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Author Archives: Roberta Elliott

The Lilith Blog

October 4, 2019 by

The Gift of Census

There has been much talk recently of the 2020 U.S. census. Those on the right want it to include a citizenship question; those on the left do not. In the same month that the President issued an executive order about the census, the Torah chimed in with one of several yearly reminders of the importance of census taking. The Torah portion Pinchas begins with a huge census, a seemingly endless list of all the clans that are readying themselves for war with the Midianites. A list of names that we read to this day.

At its most elemental, a census is no more than that – a list of names. Since antiquity, it has provided a much-needed organizing principle for society, serving an array of purposes from the merely administrative to the political to the nefarious. Of the last, I am thinking of the Germans as they plotted and succeeded in extinguishing the light of European Jewish life. They were great list makers. They listed the names of those they murdered and they listed the names of those they were about to kill. 

In 1938, my father, Franz Engel, was living in his native Vienna and witnessed the Anschluss, the annexation of Austria by the Nazis. According to family lore, a “friendly” SS officer tipped him off that my family’s name was on the deportation list. As my father told the story, he locked himself in his room for three weeks to devise a plan to get his parents and sister out safely. Ultimately he did so, but at a price. The wound of being ripped from his homeland informed the rest of his life and was part of my inheritance.

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The Lilith Blog

December 3, 2015 by

Her Father Escaped Vienna. Now She Returns to Help Syrian Refugees.

Lives of refugees packed into large plastic bags.

Lives of refugees packed into large plastic bags.

Hineni: Day One, Vienna

Each person who is here in Vienna helping the Syrian refugees transit through Austria has his/her own story. Karin, a fourth-grade teacher, lives in the neighborhood of the Westbahnhoff, the West Train Station where Caritas, the Catholic refugee service, has set up a major assistance operation. She tells me she first started volunteering weeks ago when she couldn’t sleep at night knowing that she was warm and comfortable while refugees only blocks away were cold, displaced, and needed her help.

Tim is in charge of the food station next to the tracks where trains arrive from Lower Austria jam packed with refugees. He greets me in English through a thick German accent, glad to see me, a fellow American. Though he was born in Germany, he has fully embraced being an American, even though he only lived in Queens for 12 years before marrying an Austrian woman and moving to Vienna. He wants no association with anything German – except his grandparents. He is here because they hid Jews during the war, and he wants to fulfill the expectations he imagines they would have of him were they still alive. Not only does he volunteer for Caritas most days, but he has rented the apartment next to his to house an Iraqi refugee and her children. “My grandparents hid Jews for years. The least I can do is put this woman up for a year while she waits for her husband to join her.”

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