School Library Journal broke the news today (see obit) that author Esther Hautzig died on Sunday, November 1 at the age of 79. Esther Rudomin Hautzig was the author of the memoir The Endless Steppe, about her experiences in Siberia, where her family was exiled during WWII, ultimately saving their lives. The book was the winner of AJL's first book award in 1968 (before the award was even called the "Sydney Taylor").
Esther attended the 2004 Association of Jewish Libraries convention in Brooklyn, NY, where she received a standing ovation during the Awards Banquet in honor of her status as inaugural award winner. Besides winning the gold medal for The Endless Steppe in 1968, Esther also received a silver Sydney Taylor Honor Award in 1992 for Riches and silver again in 2002 for A Picture of Grandmother.
In 2002, School Library Journal included a rather tepid review of A Picture of Grandmother, calling it "a slight story." Feeling that the reviewer had missed the point, I wrote a letter to the editor explaining that anyone who knew the "backstory" of Hautzig's childhood, a warm family life disrupted by the war, would understand that A Picture of Grandmother was a poignant tribute to the lives of those who were lost. It celebrated the beautiful normalcy of their lives instead of bemoaning their deaths.
After the letter was printed in SLJ, I received an envelope with the name "Esther Hautzig" in the upper left hand corner. I almost hyperventilated. I had just finished listening to the audiobook of The Endless Steppe the week before, and still felt very close to the "character" of Esther's younger self. To my shock and delight, Esther had read my defense of her book in SLJ and had sent me a heartfelt letter and a packet of articles about Holocaust writing for children. She thanked me for the positive review I'd written for the Association of Jewish Libraries Newsletter (see below for review text) and she said "Your letter to SLJ made me cry. The original review (and the reviewer's response) made me cry for quite another reason. Your support of the premise, and my reason for writing it, was balm for my soul."
This was perhaps the most important thing an author has ever said to me, because it made me realize that the audience for reviews is not just fellow librarians or parents shopping for their children, it's the authors themselves. Esther taught me how very important it is to review books respectfully, and to respond to a book not only with emotion but with substantive critiques.
Just that exchange of letters would have been enough (dayenu!) but I was fortunate to have my cake and eat it too. Not only did Esther join us at our AJL convention in Brooklyn in 2004, she also met me when I traveled to New York on other occasions, getting together for a cozy dinner at a German restaurant, for a back-room tour of the Donnell Library where she worked, or for an afternoon tea break. Although I only knew her briefly, and probably spent less than 24 hours with her when you add it all together, she made me feel as if we were intimate friends. She gave me a copy of her book Remember Who You Are: Stories About Being Jewish and a classical piano CD by her husband Walter, a concert pianist. (Listen to Walter play in the video below, and watch for Esther in the audience at the 50 second mark.) I gave her a set of stationary cards printed with nature photographs taken by my husband, Jonathan, and a CD recording of my own Book of Life podcast. We took the bus together across Manhattan, and she made sure I had a transfer ticket before she got off at her stop.
Esther was the most gracious lady, one of those shining souls who makes the people around them feel good. I'll follow her lead from A Picture of Grandmother (and really from all of her writing) and say, not how much I'll miss her, but how glad I am to have known her.
A Picture of Grandmother by Esther Hautzig, illustrated by Beth Peck, Farrar Straus & Giroux 2002 (review by Heidi Estrin from Amazon.com, originally appeared in AJL Newsletter)
The Association of Jewish Libraries awarded this book a Sydney Taylor Book Award silver medal, and it truly deserves recognition. It's a quiet gem. At face value, it's about the value of truth, the importance of forgiveness, and the joy of family bonding. The language is simple yet elegant, formal in a European way that adds flavor to the Vilna setting. Young readers will be drawn in by the mystery that baffles Sara and the honesty of the emotions portrayed will resonate with them. On another level, the story is a remarkable tribute to the author's pre-war childhood. As anyone who has read Hautzig's The Endless Steppe knows, most of her family perished in the Holocaust; she survived with her parents and grandmother only because they were exiled to Siberia as capitalists. In this book she brings her belvoed Vilna back to life, peoples it with her extended family, and breathes significance back into matters that the Nazis were soon to treat as inconsequential. Rathe rthan describe the disruption of family connections by war, she examines the history of the family and the mending of broken connections. Although it takes place in 1939 the story has nothing to do with war, highlighting the normalcy that was soon to be destroyed and intensifying the poignancy for those who know Hautzig's history. The story is fiction, but it is based on real events in Hautzig's childhood, and many of the characters bear he names of her actual relatives. The facts may be fictional but the feelings are real.