A Hotel Full of Steinitz’

Lucy Steinitz
Windhoek, Namibia
10 June 2006

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When we first moved to Africa nine years ago, our new friends often exclaimed over our relative wealth – we had all the material things that anyone could want, they reasoned, so we must be very wealthy. But then, as our relationships grew closer, they started to ask about our families. “What do you mean, you have no grand-parents left, and also no parents, no brothers, no sisters, no nieces and no nephews?” they gasped in progressive horror. Within the context of the extended African family they couldn’t imagine that, in effect, we were an island unto ourselves. “Oh, shame!” their tone suddenly changed. “You are so poor! You really have nothing at all!”

So five years ago, when we first were “found” over the internet by a mysterious Mr. Jan Steinitz of Berlin, our hopes began to climb. Might be actually belong to a larger clan of Steinitz’, previously unknown to us? Jan asked us lots of questions that we could not answer very well because my father’s family tree was tucked amongst the papers that were still in the USA, and we knew no one who had a copy. But a correspondence ensued anyway, and then a few visits by Jan, his son Stevie, and his friend Robert, and soon Jan also got involved in raising funds for the Orphans’ Emergency Fund of the Catholic AIDS Action, and gradually one thing led to another. 

Thanks to this initial connection, I now correspond daily with Lore Steinitz of Antigonish, Nova Scotia (who shares the same name with my late mother). Additionally, over the past few years various members of our Namibian family have now visited and become friends with various members of the Antigonish-extended family in Canada, Israel, and the United States. So when Jan wrote us some months ago that there would be a Steinitz Family Reunion in Berlin this month, we immediately responded that, “Of course we would come” – this time bringing our own recently recovered Steinitz family tree with us.

We just got back yesterday. In a word, it was a wonderful experience. First of all, Berlin is a truly great city (incidentally, my father’s birthplace) -- full of culture and openness and great restaurants and outdoor cafes (despite horrible weather). The city is safe and accessible, even in the wee hours of the morning (as we can attest each night we were there.) Architecturally, many parts of the city have been preserved from olden days, but the new sections are equally fascinating – its history coming alive at every turn. In addition, Berlin must have the most amazing public transportation system in the world (and they even allow dogs on the subway, which endears me to the city no end). 

I have to admit that I liked the family just as much as the city. In total, the reunion involved about 65 people from five continents of the world. Just imagine the fun of it, with a whole hotel filled with Steinitz’. For example, when an American friend of ours phoned the hotel and asked for “Steinitz,” the receptionist just laughed! 

Like all families, ours contains many branches. Most of the Steinitz’ we met in Berlin belong to a family tree that goes back nine generations (1751) to a certain Salomon Steinitz in Upper Silesia, which is a part of Europe that fell respectively under Habsburg-Austrian, Prussian and Polish rule. “Our” family tree also goes back nine generations (1760) to the same place, to a certain Hirsch Steinitz whom we now guess – barring any disputing evidence – must have been a younger brother of Salomon. We don’t know Hirsch’s profession, but Salomon was a poor Hebrew School teacher -- so poor that when the Jews were given the opportunity to officially register as town citizens (thus cementing the name Steinitz for future generations), Salomon’s fee had to be paid by charity. By the way, the name Steinitz probably comes from “Stone Peak” – Stein-Spitz in German – and is the name once given to a local forest and even a village in that part of Europe. 

Over time, I’m glad to say that most family members improved their economic standing. Among others, we now we have a pain therapist from Boston and an acupuncturist from New Zealand, several psychologists and attorneys, some scientists and engineers, two development workers, a painter, two left-wing political activists and one right-wing member of the Israeli Knesset (who didn’t come to the reunion), and even a Buddhist Monk (Peter Schönfeld, b. 1906) who escaped Nazism incognito in Ceylon and then decided to retain his new-found identity after the War (now deceased). What our branch of the family can add is the first Steinitz at the South Pole (my father in 1958), who is possibly also the first Jew to reach this spot. Tragically, 21 known Steinitz’ also died in the Holocaust, may their memories always be a blessing. 

