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Esther Hautzig, 79

Memoirist wrote 'The Endless Steppe'

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By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 8, 2009

Esther Hautzig, 79, whose memoir of growing up in exile in Siberia, "The Endless Steppe," has become a classic of children's literature, died Nov. 1 at a New York City hospital. She had Alzheimer's disease.

Mrs. Hautzig had been born into comfortable circumstances in present-day Vilnius, Lithuania, then part of Poland, where her family ran a jewelry store. In 1941, after the Soviet Union and Germany signed a nonaggression pact that put Vilnius under Soviet control, Mrs. Hautzig's family was arrested for being capitalists. At 10, she was shipped with her parents and grandparents in a cattle car to the Siberian city of Rubtsovsk.

She spent all of World War II there, attending school and learning to live with hunger, privation and loss. More than 20 years later, after Mrs. Hautzig had settled in the United States, she wrote "The Endless Steppe."

She wrote her book for children when publishers told her that her story would not appeal to adults. It won several awards and was acclaimed as a worthy successor to Anne Frank's powerful memoir, "The Diary of a Young Girl."

In the book, Mrs. Hautzig told a gritty tale of exile and survival. As a child, she adapted to her new surroundings surprisingly well, learning Russian and attending a rigorous school that, as a New York Times reviewer wrote in 1968, "would make a New York City mother envious."

She wrote of trying to make money by selling books of Russian poetry, recalling that one man thumbed through a book before deciding not to buy it because the pages were not the right thickness to roll cigarettes.

The struggles of those wartime years affected her family in different ways. Her grandmother lamented a lost world of servants and grand houses, her father was sent to fight in the Soviet army and her mother worked in a gypsum mine and bakery. Her grandfather died at 72 in a forced labor camp.

"We spent nearly six years in Siberia," Mrs. Hautzig wrote in "Remember Who You Are: Stories About Being Jewish," a 1990 collection of childhood reflections. "I went to school there, made friends, learned how to survive no matter what life brought."

After the war, her family reunited in Lodz, Poland, discovering that their forced exile had probably saved their lives. Most of their relatives who had remained in Vilnius (then called Vilna) had perished in the Holocaust. Of the 57,000 Jewish residents of Vilnius at the beginning of the war, only 3,000 survived.

Esther Rudomin was born Oct. 18, 1930, and had a charmed early childhood in a prosperous and cultured city.

"Everything I do comes from Vilna," she told the Jewish publication Forward in 2002. "I am a guide to Vilna, in absentia."

She reunited with her parents and grandmother in Lodz after the war, then came to the United States on her own in 1947, meeting Viennese concert pianist Walter Hautzig on the ship across the Atlantic. She completed high school in Brooklyn, N.Y., and attended New York's Hunter College before marrying Hautzig in 1950. Her husband, who taught for many years at Baltimore's Peabody conservatory, survives, along with two children and three grandchildren.

Mrs. Hautzig became skilled at handicrafts in Siberia, learning, among other things, to dye curtains with onion skins. While working in New York publishing houses in the 1950s, she wrote the first of a series of children's books about cooking, decorating and making gifts for little or no money.

In the late 1950s, Mrs. Hautzig wrote a letter to two-time presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson, who had written about visiting Rubtsovsk and other Russian cities. He encouraged her to write about her youth, which ultimately resulted in "The Endless Steppe."

Mrs. Hautzig later translated works from Yiddish and continued to write books for young people about her early life in Vilnius. During her sole return visit to her home town in 1993, she said she "had a strong feeling of seeing the dead walking among the living."

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