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Steven's story

Steven's story

Byline: Miriam Shaviv.

Date: Friday, March 8, 2002

Publication: The Jerusalem Post



Among the many victims of palestinian attacks this week was South African immigrant Sgt. Steven Kenigsberg. Miriam Shaviv tells the story of a young man who got a new lease in life by moving to Israel - and then gave up that life defending it

One hour after the funeral of Sgt. Steven Kenigsberg is over, a group of

soldiers still stands over his grave.


They are slowly making their way through a pile of pictures taken during

their basic training, which ended just over a month ago.


In one image captured from above, Kenigsberg, who immigrated to Israel from

South Africa in June 1999, is sitting on a stool in a large tent, polishing

an army-issue boot. One of his peers remembers that it was just minutes

before inspection, but Steven, still dressed in shorts and flip-flops, looks

up at the camera with a laid-back smile.


Another picture shows Steven on his base, wearing an olive-green t-shirt,

relaxing in the sun. Two other soldiers have their arms around him; all

three are dangling cigarettes from their mouths or hands. In the next photo,

a similar scene: Steven, with his fellow soldiers, arms around each other,

this time taking shelter from the sun in a hut.


'The pictures tell the story,' remarks one of the soldiers in the circle.

'He was one of us' - a compliment rarely bestowed by sabras on

English-speaking immigrants.


The pictures tell another story as well: How a young man matured, and found

purpose and poise by making aliya, and joining the army.


'In South Africa, Steven was something of a lost soul,' says his father,

Kevin. 'In the last couple of years, we could not stop remarking on how he

has found himself.'


Steven was killed on Sunday as a soldier, defending Israel. The 19-year-old

was due to begin a morning shift of guard duty at the Kissufim crossing in

the Gaza strip. During the night, a Palestinian had infiltrated the area and

hidden in nearby shrubbery. When Steven and four other soldiers got out of

their jeep, the gunmen shot them at close-range, and then escaped before

they could even return fire. The other soldiers escaped with minor injuries,

but Steven was hit in the neck and pronounced dead back at his base.


'He did not deserve to die - not at such an age, not such a person,' one of

Steven's friends at the shiva house says quietly. 'But Steven once told me

that if he had to die, he wanted to die for the state.'


BORN in Johannesburg, Steven was a fun-loving, mischievous child, according

to his father.


'When he came to visit me on the weekends with his brothers, there was a

hurricane in the bedroom,' says Kevin, 46, who separated from Steven's

mother when Steven was six months old. 'It took two days to clear up.'


Steven was also a jokster, says his father. 'He was a bit of a clown, he

used to pull funny faces and make people laugh.'


As an ongoing joke, for example, Steven teased his younger brother Joel that

he had come from Mars and was a rock. 'Joel believed him, so he began trying

to convince him his other brother was a plant,' Kevin says.


'On another occasion,' recalls Kevin, 'Steven, his girlfriend and another

couple pushed one of their parent's cars into the street. When they were

confronted, they told the parent that they were just trying to listen to the

radio, but the battery was flat so they had to push-start the car.'


His boisterous nature sometimes got him into trouble.


'He would have run-ins with his teachers,' says Kevin. 'He was not a

scholarly child, and even hated school.'


Indeed, Kevin notes that by the time Steven was a teenager, his lack of

direction had become apparent.


'He was a typical South African kid - protected and insular,' Kevin says.

'He would not go on the bus by himself, he had his bed made for him, and his

suitcases packed for him when we made aliya. When we had to give him

instructions on how to clean a toilet for the first time, he thought it was

a joke.'


Steven did once try to take on a job, washing hair in a hair salon. That

lasted exactly three sessions.


'It was a big game for him,' says Kevin. 'He went to summer camps, and would

have a lot of fun, but he did not know what he wanted to do in life.'


His difficulties were compounded by his status as a middle child. According

to Kevin, Steven loved his elder brother Marc, looked up to him and was even

'in awe' of him. Marc, however, is 'very academic' and 'the comparisons were

not always favorable. It created a lot of difficulties for Steven.'


