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by Roberta Elliott

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.

I am thinking about this recently as I stand in Kanada, a building at Auschwitz II, also known as Birkenau. I am here with a group of 53 Muslims and Jews – my sisters – members of the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, a national chapter-based organization devoted to breaking down barriers and forming friendships between Muslim and Jewish women. We are on an overseas mission to study the Shoah together with our resident scholar, who happens to be a Muslim woman. We have spent five days in Berlin, a quick overnight in Warsaw, and have been in Krakow for two days.

Today we are here to hold a memorial service, the first ever at Auschwitz conducted by Jewish and Muslim women together. It is an historic moment. But, as I stand with my sisters, I’m feeling fragmented as I am bombarded by the enormity of what I’m re-living.

I have been in this place before. In 1990, I travelled with a Jewish geneology group to Poland. Our tour guide at Auschwitz was a Christian, who had been designated a Righteous Gentile by Yad Vashem in Israel. The son of a Polish resistance fighter, he was retired and made it his life’s work to take Jewish groups into the camp and sing El Maleh Rachamim and lead Kaddish for them. At the time, I could never imagine coming back, but here I am because my sisters are here.

Although my father is long gone, he is always with me when I am on the killing fields of Europe. His ghost haunts me, but it can’t answer all the questions I never asked him when he was alive. How did it feel to flee? What was his exact route out of Austria to France, where he was interned in an alien camp for two years? How did he get out of that camp, and get his family over the Pyrenees to Lisbon, where they embarked for the New World? Most of all, who was the business associate with whom he entrusted our family treasures? Who was this honest and decent Austrian who protected our crystal, our silver, our art, who allows me to cherish every day the silver anniversary cup, engraved in 1862 with the names of my great-great grandparents, Max and Nettie Kestler?

As we walk through the museum at Auschwitz I and see cases of shoes, of eyeglasses, of suitcases – the saved possessions of those less fortunate than my family – I find myself growing more and more numb.

But when we arrive at Kanada we are greeted by walls of photos. These are the photos the deported brought with them to the camps. This is a visual list of themselves, their family, their friends and life as it once was. There are formal wedding shots, there are glamorous ladies, fashionistas of their day, there are groups of young people horsing around for the camera. I am haunted by one particular photo of three young dandies sitting on a fountain edge in a European city. The one on the furthest right looks just like my father as a young man. I know this because I have inherited two precious boxes of photos from his youth. Photos of him horsing around for the camera. Photos of his girlfriends before he left Europe. Photos of his – my – family relaxing on summer vacations. I haven’t looked at them in years…

 But, right now, right here in Auschwitz, these people are looking directly at me, right into my eyes – they are calling my name – and I am shattered.

We stand in a perfect circle, my sisters and I. One of us, a cantor from Minneapolis, has put together a service of mostly Jewish liturgy. We say Yizkhor, she chants El Male Rachamim, we read poetry. One of our Muslim sisters recites passages from the Koran, including the one traditionally said for the dead, in a voice so clear and in Arabic so beautiful that it pierces our hearts. Another reads a list of the names – the 66 Muslims who were murdered at Auschwitz.

Each of us who lost someone in the Holocaust says their name and speaks briefly about that person. I say the name of my mother’s grandfather, Yisroel Moshe Kolte, who corresponded with his children and grandchildren in America well into the late 1930s until he was never heard from again. On my first trip here, I was able to solve the mystery of his disappearance through research at the Auschwitz Archives. My great grandfather was in his late 80s when the Germans killed him and placed him on their census of the dead.

We say Kaddish Yatom, the Mourners’ Kaddish.

Our Muslim sisters bear witness to and share in our bottomless pain and grief. They envelope us in their arms as we touch bottom, bringing us back to the surface by their loving embrace. And then it’s over.

But, it’s not.

In this piece, I state the name of my father, my great-great grandparents, and my great grandfather with intention. Names are powerful symbols in Judaism. Once a year, we sanctify the names of our dead when we say Kaddish. But a name is not so important in itself but for the soul, the life that it stands for. In the prophetic writings of the poet Zelda, a name is all that is left of us after death.

Within the ineffable devastation of the Shoah, the Germans gave us one gift: a census of names of those who perished. It is our duty, our privilege, our inheritance to say the names of those lost to this world. In doing so, my sisters and I are wresting holiness from the depths of profanity. It is a gift we will not soon forget.

 

Each of Us Has a Name by Zelda

Each of us has a name,
given to us by God,
and given to us by our father
and mother.
Each of us has a name,
given to us by our stature
and our way of smiling,
and given to us by our clothes.
Each of us has a name,
given to us by the mountains,
and given to us by our walls.
Each of us has a name,
given to us by the planets,
and given to us by our neighbors.
Each of us has a name,
given to us by our sins,
and given to us by our longing.
Each of us has a name,
given to us by our enemies,
and given to us by our love.
Each of us has a name,
given to us by our fast days,
and given to us by our craft.
Each of us has a name,
given to us by the seasons of the year,
and given to us by our blindness.
Each of us has a name,
given to us by the sea,
and given to us by our death.

 

Roberta Elliott is an activist/writer, whose work last appeared in Lilith Magazine in the Winter 2015/16 issue with “In Vienna with Syrian Refugees,” which was awarded first place for Excellence in Social Justice Reporting by the Rockower competition for excellence in Jewish journalism.She splits her time between South Orange, NJ and Tucson, AZ.
 
© 2011 Lilith Magazine