Rabbi Joachim Prinz: The Jewish Leader Who Bridged Two Journeys, From Slavery to Freedom
How did I make it over?
Going on over, all these years,
Tell me how we got over, Lord
Had a mighty hard time,
You know my soul, look back and wonder
How did we make it over?
—How I Got Over, Clara Ward
These were the lyrics sung by gospel singer Mahalia Jackson midway through the hot August day of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, just before Rabbi Joachim Prinz took the stage. The song articulates the journey from slavery to freedom, a journey that both Jews and African Americans were on at that time. Is it possible that Bayard Rustin—the primary practical organizer of the March—recommended the song to Jackson, knowing that the Jewish representative was to speak next?
The great Ms. Jackson was a tough act to follow. “I wish I could sing,” Rabbi Prinz joked before launching into his speech.
“When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, I learned many things,” he said. “The most important thing that I learned in my life is that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.
A great people, which had created a great civilization, had become a nation of silent onlookers. They remained silent in the face of hate, in the face of brutality and in the face of mass murder. America must not become a nation of onlookers. America must not remain silent.”
Not only did Prinz follow Mahalia Jackson, but he preceded Martin Luther King, Jr., whose “I Have a Dream” speech has endured as a symbolic turning point in the nation’s agonizing search for a standard of justice in keeping with its Judeo-Christian moorings. As a result, little else that was said that day has been remembered. But Prinz’s speech certainly meant something to the huge audience at the March, which repeatedly interrupted him with applause.
At the words, “America must not become a nation of onlookers,” the crowd erupted into their loudest applause yet. The people at the March understood that Prinz was sharing his journey with them. He was telling them how the Jews had struggled for centuries to cross the waters from slavery to freedom, and how they would, too. Looking back, his moment at the podium represented the fulfillment of both the prophetic Jewish role in history and of his life’s journey.
In 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr was leading a movement that was trying to take a great step in the seemingly endless march of African Americans toward freedom. The March on Washington marked a culmination of long-standing aspirations among blacks, whites, Jews and Gentiles and others who saw civil rights as a foundational quest in a nation long burdened by intolerance against “the others,” particularly blacks.
When more than 250,000 Americans gathered on the Mall on that hot day, they hastened the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Symbolically, their presence demonstrated an interracial alliance that would make the quest for civil rights the nation’s foremost domestic issue for most of the decade. In his moment at the March podium, Martin Luther King, Jr. represented generations who had given their lives in the journey from slavery, and he spoke for their descendants, who had now arrived in Washington to claim their freedom.
Prinz and King speaking together at the March on Washington marked the intersection of two journeys from slavery to freedom, two narratives of “getting over.” However, in that moment, the African American journey and the Jewish journey could be found at different points along the continuum from slavery to freedom.
Jewish Americans were much further along in that journey, almost at the other shore. African Americans, by contrast, had just stepped into the sea. Nobody knew if the waters would recede for them, or if everyone would drown. This difference in the stages of their journeys would eventually lead to the partial disintegration of the Black-Jewish alliance that Prinz and King had helped build. But Prinz’s core understanding of Jewish prophetic values and how they could be enacted in the world never faltered.
Prinz was born in Burkhardsdorf, Upper Silesia in 1902. As a child, he had close relationships with Christians and Christianity, since his family was one of the few, if not the only, Jewish family in his village, and he often went to church with his nannies. Nevertheless, Prinz came to associate Judaism and Jewish identity with the love of his mother, with whom he was very close and who died when he was nearly 13 years old, as documented in his memoir, Rebellious Rabbi.
Though his family had been in Germany for centuries and were typically assimilated German Jews, young Joachim perceived that Jews were not of Germany—not to the Germans. Prinz became a Zionist, enraging his father, and joined the Blau-Weiss Zionist youth group. Reflecting on his youth, Prinz later said that, “I finally found my identity. . . I was a Jew. I never sang the German anthem after [becoming a Zionist]. I felt very foreign as a German. And in spite of the fact that my family had been there for 300 years. . . . I found that I was a Jew, belonged to the Jewish people. I was an eternal stranger, really almost in existentialist terms.”
As a young rabbi in Berlin, Prinz focused on young people and on giving meaning and content to what was, for many German Jews, an empty Jewish identity. He wanted young people to feel proud of their history and the contributions of their people. Prinz later said that the “Black is beautiful” message of the 1960s and 70s was exactly what he had been teaching young Jews in 1920s Berlin. This message was sorely needed when Hitler was catapulted into power. One friend of Prinz’s recalled having to take a test in school, in which the only way to pass was to attest to the “scientific” basis of her own inferiority as a Jew. Prinz’s teachings, she said, were an antidote to Germany’s devaluing.
Prinz’s Zionism encouraged young people to believe that they would find their true selves, and their futures, outside of a Germany that rejected them. Originally, Prinz said, Zionism was a romantic notion—an idea, a dream. But it evolved into an answer to the question of where to go, as Prinz encouraged young Jews to leave Germany, stating emphatically that Jewish life in Germany was over.