Until that point, Steven's Jewish identity was 'soft,' says Kevin. Like many

South Africans, the Kenigsberg family was both traditional and modern,

attending an Orthodox synagogue every week, but driving to the service.


This began to change at age 14, when Steven moved from his Jewish day

school, King David, to a government high school. For the first time, Steven

was forced to begin formulating his Jewish identity.


'He used to come home and tell me about an Arab in his class who said he'd

kill all the Jews,' says Kevin. 'He would note that there were only 20 Jews

in the entire high school.'


Steven joined Betar, the right-wing Jewish youth movement. Both his father

and grandfather had been members before him, and his father had tried to

infuse Betar's Zionist ideals in him at home as well.


'He began to take an active interest in events in Israel,' says Kevin. 'He

would come to talk to me every time he heard of fighting here.'


The turning point in Steven's life came in February 1999, when Kevin decided

that he was going to make aliya.


'I decided to move to Israel when I was 16, but like many others,

circumstances prevented me from coming,' says Kevin. 'When I decided to

come,' he emphasizes, 'it was because I believed that Israel is the place

for the Jewish people, not because of conditions in South Africa.'


Kevin asked Steven to join him in the new venture.


'He had no hesitation at all,' says Kevin - although Steven had never even

been to Israel.


WHAT motivated Steven to accept his father's offer? The influence of Betar

was certainly a factor.


Eileen Karpel, a soft-spoken South African who has been Kevin's partner and

a mother-figure to Steven for the last two and a half years, adds that

Steven was extremely influenced by his father's Zionist ideals. She

speculates that Steven, who had never before lived with Kevin, was also

desperate for his father's approval - a statement that Kevin does not

refute, but insists has little to do with Steven's decision to move.


'All children are influenced by parents to some extent,' he says. 'But

Steven still had a mind of his own and the choice to come to Israel was his



Kevin stresses that although Steven was unsure of what to expect from life

in Israel, he was fully aware that he was leaving behind a life of material

comfort, family and friends. He also knew he would have to finish his

schooling in a foreign language and join the army.


Either way, once Steven landed in Israel, he blossomed.


The father and son first lived in the absorption center in Ra'anana, and

then settled down in Hod Hasharon. Due to a technical hitch, Steven was not

able to join the local school's English-language program as planned, and was

thrown into the regular Israeli stream. He soon developed good Hebrew,

insisting on speaking the language whenever possible, and as his father puts

it, 'became more Israeli than Israeli. He had all the right movements: the

swagger as he walked down the street, a certain arrogance. He started buying

Israeli-style clothes.'


His schoolmates testify that they were won over by his sense of humor and

easy-going nature.


'I first met Steven at the smoker's corner of our school,' says Dale Russak,

another South African immigrant who attended Mosenson Youth Village in Hod

Hasharon with Steven. 'There were a bunch of South Africans together and we

bonded, speaking in Afrikaans. We were all immediately struck by how funny

Steven was.'


Lior Lombrozo, another classmate of Steven's, remembers how 'we would meet

most evenings after work, smoke nargilla and have a good laugh. There was no

question he was one of us.'


'He liked the freedom, which he never had before,' says Kevin. 'He could get

a shawarma at 10 o'clock at night, take the bus to Tel Aviv, things which

were unimaginable in South Africa. The lifestyle in Israel is so

teenager-friendly, he felt so much more in control of his life.'


For the first time since he was 10 years old, Steven got and held onto a

job, as a dishwasher.


'He was earning NIS 15 an hour, but had a whole career mapped out,' says

Kevin. 'He was going to become a waiter, then a barman, and eventually buy a

house in the countryÉ His self-esteem started to increase as soon as he

could earn his own money.'


Family life was also looking up. Kevin moved in with Eileen and her two

daughters, whom he met at the Ra'anana absorption center.


'We are a very close knit family, and this was the first time he was in a

real family unit, with traditional mother and father roles,' says Eileen.

