Blogging about our nonfiction unit of study reminded me of how much I have come to rely upon the Scientists in the Field series of books:
Each of the books in this nonfiction series is centers around a topic that students are immediately interested in, and each is engagingly written and beautifully illustrated with photographs, maps, diagrams, and cutaways. The information is detailed without getting too detailed, and each topic is explored with just enough depth to lead to new learning and new lines of inquiry. The website has links to wonderful resources, and is updated frequently to reflect new titles and new developments. I love the fact that new titles are added all the time, and that the topics continue to be wide ranging and interesting. I also appreciate the fact that books in this series vary in length and complexity, so that I can adjust the titles I present to my students based on their reading levels and abilities. We also use this series as sources of research, independent reading and book clubs. I can’t imagine a nonfiction unit not anchored in these marvelous books.
The Endless Steppes is Esther Hautzig’s powerful narrative of her childhood years spent in exile in Siberia.
Esther was born into a prosperous family in Vilnius, Lithuania, then part of Poland. In 1941, when Vilnius was put under Soviet control, the Hautzig family was arrested on charges of being capitalists, and were sent to work camps in Siberia. 10 year old Esther was unprepared for the harsh life in this “endless steppe” – barren, isolated, and prone to extremes of weather. But, she and her family manage to stay together, no small feat, and survive. Hautzig’s narrative makes for powerful reading – one sees kindness and bravery, but also cruelty and cowardice. As a Jewish family, the Hautzigs must endure not just poverty and deprivation, but also the prevailing Antisemitism of the region. Six years later, at the end of World War II, Esther and her family are to return home, where they discover that their exile had actually saved their lives. The 57,000 Jewish residents of Vilnius had fallen victim to the Holocaust, and only 3,000 had managed to survive. Hautzig later emigrated to the U.S., where she eventually worked in publishing and was encouraged to write about her experiences.
I knew very little about this period of Polish history, and found this to be a fascinating story. I think my students will be equally fascinated, particularly as Hautzig writes from the perspective of a young girl experiencing traumatic upheavals in her life – every day is a struggle to find adequate food and shelter, but there are also the challenges of a young person’s life: wanting to fit in at school, coping with an inflexible teacher, wanting to attend the school dance. This is a wonderful addition to our biography genre of study, although I know that my kiddos will be interested in reading The Endless Steppes the moment I book talk it next week.
Here is a book trailer I discovered to add to my book talk:
Janet Clare left a beautiful comment, for she had met Esther Hautzig and The Endless Steppe made a powerful impression upon her. I wanted to share Janet’s comments, because it’s this type of personal recollection that deepens the power of literature. Hautzig’s story is an important one, brutal exile and the resilient courage of those who must endure this, are all too common place today. In reading Hautzig’s story, we can honor her and (perhaps) turn our attention to the refugee crisis in many parts of our own world today. Here’s what Janet had to say:
Her son, David, went to school at Syracuse University so Esther was in our area at times. I felt like I got to know her so well since I read the book aloud so many times. And my students loved it. We all loved Esther and learned from her. It was a long book, but I had the freedom and the time to read it. Even though it is a tough time period to share with younger kids, my 5th graders got a feel for history from Esther’s story. When I finally met her, I felt I knew her and it was a thrill. She lived in Manhattan and the only thing she had from her childhood was her identification card which the cover art is based on. She never took it from the safe in her apartment but did bring a copy to share with us. It was a small group so I got to spend a lot of time talking to her. What she went through and how she survived. I often think whenever I am complaining about some inconvenience about all she went through. She has other books and her daughter wrote some too. A picture book called Latkes and Applesauce is dedicated to Esther and her family. Imagine how thrilled I was to find that about 15 years ago. I wish everyone would read this book. And the declamation contest and her shoes and having to slog through the mud and how the teacher “treated” her. Talk about resilience.
Thank you for bringing Esther to mind to me today. I treasure a couple of copies she signed of The Endless Steppe. I could have gone on and on and on. I know that book so well. The letter she wrote back in her own hand in the early 80s was a treasure. She said that “receiving your beautiful letter made writing the book worth it” and she wrote each child’s name on the greeting of the letter. I can’t recall if they sent individual letters or not, but maybe. I really loved her….. it was the love of her spirit and determination and incredible ability to survive such intolerable and unkind conditions and her willingness to bring us into her life in Siberia. This book is one that had a profound impact on me.