The Plot for America: Remembering Civil Rights Leader Joachim Prinz
The influential Newark rabbi was a confidante of Martin Luther King, but he’s been all but ignored by history
On the evening of June 26, 1937, thousands of Berlin Jews packed the city’s grand Brüdervereinshaus to bid farewell to Rabbi Joachim Prinz, who had been ordered by the Gestapo to leave Germany immediately or face an almost certain death sentence for political subversion. Prinz had been the most popular, outspoken, and inspirational champion of Jewish national rights and Zionism in the dark years since the Nazis’ rise to power, preaching to overflow crowds at Berlin’s most important temples about the need to leave Germany and immigrate to Palestine. By the summer of 1937 he had already been arrested a half-dozen times by the Gestapo, but he always managed to elude deportation. This time, however, he was warned by his “friend” and informant, Gestapo Obersturmbanführer Kuchman, that his days were numbered, and he reluctantly decided to emigrate to the United States, sponsored by his friend and patron Rabbi Stephen S. Wise. Among the uninvited guests at Prinz’s farewell was a Nazi functionary, Adolf Eichmann.
Eichmann’s presence was to have important legal ramifications more than two decades later. In the initial discovery proceedings to establish Eichmann’s identity before his 1961 trial in Jerusalem, Benno Cohen, the foremost Zionist leader in pre-war Berlin, positively identified the defendant, testifying as follows:
We held a valedictory meeting to take leave of Rabbi Dr. Joachim Prinz who was leaving the country. He was one of the finest speakers, the best Zionist propagandist in those years. The large hall was packed full. The public thronged to this meeting. Suddenly, as chairman of the event, I was called to the door and my office clerk told me, “Mr Eichmann is here.” I saw this same man, for the first time in civilian clothing, and he shouted at me, “Who is responsible for order here? This is disorder of the first degree.” … I watched him the entire time from my place in the chair.
As a young rabbi in his late twenties, Prinz was already addressing congregations of thousands in Berlin’s largest temple, the magnificent Neue Synagogue on Oranienburger Strasse, whose stunning façade has recently been restored. And less than two years after arriving in the United States after his expulsion from Germany by Eichmann’s goons, he was appointed rabbi of New Jersey’s largest Jewish house of worship, the magnificent Greek Revival Temple B’nai Abraham, which towered over Newark’s then-fashionable and heavily Jewish Clinton Hill section, where hundreds of young people swarmed to hear his Friday-night orations.
As Prinz so evidently delights in repeatedly recalling in his posthumously published memoir, Rebellious Rabbi, the Jews of both Berlin and Newark—especially “the younger generation” to whom he mainly dedicated his ministries—did not so much “go to shul” for an encounter with the divine as they “went to Prinz” for an encounter with the rabbi. The combination of Prinz’s charismatic personality and his distinctly un-theological and nationalistic understanding of the essence of Judaism proved as attractive to the nervously Americanizing Jews of mid-20th-century New Jersey as it had been to the deeply assimilated and newly imperiled Jews of early Nazi Germany. Prinz’s nationalist theology was first expressed in his classic work of Jewish defiance, Wir Juden, which was published in Berlin in 1934 and quickly became a best-seller among Germany’s deeply demoralized Jews. He used his experiences leading the Jews of Nazi Berlin to develop an almost metaphysical notion of Jewish national identity, which he referred to as the “doctrine of Jewish inescapability.”
Prinz’s initial, exploratory visit to the United States, in March 1937, just a half year before his final emigration from Germany, was marked by all manner of disappointments with the “Golden Land.” Prinz complained bitterly about America’s complacence in the face of the threat posed by Nazi Germany. In his first recorded impressions of the country, he found almost nothing that compared favorably with his native Germany. America’s cities are depicted as ugly and rundown, racism against blacks disturbingly pervasive, its political culture naïve and intellectual life second-rate, and its people primitive and poorly dressed.
“My first impression with America was dreadful,” he wrote. Prinz arrived in Hoboken and described the scene as “not impressive, the houses were decrepit and the streets were dirty. The richest country in the world did not present itself to me as a place of glamour and prosperity.”
