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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.