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Author Topic: Esther Hautzig, Author of Wartime Survival Tale, Dies at 79  (Read 2292 times)


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« on: 4 November 2009, 20:10:11 »


Esther Hautzig, an author of children’s books whose true-life tale of surviving World War II in the labor camps of Siberia, told in a guileless teenager’s voice, became a classic of young people’s literature, died on Sunday in Manhattan. She was 79 and lived in Manhattan.

Her death, at New York Presbyterian Hospital, was caused by congestive heart failure and complications of Alzheimer’s disease, her daughter, Deborah Hautzig, said.

Mrs. Hautzig was moved to write about her family’s war ordeal after reading articles in the 1950s by Adlai Stevenson, the unsuccessful presidential candidate, about his visit to Rubtsovsk, the city in south-central Siberia where Mrs. Hautzig, her parents and a grandmother spent the war. She wrote to Stevenson, and in his reply he urged her to turn her impressions into a book.

The book, “The Endless Steppe,” tells of the charmed, prosperous life of Esther Rudomin, a young girl living in her native Vilna, then part of Poland and now in Lithuania — “a city of lovely old houses hugging the hills and each other,” Mrs. Hautzig writes — until German bombs rained down, spelling “the end of my lovely world.”

As part of a pact between Germany and the Soviet Union, the Red Army occupied Vilna, now Vilnius. Mrs. Hautzig describes how in June 1941 Soviet soldiers stormed into her home and humiliated her parents.

“Within a single morning, on a perfect June day, my young father had become an old man,” Mrs. Hautzig writes.

The soldiers arrested the Rudomins, telling them, “You are capitalists and therefore enemies of the people.” The Rudomins and Esther’s maternal grandparents were deported by cattle car to the “endless steppe” of Siberia.

Mrs. Hautzig’s father was soon drafted into the Soviet Army, and her grandfather died in Siberia. But Esther, her mother and grandmother spent the next five years in forced-labor camps, working in gypsum mines and at construction sites in the bitter cold with barely enough food and clothing. Infusing her work with a child’s sense of wonder, she described the delight of washing herself with a rare cake of soap and the deep pleasure she took in a simple drink of cool water.

Mrs. Hautzig’s daughter said that her mother had had a knack for turning the squalid into the bearable.

“In Siberia she wanted to make curtains for the unheated, filthy hut she was living in,” Deborah Hautzig said, “so she got gauze from a friend whose father worked in the hospital and dyed the gauze yellow by boiling onion peel.”

The Soviet occupation of Vilna, seen at the time as a calamity, may have saved her entire family from death. After the arrests, the Nazis invaded Lithuania and slaughtered 190,000 of that country’s Jews, or about 90 percent of a Lithuanian-Jewish community known for its learning and culture. Among the dead were many of Mrs. Hautzig’s aunts, uncles and cousins.

After the war Mrs. Hautzig, who was born on Oct. 18, 1930, returned to Poland with her parents and grandmother, spent several months as a refugee in Sweden and then came over alone to New York on a student visa in 1947. Aboard the ocean liner Drottningholm she met the Vienna-born pianist Walter Hautzig, who was returning from a concert tour. They married in 1950.

Mr. Hautzig survives her. Besides their daughter, Deborah, Mrs. Hautzig is also survived by a son, David, and three grandchildren.

Mrs. Hautzig attended James Madison High School in Brooklyn and enrolled in Hunter College, though she never finished because a professor there told her that her accent would disqualify her from becoming a teacher. Instead, she took a job as a secretary at the publisher G. P. Putnam’s Sons and later promoted children’s books.

Her first books were for children: “Let’s Cook Without Cooking” (1955), which offered recipes to help latchkey children prepare meals without an oven, and “Let’s Make Presents” (1962), offering tips for making inexpensive gifts like paper flowers. Both books were laced with the skills she learned by trying to brighten her life in Siberia.

Encouraged by Stevenson’s letter, she had begun setting down memories of her turbulent childhood. In 1968 “The Endless Steppe” was published by what is now HarperCollins. It was a finalist for a National Book Award in children’s literature. Soon it found a place on school and library lists of recommended books for teenagers. The Washington Post said it affirmed “the resilience of the human spirit.”

Mrs. Hautzig went on to write several others books — some based on her childhood in Vilna — including “A Gift for Mama” (1987); “Remember Who You Are: Stories About Being Jewish” (1990); “Riches” (1992), a Jewish folk tale; “A Picture of Grandmother” (2002); and about a dozen others. She also translated stories by the Yiddish writer I. L. Peretz.

Mrs. Hautzig returned to Vilna in 1993 to visit the university where an uncle, Ela-Chaim Cunzer, died in 1944, his grave unknown. With the help of a student at the Vilnius University, Mrs. Hautzig unearthed not only her uncle’s college application with his photograph but also the masterwork of his short life, his handwritten 49-page master’s thesis on mathematics. She persuaded the University of Chicago to accept it for its library and Web site.

“At least here is proof, some more proof of how people lived and what they did, not that they died,” she told The New York Times in 1996. “He really was a student. He really worked hard. He really wrote this dissertation. And it resulted in something which is still here.”

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