get letters from adults—and I do, many—from the very people the adult-trade editors thought would not be interested in the book. But I am happiest when the letters and comments come from children." Hautzig also reflected, "The numbers of children who read a book are somehow immaterial in the long scheme of things. It is the effect that a book has even on the smallest number of children—even on one child—that counts."
Since The Endless Steppe was published, Hautzig has translated stories by I. L. Peretz, considered one of the founders of Jewish literature written in Yiddish. Again, she traces her interest in these stories to her years in Siberia. One of the most influential of such tales, she once explained, was "Bontche the Silent," the story of a very poor man who lives through a miserable life without complaint and eventually goes to heaven, where he is rewarded with anything he wants. It turns out that the only thing he asks for is "a warm roll with fresh butter every morning." "I thought of Bontche all the years I was in Siberia," Hautzig recalled, "so there again is something that connects all of me: Siberia, and my childhood in Poland, and my life in America, and having and not having and having again, and still when I want something truly comforting, it's a piece of bread, and tea, and sugar."
Hautzig discusses more of the people who influenced her in Remember Who You Are: Stories about Being Jewish, published as an adult trade book but also recommended by critics for young adults. The collection consists of a series of short sketches about the people in her life. She writes of her aunt Margola, who died because she refused to leave her mother in a line of people marked for immediate death rather than stand, as ordered by the SS, with those to be shipped to a labor camp in Estonia; her friend Heniek, who survived the ghetto and concentration camps only to commit suicide soon after the war's end; and other friends and survivors who lead happy and productive lives in America and Israel. Some of the twenty stories in Remember Who You Are are incredibly uplifting and even funny. "Mrs. S" tells of the thousands of Jews saved by Sempo Sugihara, the Japanese Consul in Lithuania, and "Ada and Eddy" tells of other Jewish lives saved by righteous gentiles. A contributor for Voice of Youth Advocates found these stories to be "beautifully written, sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes joyous, but always illustrative of the importance of maintaining one's self-respect and values in the face of adversity." Reviewing the same title in Publishers Weekly, a contributor felt that these "deceptively casual, gracefully written sketches reverberate with heartbreak and courage."
"People who have read The Endless Steppe and then Remember Who You Are," Hautzig once stated, "say that they are like two bookends. They're not written in the same way, and they may have been intended for different audiences, but I think one supplements the other. If I were to do a real sequel to The Endless Steppe, it might be a different book."
Hautzig has also written nonfiction and fiction specifically for children in several books, including On the Air, the picture book A Gift for Mama, the 1992 award-winning Riches, and the 2002 A Picture of Grandmother. Hautzig introduces the basic practices of producing a television newscast with her On the Air, a "straightforward introduction," according to Booklist's Ilene Cooper. With photographic illustrations by her son, David, the book focuses on a television station in New York state; she describes the jobs and talents needed for a number of the staff positions for such a news show. "For young non-fiction readers who 'just want a good book,' this is a likely candidate," wrote Kathryn Pierson Jennings in the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books. Hautzig's chapter book A Gift for Mama on the other hand, uses the home crafts she herself learned as a child. Young Sara is tired of making her own gifts all the time for every birthday or holiday. And when she sees a pair of black satin slippers in a store window, she knows they will make the perfect present for Mother's Day. The problem is, how to earn the money for them? Sara develops a plan to work and earn enough money for the slippers which she thinks will show her mother how much she loves her.
In Riches, Hautzig once again mines her geographical and cultural past in "a parable of giving," according to Megan McDonald, writing in Five Owls. An old Polish couple, Samuel and Chaya-Rivka, have worked hard for over half a century in their dry goods shop and have also raised a family. After so many years of toil, Samuel begins to wonder if there is something more to life. They have plenty of money and their children are taking over the shop, but he and his wife are now concerned about spiritual matters, wondering what they can do to please God. Seeking the advice of a rabbi in Vilna, Samuel is told to leave his shop behind and take to the roads. For three months, he becomes a horse and cart driver, charging nothing of his customers and driving about the countryside while his wife is at home studying her holy books in peace. In these books, she reads of good deeds and charity done by great holy men; at the same time, Samuel is actually doing such deeds, mistaken for a holy man. He gives of his time, not his money, and thereby learns a valuable lesson: God is served best when a person gives of himself or herself. "Spare as a parable," wrote George Ella Lyon in the New York Times Book Review, "Riches is a story of transformation." McDonald went on to note that Hautzig's prose is "clear" and "honest," giving the tale "a quiet, simple tone and sav[ing] it from becoming purely didactic." For McDonald, Samuel's "transformation is one of insight, and the riches gained are those measured on the inside." A critic for Kirkus Reviews called the novella "a gentle setting for a precious nugget of wisdom," while Betsy Hearne, writing in the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, praised Hautzig's "smooth" style, further noting that a "number of folkloric elements benefit the plot."