In 1937, after being arrested several times, Prinz was told in a letter from Nazi authorities that he must take his family and leave Germany permanently. On his last night in Berlin, Prinz delivered a farewell sermon attended by thousands. Among the thousands of Jews were Nazis; they regularly attended his sermons to monitor Prinz’s words. This time Adolf Eichmann joined them. At Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem, witness Benno Cohn testified that Prinz “was one of the finest speakers, one of the best propagandists in those years.”
“All around us is profanity,” Cohn remembers Prinz said, “but our Jewish nationality is holiness.”
Before moving to the United States with his family and taking up a position as lecturer for the United Palestine Appeal, Prinz had come for an exploratory visit for a few months. During his brief return to Germany he published a piece in Der Morgen sharing with fellow German Jews his impressions of America.
“One wants so much to believe in the Statue of Liberty,” he wrote. “We do not understand that the Jews here, too, look upon the Negro with indifference and disdain. We cannot do that. We understand them too well, the blacks in the ghetto of Harlem.”
Because of his experience in Germany, Prinz identified with the Negroes, the outcasts. Witnessing racism by Jews in Atlanta in 1948, Prinz realized that Jews in America had a choice. They could ally with the white majority culture or they could ally with African Americans and other minorities.
To Prinz, an identification with the white majority culture was wrong in moral terms and a grave strategic error. As a minority, Jews’ only chance to survive and flourish in America came from democracy. If all were not equal before the law and society, Jewish existence would always be in peril as it had been in Germany. In 1954, Prinz said in a sermon:
“What we need . . . is the realization that we are all in the same boat and that the forces of religion, morality and decency are faced with the very same dangers and confronted with the very same problems. If one of them loses, all of them do.”
Prinz felt that identification with the white majority revealed an existential misunderstanding of what it meant to be Jewish. To be Jewish meant to be the carrier and transmitter of justice. To be an oppressor, to not recognize the humanity of another, was to violate Jewish heritage.
After settling into a position as the rabbi of Temple B’nai Abraham in Newark, NJ, Prinz rose to become the President of the American Jewish Congress. During his tenure (1958–1966), he helped make the Congress one of the nation’s foremost civil rights organizations. Prinz built an alliance with African American leaders and organizations, using the platform of the American Jewish Congress to participate in the civil rights movement in any way possible. In May 1960, his presidential address at the AJC’s Biennial Convention was titled “A Declaration of Interdependence.” Prinz said:
“(As Jews) we work for freedom and equality. This is the heart of what we call the civil rights program. . . . These are not mere words. These are the ideas which . . . have come to mean so much from the days when the author of third book of Moses coined that great sentence about liberty which is engraved upon the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia. . . . Our picket line in front of the Woolworth store . . . small though it was and unpopular with a great many people, was a demonstration of our identification with the brave battle . . .being fought by American youngsters in the South. . . We must never lose sight of the fact that the battle for equality for all people in America is a battle for America.”
Prinz awakened his own congregation of Temple B’nai Abraham, where Martin Luther King (whom Prinz had met in 1958) gave a lecture to an overflow crowd, white and black, in early 1963. The identification with African Americans to which Prinz exposed his congregants made perfect sense. Over the course of the first half of the 20th century, Jewish Americans had faced obstacles that, to an extent, tethered their experience to the problems facing many African Americans. Those obstacles included segregation, unsavory perceptions by many white Christians, and discrimination in the labor market.
While American Jews were far more successful than African Americans in overcoming such barriers, their American experience, and the historic anti-Semitism faced by their forebears created an empathy for the black predicament and, ultimately, for the Civil Rights Movement. Compared to other white ethnics, Jewish Americans took greater notice of racial injustice and committed themselves, and their resources, to expand democratic rights for blacks. Prinz’s speech at the March on Washington, a few months after King’s visit to B’nai Abraham, precisely and movingly expressed that empathy.
At the same time, however, many American Jews were ambivalent about this identification with African Americans. In the post-World War II decades, American Jews made great progress in the process of becoming “white.” For Jews and other ethnics who had been marginalized, becoming white was seductive. Prinz’s uncompromising stand for identification with African Americans at a time when racial lines were being heavily drawn and disrupted made him controversial.
During the summer of 1967, Prinz traveled in Europe, as he often did. While in the continent of his birth, Prinz felt acutely the tension and trauma in Newark, where racial violence had exploded. Upon returning to a Newark that had been nearly destroyed and where 26 lives had been lost to violence, Prinz penned a letter to Martin Luther King, Jr. He wrote:
“All of us know painfully of the indescribable despair among the people living in the ghettos . . . people waiting for America to fulfill its promise to restore them to a full life of dignity. The burning and looting was the expression of frustration and desperation . . .
This summer was not merely one of violence, of burning and killing. It was one during which for the first time Negroes and Negro organizations have expressed hate for the Jewish people. . .