So what does one do at a family reunion? We spent a lot of time talking, just getting to know each other. One morning was devoted to “new discoveries” in the ever-expanding family tree. Another morning was spent with contemporary stories – our lives in Namibia, as one example, and a discussion of the anti-fascist movement in Berlin, where several other family members are involved. We also joined an international cultural festival, took a bus tour and a boat trip through various inner-city canals, paid tribute at the (new) Holocaust memorial (which most of us didn’t like, but then again, no memorial would ever be “good enough”), and were invited for two nights of home-hospitality where among other things we heard from our “East Berlin” relatives of what it was like when the Wall finally came down. 

So, I’m in love: First of all, in love with Berlin. And also in love with the Steinitz family, as I have now come to know them. Honestly, I didn’t meet a Steinitz I didn’t like. But most of all, in the African sense of “belonging,” I am feeling richer than ever! 
Meanwhile, on the Saturday night that we were together in Berlin, Elsita reported from Quito in Ecuador that she was having dinner with Anita Steinitz and her mother Trude Sojka Steinitz, another painter. This family-relationship seems even more remote than the one I just described, but the connection is really fun, anyway *. And what difference does the blood-relationship make anyway, if this becomes a way to make friends? 

Just to even things out, at the end of our reunion on the way out of Berlin, Bernd and I passed through Hildesheim (my mother’s home town) and stopped for 24 hours to visit with Bernd’s aunt and best friend Herbert, near Würzburg in northern Bavaria where Bernd grew up. Although we were gone from Namibia for just six days, I feel as though my life has been changed forever – and I couldn’t be happier about it. Already we are talking about the next Steinitz family reunion in several years’ time – in Israel perhaps, or even Namibia. All Steinitz’ are welcome (and others, too).

As usual, let me end conclude with a few other updates. No doubt most of you are aware of the recent boost received by Namibia’s tourism industry – that is, the much acclaimed birth of a daughter to Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie just a few miles down the coast from our home in Swakopmund. Unfortunately, Namibia has also just experienced its first polio outbreak in ten years – an unprecedented 34 cases (7 known deaths) since mid-May. This represents a huge set-back for us as, until last month, Namibia had been steadily moving towards a status of complete polio eradication. Significantly, this outbreak (whose origin is still unknown) carries with it an unusual twist. Whereas new cases of polio generally target the very young, most of the victims now are over the age of twenty, meaning that they had missed out on Namibia’s under-age-five vaccination campaigns that had been carried out since this country gained independence in 1990. And now, when we would rather be focusing our attention on other economic and health-related issues, every Namibian resident will have to be vaccinated at least once – that is, as soon as sufficient amounts of the vaccination can be mass-produced, imported, and then distributed around the country. 

Don’t worry about us, though. All our vaccinations are up-to-date, which means that we are not at-risk. And otherwise we are well, too. Elsita is surely cheering the win on Friday night in the Soccer World Cup by Ecuador against Poland, assuming she even knows about it high in the Andean mountains where she has just begun a six-week stint tracking the illusive Andean Bear. Meanwhile, Sergio’s band has several music gigs scheduled over the next few weeks in addition to his cooking classes, restaurant work, and dance-lessons. Currently, Bernd is on a mid-semester break, which means he has new preparations and lots of papers to mark but no classes to attend. At the same time, I am co-teaching an e-learning summer course on the Global Impact of AIDS, with excellent students through Elon University in North Carolina. 

Life is good. As we also hope it is for all of you.

Yours truly,

Lucy and the Kiekebusch-STEINITZ family


* Bernd and I first met the Ecuadorian Steinitz’ 20 years ago, when Trude’s husband Hans was still living. As it happens, Trude’s Hans and my father – also named Hans – once knew each other from the University of Berlin, but then lost contact.

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lucy@family.steinitz.net - BerndLucy@iway.na - lucy@fhi.org.na (work)
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