How One of America’s Great Rabbis Handled Christian Antisemitism
Article from Jewish Currents
by Rabbi Clifford Kulwin, June 20, 2018
One July evening in 1944, Rabbi Joachim Prinz gave a lecture at Camp Berkeley, a large Army training installation near Abilene, Texas. Although we cannot know the circumstances that brought Prinz, a Holocaust refugee, to Texas, a recently discovered exchange of letters about his visit reveals a Jewish civil rights icon directly engaging American antisemitism.
Confronting Jew-hatred was already a theme of Prinz’s life. Prussian-born and ordained in 1926 by the Jewish Theological Seminary in Breslau, Prinz assumed a prestigious pulpit in Berlin. He acquired a reputation as a riveting sermonizer who attracted hundreds of worshipers to every service.
Even before Hitler’s rise, Prinz warned Jews of the growing peril of National Socialism. As his predictions became even more extreme than he envisioned, his rhetoric ratcheted up. He pleaded with Germany’s Jews to leave before it was too late; the Gestapo arrested Prinz on multiple occasions, and he fled the country in 1937, mere hours before the arrest that would have sealed his fate.
After arriving in America he began traveling the country, telling Jews what was happening in Germany. In 1939, he became the rabbi of Temple B’nai Abraham in Newark. Just like in Berlin, his sermons attracted standing room-only crowds.
Within a couple of decades, the newly American rabbi would become famous for his early leadership in the civil rights movement, drawing parallels in America with what he had witnessed in Europe. He attracted national attention for his brief, but extraordinary speech at the 1963 March on Washington.
But in 1944, in Texas, Prinz was not well-known. While Temple B’nai Abraham was not a small congregation, its finances were shaky:
Prinz may have been on a lecture tour for his own benefit, or perhaps representing a Jewish organization, or even on behalf of the United States government, seeking to remind the troops of the importance of defeating Germany.
The following correspondence was found in the home of a recently-deceased lifelong Temple B’nai Abraham congregant. The writer, a Christian chaplain, has no love for Nazism, affirming his desire to “help our soldiers defeat this barbarism and wipe it off the face of the earth.” At the same time, he blames the Jews for their own predicament, asking Prinz, “Is it not true that the Jews took advantage of an impoverished Germany after World War I and bought everything they could put hands on?”
Prinz replied at length, showing the chaplain respect (“I know that…you and I are convinced that only a serious treatment of the subject will help.”) even as he challenged him at every turn. The chaplain, no doubt, was not convinced. But the erudition and thoughtfulness of Prinz’s response remind us why he was one of the great rabbis of the 20th century.
A note: The letters below have been reproduced as faithfully as possible, which means there are some grammar mistakes, misspellings, and inconsistencies throughout the text. You can find original copies of the letters here.