“The morning it happened — the end of my lovely world — I did not water the lilac bush outside my father’s study.”
The lilt of Esther Hautzig’s memory of exile in Siberia–seared by privation, filth, and loss–keeps an almost magical, storybook intonation. Her cadences are soothing, even when her recollections are barbed.
The World War II poet Keith Douglas abandoned lyricism along with hope: “I see no reason to be either musical or sonorous about things at present,” he wrote to a fellow poet. Lyricism is an expressive vehicle of a past or present that has a future; and Douglas foresaw none. He deliberately took to flat, jarring cadences. (And moderns applauded, much like people in a theater cheering footage of a German pilot being shot down. Douglas had turned on those people in rage.)
Hautzig’s opening sentence with its gentle cadence pulled me in. If she could begin hard memories like one would begin a fairy tale, she must know secrets worth overhearing.
Martin Gilbert wrote of this second world war that part of the scale of its tragedy was loss of memory:
“By far the largest number of those killed, whether in battle or behind the lines, were unknown by name or face except to those few who knew or loved them; yet in many cases … even those who might in later years have remembered a victim were themselves wiped out. Not only forty-six million lives, but the vibrant life and livelihood which they had inherited, and might have left to their descendants, were blotted out: a heritage of work and joy, of struggle and creativity, of learning, hopes, and happiness….’*
This heritage is the secret that whispers on every page of The Endless Steppe–faded from history, but kept whole and handed on in the sheltering love of Esther’s family.
We hear a lot about “bubbles” and how important it is not to live in them–so it is important to read books like these. And it was important to Esther’s mother, when they still lived in the lovely world with the lilac bush, that Esther’s character be formed at a school with ‘children from all economic brackets’.
But Esther’s hope survived the bleakness and sharpness of the Siberian horizon to which she and her family were exiled because her parents and her grandmother were determined to shelter her; to dig or barter or construct–from whatever shred of food or fabric, even of mud, and their own warm breath–a bubble around her dependence. So amidst a cruel atmosphere the pages rustle with small delights: “We laughed today. We were happy over an apple and a piece of meat….”
This sphere around Esther is drawn with communal compassion and courtesy. Though the book records a number of unjust, pitiless encounters, it becomes apparent that Esther and her family would have frozen or starved but for those with homes–big, small, clean, filthy–who took them in and helped them, often with one or two other families. At length, Esther’s parents are able to secure an abandoned hut. It is floorless, with walls of manure, but their own home of any sort has an aspect of luxury. Naturally this cannot be allowed. The powers that be decree that they must take in a one-legged beggar.
Esther is appalled. Esther’s mother is insistent on treating a fellow creature with dignity. They will invite him to their table. He will have the corner where they meant to put the stove. Over time they learn that this man who hardly speaks has read many books, and lost his leg in a Siberian prison. “Soon he began to wash himself, and to comb his beard. And to carry himself with dignity.”
While the language and treatment of this book are appropriate for middle grade or young adult readers, many events, including the fate of the exiled Germans at the end of the story, are stark. And the story lacks Jesus’ cry of, “Father, forgive them.” I would wish to eventually balance this book with one like The Hiding Place**.
In Grey is the Color of Hope** Irina Ratushinskaya tells of another young girl, with her sister and grandmother, packed off to Siberia. The grandmother, judging that this was the only childhood the girls would ever have, withheld from them the knowledge of what was happening: they went off on a rare train journey to Siberia laughing. (When they arrived, they were led out to stand knee deep in the snow while a sentence of “eternal exile” was read to them. The grandmother smiled. “They think that they are masters of eternity?”–A beautiful quip that is still being overheard by younger generations.)
With similarly traditional wisdom, Esther’s grandmother and parents were determined to give Esther a childhood. Yet it was of a more magical construction than the breath of three people, in their vanishing heritage. Many kind gestures shelter these few surviving pieces of a family, and shape a translucent possibility into history. All the compassionate, sacrificial people who cross paths with her sacrificial, brave father, mother, and grandmother help to give Esther a time of extreme hardship as a dipping wand. Over the frostbiting, desperately hungry, toilsome landscape of exile she can blow her own bubbles–afloat with fragile images of “work and joy, of struggle and creativity, of learning, hopes and happiness.” The collision when her memories come into ours is not painless. But it is not spirit-shattering: it is love-aspirating, hope-sheltering. Speech-lilting.
I made some broken notes in my journal when I stayed up late to finish the book last year. They begin: “Only in prayer can a full response to such a book be poured out–without finding adequate words.” And they end: “Don’t forget.”
Esther conveyed something of her heritage to me in this memoir. I am still carrying it with prayer–especially, a prayer that I might be among those whose gestures shelter love, and help to turn hardships into dipping wands.
* from The Second World War, quoted in the The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Vol 2
**These books are more difficult and advanced.