. . .You and I marched together on that unforgettable day in the month of August of 1963 [and in my speech] I expressed for the Jewish community of America our sense of identification with the American Negro. What I said then I meant.
I write to you because I must. I find the time has come for the responsible Negro leadership, and particularly you, to speak up clearly and unequivocally on the tragic crime of Negro anti-Semitism.”
King sent a reply to Prinz in which he quoted from a passage in one of his recent books condemning anti-Semitism.
In the years leading up to the great day of the March on Washington, Prinz and King had shared a vision for their respective peoples and for America. 1967 was only four years after the March, but the terrain under both Prinz and King had shifted considerably. By this time, the non-discrimination policies for which organizations like the American Jewish Congress fought had helped American Jews join the white mainstream and feel that the American dream was theirs for the taking. Propelled in part by redlining and other policies that brought down housing values when African Americans moved in to neighborhoods, Jewish Americans moved out of cities along with other whites.
Meanwhile, African Americans were denied access to the dream, by both subtle racism and overtly racist government policies that undercut the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. The African American community fractured as nationalist and separatist groups challenged integrationists, and unemployment, police brutality, and poverty brought on despair. Despair became anger, and expressions of anger were met with repressive violence. Most of the people killed in the Newark riots were African Americans felled by state troopers and National Guardsmen. By this time, King’s was no longer the undisputed voice speaking for African Americans, and his vision of integration was being challenged by the visions of other African American leaders.
King visited Newark in March of 1968 as part of his Poor People’s Campaign, giving speeches at churches and a high school. Eight days later, King was assassinated in Memphis. Prinz mourned King profoundly and attended his funeral in Atlanta, where, according to the New York Times, Prinz was “among those who marched in the first ranks.”
By 1967, many of Temple B’nai Abraham’s congregants had moved out of Newark to the surrounding suburbs. After the violent summer of ’67, more left. On May 28th, 1968, Prinz penned a letter to his friend Bayard Rustin, asking him to assist in bringing Coretta Scott King to Temple B’nai Abraham to help repair relations between blacks and Jews in Newark. The next day Prinz wrote to Mrs. King saying, “I beg you to come.” Mrs. King replied in July, thanking Prinz for his friendship and support and stating that she was not accepting any engagements while she worked to complete a book.
In 1969, a group associated with the Black Panthers kidnapped at gunpoint Alfred Whiters, the African American custodian of Temple B’nai Abraham, in an attempt to locate Prinz’s home and to extort money. Mr. Whiters was released shortly without divulging any information and, Prinz said, “was a real hero.” (May 14, 1969, “Rabbi Target of Extortion,” New York Times)
Soon after, the Temple was set aflame by arson and police protection was provided for several weeks to both the synagogue and Rabbi Prinz’s home. A committee of African American leaders visited the synagogue and released a statement of support, saying:
Rabbi Joachim Prinz has proven through years of active involvement that he is a trusted partner in the battle for full freedom for our people, and all people who are unjustly denied their full rights at humanity’s common table. On this sad day, we, the black leaders of Newark, extend to him and his congregation our hand in sorrow and common brotherhood.
Eventually, not one congregant lived in Newark and it became clear that the time had come to leave. In 1972, the congregation sold its building and in 1973 it moved into a new home in Livingston, NJ. Many congregants were displeased that Prinz’s previous refusal to consider leaving Newark had cost the congregation financially.
In his final sermon in Newark, Prinz said:
“I conceived, as I do now and will until I die, of a Judaism and its contribution, its total dreams and visions, as part of the great dreams and visions of mankind. Therefore we remained in and were part of this town when this city, this community, went down. This is why I feel complete responsibility, and this may in fact be an irresponsibility, for our being the last large Jewish congregation to leave the city of Newark. . . . We do this with a clear understanding that we are not fleeing from it or trying to escape from it, but will continue to feel part of its problems, its nightmares, of its present, of its future, of everything that will remain part of this town.”
Prinz did not feel that his people, the Jews, had completed the journey to a secure, lasting freedom. As long as others were still back on the other shore, just stepping in, or struggling neck-deep in the water, it was not yet time for timbrels and celebrations. He had been on the other side, and he knew the journey could not be made alone.
Rachel Nierenberg Pasternak and Rachel Eskin Fisher of R Squared Productions are the producers of the documentary film Joachim Prinz: I Shall Not Be Silent. This essay was written in collaboration with Clement A. Price, Rutgers University Board of Governors Distinguished Professor of History. Sadly, Price passed away on November 5, 2014, just as this article was going to press. His co-authors dedicate this essay in his memory and in honor of his important contribution to the study of ethnicity, race relations and culture in America.
I Shall Not Be Silent will be screening at the Washington DC Jewish Film Festival in January 2015. If you would like the citations for this essay, please visit www.prinzdocumentary.org and complete the contact form, and the authors will make them available to you.