With A Picture of Grandmother, Hautzig returns to the familiar territory of Vilna, Poland, just prior to the outbreak of the Second World War, in a chapter book novel. Sara, the protagonist in A Gift for Mama, is a young Jewish girl growing up in a well-educated, affluent family. An invitation from an uncle in the United States to Sara's mother and grandmother to visit the 1939 World's Fair in New York opens up a family secret for the young girl: it seems that her grandmother is actually her step-grandmother; the biological grandmother died in childbirth. Sara finally finds out the truth from an aunt. Upset at first, Sara finally comes to accept what she sees as a deception. But, as critics noted, the real story here is in the evocation of a lost time and place. Sara lovingly describes her family, their fashions, jewelry, and even their household possessions. Vilna also is a character in the book: Sara plans to be a guide to the city when she grows up. Yet this pleasant and secure world in which Sara lives is on the verge of being destroyed, and most of her family along with it, but Hautzig does not mention the Holocaust in her novel. As a critic for Publishers Weekly noted, "It may be impossible for readers to experience the story that Hautzig tells without sensing the imminent shadow of that which she leaves unsaid." Not all reviewers were won over with Hautzig's tale. Writing in School Library Journal, Amy Lilien-Harper thought it was a "slight story"; however, Hazel Rochman, writing in Booklist, found it "an important addition to history and Holocaust collections."
"I receive many, many letters each year," Hautzig once commented. "Almost all of them ask about my life after the war. Many say, in one way or another: 'I feel so guilty when I read your books because my troubles seem so unimportant.' Which they are not—a home destroyed by fire, illness or divorce in the family, troubles with friends in school, whatever. . . . And so I write back almost immediately and say, 'You're never to feel guilty! Your troubles are YOURS and mine were mine and you cannot compare them. Everyone's story is unique. Keep a journal and write down your story, whatever it may be.'"
Hautzig further noted, "What I always wanted and loved to do was write. I did not expect to be an AUTHOR! Whether I write craft books, or cookbooks, or picture books or translations, they are all part of ME and I could not have written any of them without having lived in and written about Siberia, and Vilna, and translated from Yiddish. . . . Wondrous things can happen each day, to be savored and shared with others."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Volume 1, Beacham Publishing (Osprey, FL), 1990, pp. 391-396.
Children's Literature Review, Volume 22, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1992.
Hautzig, Esther Rudomin, The Endless Steppe: Growing Up in Siberia, Crowell (New York, NY), 1968.
Hautzig, Esther Rudomin, introduction to Remember Who You Are: Stories about Being Jewish, Crown (New York, NY), 1990, pp. ix-xvii.
Hopkins, Lee Bennett, More Books by More People: Interviews with Sixty-five Authors of Books for Children, Citation Press (New York, NY), 1974, pp. 208-215.
Something about the Author Autobiography Series, Volume 15, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1993.
Booklist, January 1, 1977; February 1, 1992, Ilene Cooper, review of On the Air, p. 1024; December 1, 1992, p. 670; October 1, 2002, Hazel Rochman, review of A Picture of Grandmother, p. 325.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, March, 1992, Kathryn Pierson Jennings, review of On the Air, pp. 180-181; January, 1993, Betsy Hearne, review of Riches, pp. 147-148.
Emergency Librarian, January-February, 1991, Valerie White, review of The Endless Steppe, p. 63.
Five Owls, March, 1993, Megan McDonald, review of Riches, p. 92.
Horn Book, December, 1969, Virginia Haviland, review of The Endless Steppe; October, 1970, Esther Rudomin Hautzig, "'The Endless Steppe'—For Children Only?," pp. 461-468; November-December, 1980, pp. 350-356; August, 1981, pp. 423-424; March-April, 1985, pp. 181-182.
Jerusalem Report, David B. Green, December 2, 2002, "Living and Dying: A Primer."
Kirkus Reviews, October 1, 1992, review of Riches, p. 1255; August 15, 2002, review of A Picture of Grandmother, p. 1225.
New York Times Book Review, November 4, 1973; December 27, 1992, George Ella Lyon, review of Riches, p. 19.
Publishers Weekly, February 17, 1969; May 8, 1981, p. 254; March 30, 1990, review of Remember Who You Are, p. 48; September 16, 2002, review of A Picture of Grandmother, pp. 68-69.
School Library Journal, May, 1981, p. 64; March, 1985, p. 170; February, 1987, p. 80; February, 1992, Judie Porter, review of On the Air, p. 100; October, 2002, Amy Lilien-Harper, review of A Picture of Grandmother, p. 112; November, 2003, Carol Fazioli, review of The Endless Steppe, p. 82.
Voice of Youth Advocates, December, 1990, review of Remember Who You Are.
Brief BiographiesBiographies: Bob Graham (1942-) Biography - Awards to Francis Hendy Biography - Born to SewEsther Rudomin (Esther Rudomin) Hautzig (1930-) Biography - Career, Awards, Honors, Writings, Sidelights - Personal, Member