"Haunting and spellbinding" is how School Library Journal critic Carol Fazioli summed up The Endless Steppe, a book that made Hautzig's name in literary circles. "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 (Crown, 1990).
Most of Hautzig's relatives who were not sent to Siberia were killed by the Nazis "in street actions," she stated 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."
Under her maiden and married names, Esther Rudomin Hautzig wrote a variety of books, many related directly or indirectly to her childhood experiences or influences. Many of her early books were on home economics for children, giving detailed instructions on making crafts and food with little money or experience.
She actively promoted her Jewish heritage in Remember Who You Are, Riches (HarperCollins,1992), and she translated several stories from Yiddish. Her concern that children be exposed to other languages resulted in a "Four Languages" series, books all containing text in English, Spanish, French, and Russian.
Born in Vilna, Poland in 1930 (now Vilnius, Lithuania), Hautzig came from a prosperous Jewish family that owned a jewelry store in Vilna. But her childhood coincided with the beginning of World War II. In 1941, Soviet Union occupied that portion of Poland and arrested her family for being capitalists, or "enemies of the state." Forced from their home and friends, Hautzig and her family were deported Siberia.
Hautzig was lucky enough to live to tell her story about persecution by the Soviets. At the end of the war, at the age of 15, she and her family moved back to Poland. In May 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 and had two children, David and Deborah.
Naturally, Hautzig brought to the U.S. memories of two divergent childhoods: one of a "lovely world" in Poland, the other of cold and deprivation in the Siberian steppes.
Hautzig took classes at Hunter College (now Hunter College of the City University of New York), but she always knew she wanted to write. In order to be around books and people who wrote them, she took a job as secretary in a publishing house, eventually becoming publicity assistant for the Children's Book Council and later director of children's book promotion for Thomas Y. Crowell Company. "I entered publishing in 1951," she once stated, "and have been working at it ever since."
In Hautzig's many appearances at conferences and classrooms, she encouraged people of all ages, especially young people, to keep a journal and record their stories. She believed that all stories were unique to the individuals writing them and each life story important in its own way.
... Esther's life story filled my thoughts, my days and my head for years following, and reminded me to always care for others and not to take my life in rural United States for granted. Esther wrote in a way that made me feel as if I had somehow managed to form a personal friendship with her.
In 1995, I was able to speak with Esther on the phone, and I have never forgotten that wonderful conversation. Talking with her (she still has a very noticable accent) was as if the book itself came to life, because I realized I was actually visiting with the woman who was the couragous child in the book. Esther's writing encouraged me to be thankful, to be grateful, to be kind, and to never give up. I majored in journalism in college, and though I have never had such an extreme happening in my lifetime, I hope to eventually put down in words something that will touch other's lives as Esther Hautzig touched mine.