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Of Blessed Memory: Irene Steindler

Irene Steindler, 98, of Highland Park, Illinois, died at home on Tuesday, March 14 after a long and beautiful life. Her daughter, Carol Miller, was by her side as she took her last breath.

Irene was born on December 3, 1924 in Dieburg, Germany to Louis and Elsa (Loeb) Darmstadter. A decorated Great War veteran, Irene’s father identified “first as German, second as Jewish”, surely not able to fathom that the Fatherland he had loved and fought to defend would turn against him, becoming a place to flee in terror. In the aftermath of Kristallnacht (1938), Irene buried a doll in the yard as her family hastened preparations to leave for America, certain she would find it there waiting upon her return; this is one of the few details she was able to recall and share, many years later, when her American Jewish grandchildren asked what it was like to be a child at the time of Hitler’s rise to power.

Irene and her parents made it to Chicago, where they reunited with Irene’s older brother, Henry. Once this period was behind her, Irene rarely – if ever – spoke of it. We can only imagine what it was like to be new to America, barely conversant in English, a 13-year-old first grader too big for her desk, and homesick for a place that was no longer safe.

During this time, Irene’s family relocated to Muskegon, Michigan, which held the promise of a fresh start in a peaceful and beautiful setting. Irene graduated from Muskegon High School in 1942. After graduation, she worked in the office of a local physician, Dr. Friedenberg. Always a quick study, Irene’s intelligence and sharp wit must have made an impression on the doctor, who, according to family lore, entrusted Irene with an increasing amount of responsibility, eventually training her as a de facto medical assistant. Her medical acumen was just the tip of the iceberg – Irene was the one you called when you needed solid advice on first aid, travel planning, money management, investing, grammar, or baking, to name a few.

Irene and Jack first met at a temple picnic. Well into his eighties, Jack relished recounting their now-legendary origin story, featuring Irene as “that girl with the peaches and cream skin”, the one with whom he became immediately and absolutely smitten. In 1946, after a brief courtship, they were married. Irene taught herself what she needed to know about the stock market, and soon took charge of the couple’s finances, shrewdly investing their modest savings. The couple moved from an apartment on Peck Street to a house on Lyncott in North Muskegon where they lived with Mike, Carol and Bart. In 1962 the family of five moved into a home they helped design on Sunset Drive overlooking Bear Lake and began filling it with art, music, books, and memories. While Jack ran Steindler Paper Company, Irene cared for their children and for her parents, as well as for Jack’s. She was active in many civic and arts organizations, quiet and steadfast in her commitment to the work of justice, and to the elevation of beauty.

If Irene seemed different than the other housewives of Muskegon, it’s because she was. While her chocolate chip cookies were the most sought after at bake sales, and she hosted flawless and fabulous dinners (informed by the pages of Gourmet Magazine, to which she was an early subscriber), she did not make weekly visits to the hairdresser, go shopping for the latest fashions, or apply makeup – beyond a swipe of bright lipstick – to her face. Irene did not, as a rule, talk about the Holocaust. She had made it out. Many, many people were not so lucky. Though she rarely talked about her experience as a Holocaust survivor, there is no question that the specter of genocide was a kind of filter through which she experienced the rest of her life. Given what Irene had experienced as a young girl, and then what she absorbed during her teenage years, from a vantage point that must have felt both safe and unbearable – the institutionalized disregard for humanity, the enduring devastation, the unspeakable atrocities… is it any wonder that Irene’s perspective was different? She did not take fashion and make-up seriously because, well… Irene had a habit of trailing off, opting out of explanations or comparisons that were, as those who loved her came to understand, things she did not need to talk about.

The filter didn’t just exclude the unimportant details; it also amplified what DID matter, bringing Irene’s priorities into sharp focus. What Irene appreciated, she appreciated deeply, with passion, fervor, and dedication: Community. Family. Arts. Philanthropy. Travel (and travel hacking, before it had a name). She became particularly fascinated with glass as an artistic medium – the fiery, physically intense process of shaping the molten ooze, the artists and their specialized tools, their diversity of vision and output, all fragile, precious, and, with some combination of care and luck, enduring. In any city she visited, Irene wanted to visit two places: a local synagogue and a glass blowing studio.

When Jack retired in the early 1980s, he and Irene moved to Tucson, Arizona, where they embarked upon their next great adventures. Irene became a docent at the Tucson Museum of Art, where she loved giving tours. She worked with the Jewish community to support Russian refugee resettlement efforts, and with a homeless shelter, where she regularly served meals and organized events. A voracious reader, at one time she was active in five different book clubs. In her own way, Irene embodied another favorite art form – weaving – as she entwined her life with the lives around her, seeking and nurturing meaningful connections, some of which turned into friendships that spanned decades.

To her seven grandchildren, she was Founder and CEO of “Camp Granny”, an unparalleled week of adventures and indulgences for each grandchild – and a “plus one” – including jeep rides in the desert, jello fingers, late night spite and malice games, art appreciation classes, and plenty of pool time. As a grandmother, and as a great-grandmother, Irene was generous, inspirational, warm, funny, genuinely interested, accepting, and so very supportive. She was adored.

Irene was predeceased by Louis Jack. She is survived by her 3 children: Michael (Brenda), Carol Miller (David), Barton (Kathy) and her grandchildren: Emily(Luma), Jill, Toni(Paul), Laura(Marques), Ellen (Rob), Zachary (Caitlin), Amy (Todd), Jennifer(Zane) and Philip(Ashley) as well as her 14 great-grandchildren: Leila, Zeina, Yazan, Nathan, Hugo, Evie, Maya, Miles, Jack, Rosie, Ava, Emma, Ryan and Kylie.