But, already during this first visit, Prinz was inspired by an unexpected section of New York—Harlem. “I remember being particularly interested in Harlem,” he wrote. “It was at that time that I heard for the first time what is now commonplace, namely speeches about Black Nationalism. Upon my return to Germany I wrote an article that was entitled ‘Zionism in Black.’ ”
And in June 1937, shortly before he finally emigrated with his family to the United States, Prinz published a stinging indictment of American racism, “Ámerika, hast du es besser?” in the Berlin liberal Jewish journal Der Morgen: “When people in New York City describe a neighborhood as being nice, they are not referring to its parks, trees or wide boulevards. They are talking about the fact that there are no blacks, Italians and Jews in that ‘nice’ part of the city.”
Prinz’s brave defiance of the Nazis, and his understanding of Jewish identity in primarily national, if not quite racial, terms, emboldened him to speak his mind when he encountered all forms of racism in the United States after he immigrated in August 1937. During his first foray outside New Jersey, to Atlanta, where he had been invited to address various Jewish organizations just three months after his arrival in the country, Prinz came face-to-face with Southern Jewish racism. Before his first engagement, speaking to members of the local Zionist leadership, Prinz scheduled a morning meeting with the Bible scholar and black Methodist bishop Willis Jefferson King, at the time professor of Old Testament at Gammon Theological Seminary, a black institution. Upon arriving in Atlanta, while making his way to King’s home, Prinz noticed a huge Coca-Cola sign, which at that time constituted Atlanta’s skyline, as the beverage company was the city’s largest business. Here is Prinz’s remarkable recollection of the subsequent events of that day:
After I left the Seminary, it was time for me to go and address a luncheon given in my honor by three Zionist groups. I was greeted by the people in charge of the affair and shortly thereafter one of them said to me, “I hear that you visited that nigger at the black seminary and even invited the nigger to dine with you tonight.” I was completely speechless. But I managed to respond that it was true that I visited with a great scholar and had a very interesting time with him. But I could not help adding that I was shocked to hear such words from a Jewish group welcoming a Hitler refugee. … I asserted that what was evidently happening to the black people of America was the very same thing that was happening to the Jews of Europe. There was an embarrassed silence … after which one of the Jews asked me: “Would the rabbi care for a drink?” … I immediately responded that I would like nothing better, hoping for a stiff alcoholic drink, not merely intoxicating but anaesthetizing for a pain I can hardly describe. Someone then brought me a glass of Coca Cola. That was the first time, and the very last time in my life that I drank Coca Cola. In all the forty years that have elapsed since 1937, Coca Cola was for me a symbol of hatred and prejudice with which I did not want to be identified.
Prinz could hardly have imagined at the time that more than a quarter of a century later he was to share these very same sentiments with what was to become the largest audience he, or any other American rabbi, was ever to address—the quarter of a million people who gathered on the National Mall for the “March on Washington for Jobs” on August 28, 1963, a historic event that Prinz often referred to in subsequent speeches and writings as the “most memorable religious experience of my life,” and of which he was one the principle organizers.
Following a stirring rendition of “I’ve Been Buked and Scorned” by the so-called Queen of Gospel, Mahalia Jackson (Prinz, clearly moved by Jackson’s performance, prefaced his speech by declaring, “I wish I could sing!”) and speaking just prior to Dr. King’s legendary “I Have a Dream” oration, Prinz mesmerized the marchers with a speech that was as bold as it was brief, and as inspiring as it was passionate. Opening with the words “I speak to you as an American Jew,” Prinz launched a powerful indictment of American silence in the wake of that era’s violent racism in the Deep South, an apathy that he controversially compared to the silence of “ordinary Germans” during the early years of the Third Reich.
(Curious about Prinz’s proud vow of cola abstinence, I’d contacted Prinz’s son, Rabbi Jonathan Prinz, who confirmed that Coca-Cola was not allowed in the Prinz family home. But he added a literally refreshing footnote. The day of the March on Washington was especially hot and humid, the younger Rabbi Prinz recalled. His father was parched after the speeches and joined other members of the roster at a VIP tent at the front of the Mall, in search of a cool beverage; to his dismay, the only drink available was Coca-Cola, which both rabbis Prinz happily consumed with great gusto.)
Rahm Emanuel, who will become the first Jewish mayor of Chicago, shied away from discussing his religion during the campaign, but he couldn’t escape Jewish exceptionalism