'He adjusted so well, perhaps because he was the only boy, and became the

big brother.'


He was dedicated to his step-sisters, who, Eileen says, 'decided whether his

girlfriends were okay or not.' When he eventually did join the army, he

developed a ritual where one of his sisters shaved his head on the balcony

every time he had leave.


Kevin allows that Steven's absorption process did have some problems.


'We had a deal, that I would cook while he would do the dishes,' he says.

'The food tasted better than the dishes looked afterwards.'


Steven began talking about joining the army almost as soon as he arrived in

Israel. He had some friends who were paratroopers, and was eager to join a

combat unit. According to Eileen, Steven saw the army as his 'real' klita

[absorption], a chance to share a formative experience with his peers.


Steven was eventually accepted into a Givati unit, and began basic training

in June. Here, too, he immediately integrated with the other Israelis in the



'We had other foreigners - Russians, Australians - with us, but Steven

stayed away from them,' one of the soldiers who attended his funeral says.


Although all of his peers were top-level, Steven quickly emerged as a



'He would talk about Zionism, and actually influenced the rest of us. We

understood the sacrifice he had made,' says one of the soldiers. Steven, it

appears, also told them about his former life in South Africa, but

constantly told his new friends that he was better off in Israel.


'He would also encourage all of us, whenever the going got tough,' says

another soldier. 'He always said it could be harder, and helped us on a

daily basis, often just by making us laugh.'


Kevin says that being part of the group, and fighting for a cause, gave

Steven a new confidence and self-respect.


'He would come home, with his shoulders back,' says Kevin. 'When I would ask

him why his sleeves are rolled up, he'd say, 'in the infantry, we always

have our sleeves rolled up like this.' When I asked him why he would leave

the house without a jacket, he'd say, 'we in the infantry don't take

jackets.' '


His dedication paid off. At his basic-training graduation ceremony, he was

given his commander's beret. Steven was also one of a handful of troops who

were selected to begin an officers training course early. He was due to

begin next week.


ABOUT one month ago, Steven was transferred to Kissufim, which was

considered less dangerous than other areas in Gush Katif. Days later, a

terrorist attempted to cut through the fence.


'He phoned me and told me they'd caught a terrorist,' says Kevin. 'He was so



They never, however, discussed the possibility of Steven being hurt in the

wake of the incident.


On Sunday morning, Kevin heard that there had been another 'incident' in

Kissufim, but told Eileen that it could not have involved Steven, since they

had not heard anything.


'Fifteen minutes later, there were six officers at my door,' says Eileen,

breaking down in tears.


'At first,' she says, 'I ignored the doorbell. I was the only one home and

was about to take a shower. But they were persistent. I looked through the

peephole and knew immediately. When I opened the door, I said, 'you're here

because of Steven.' I couldn't bring myself to ask if he was dead. I really

knew, anyway.


'No parent should ever have to take such a call,' she says, still weeping.


Just two days later, Kevin is adamant: he has no regrets about making aliya,

and bringing Steven with him.


'How can you regret a life choice?' he asks. 'One that's been an ambition of

yours all your life, one which saw your son happy.... Nothing can replace a

child, but the time we spent together, the time Steven had to grow up into a

man, the happiness of the last few months - that's what we will remember.'


He is sorry, he says, that so many Israelis talk about leaving the country.


'Everyone needs to make their own choices about where they want to live and

what they want to do with their lives,' he says. 'But those who leave must

remember that the grass is not always greener. Here in Israel, you can be

proud Jews, proud Israelis, not cowering Diaspora Jews.


'My son was killed fighting for his country. He was doing his job protecting

you and me - he was a gibor Yisrael [hero of Israel].'


Kevin would like Steven to be remembered as an example of what can be

achieved by liquidating the Diaspora in every Jew.


'Proud, generous and fierce,' says Kevin, quoting Jabotinsky's words in the

Betar anthem. 'That was Steven.'

© 2010 Miriam Shaviv | Design by Danny Bermant