Esther Hautzig, author of wartime survival tale

Born: 18 October, 1930 in Vilna, Poland (now known as Vilnius, in Lithuania). Died: 1 November, 2009, in Manhattan, New York, aged, 79

ESTHER Hautzig's true-life tale of surviving the Second World War in the labour camps of Siberia, told in a guileless teenager's voice, became a classic of young people's literature.

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

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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," 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 known as Vilnius. 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," 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.

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-labour 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, Hautzig 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.

Hautzig's daughter said that her mother had had a knack for turning the squalid into the bearable. Deborah Hautzig recounted: "In Siberia, she wanted to make curtains for the unheated, filthy hut she was living in 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 per cent of a Lithuanian-Jewish community known for its learning and culture. Among the dead were many of Hautzig's aunts, uncles and cousins.

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After the war, Hautzig, who was born on 18, October, 1930, returned to Poland with her parents and grandmother, spent several months as a refugee in Sweden and then moved 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.

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 GP 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 such as paper flowers. Both books were laced with the skills she learned by trying to brighten her life in Siberia.

Encouraged by Stevenson's letter, Hautzig 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."

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 IL Peretz.

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, 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 website.

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"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."

Hautzig is survived by her husband, their daughter, Deborah, son, David, and three grandchildren.

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