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VCU Menorah Review Winter/Spring 2010
Number 72
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

An Extraordinary Rabbinic Life

Joachim Prinz, Rebellious Rabbi. An Autobiography the German and Early American Years. Edited and with an introduction by Michael A. Meyers
A review essay by Matthew Schwartz

Rabbi Dr. Joachim Prinz was a gifted raconteur, confident though not confessional, positive though not triumphant, engaging but serious. The American reader who knows some American Jewish history will find the last section more familiar while the first two sections fascinate like a top historical novel. We come to know both Jewish life in Germany and Rabbi Prinz’s personal experience. According to Professor Michael A. Meyers’s excellent introduction, Dr. Prinz dictated this autobiography to his secretary around 1977, shortly after retiring from the pulpit of Temple B’nai Abraham in Newark, New Jersey. It remains close to oral form, and it does not seem that Dr. Prinz edited it. Meyers edited the text, and added many brief notes, usually identifying names or explaining religious practices. The narrative ends in 1948, with Dr. Prinz still in his mid-forties. The last event is the passing of Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, whom Dr. Prinz admired as mentor. Dr. Prinz would continue to play a noticeable role in the U.S., including an oration at Martin Luther King’s famous Washington D.C. rally in August, 1963.

Dr. Prinz’s account of his first years is riveting. “The village in which I was born cannot be found on any map” an Upper Silesian village of 900 residents far closer to the Medieval world than to our own fast moving age of computers and cell phones. The peasants were serfs who depended on the count who lived in an eighteenth century chateau. They would bow their heads as his carriage drawn by four horses would rush through the village.

No other Jews lived there and, as a child, Joachim was often taken by maids to the local Catholic church. He could remember being in a synagogue only once. His house had a Christmas tree and almost nothing Jewish except some special foods for Passover. Prinz is open and matter of fact about the sex games he played with the family’s maids as a little boy, as well as his far from monogamous adulthood. In all, he retained pleasant impressions of a certain regularity of life. After several years, the family moved to Oppeln, a town of 35,000, where there were better schools, and where he first saw water faucets, flush toilets and gas lights.

Young Prinz was not close to his father. His grandfather, whom he did not know, was probably Orthodox in practice, but the father seems unstable in his own religious practice as well as coldly strict with his own family. Only a few of the 200 Jewish families in Oppeln kept kosher, and the father would eat every day a second breakfast invariably including ham. There was little religious observance in the house. Yet the father knew Hebrew and, strangely, would regularly don tefilin. A rabbi of Oppeln wrote a book arguing against the observance of the dietary laws. Nevertheless, in the synagogue, the women sat segregated in a balcony. The young boy received little warmth from the father, and once when the boy came home with a subpar report card, the father punished him by smashing his beloved violin.

His mother was a warmer person, and her death in childbirth when Joachim was only ten, was imaginably difficult for him. It is not surprising that the boy sought meaning in religion, and by age 15 he was deeply involved in Judaism, mentored by Felix Goldmann the town’s young rabbi. Dr. Prinz describes their early morning journeys to deliver food to the poor, both Jews and non-Jews. He describes too how once he held the Torah scroll, and the soft wrapping reminded him of his mother. “Torah and mother became one.” (p. 35). Although he would turn more liberal later, at that age he found the Reformed services empty and shallow, and he often attended the more fervent Seventh Day Adventist service on Friday nights. The assimilation of the Jews of Oppeln left a void in him, and he devoted himself to Jewish study and to Zionism. He would eat no meat in his non-kosher home, nor would he ring the door bell nor carry books on the Sabbath.

The account of the Jewish seminary at Breslau is memorable, especially the stories of the prodigious scholarship of Professor Horowitz, whose daughter Prinz later married. Horowitz knew not only much of the Talmud by heart but astounded a non-Jewish professor by quoting by heart twenty pages of Aristotle to support a viewpoint he was arguing. Other professors too were noteworthy for both learning and personality, like Hans Loewy. As was the custom, Prinz earned a Ph.D. from a university as well as the seminary ordination.

Berlin was an exciting city in the 1920’s, liberal, cultured and creative, where virginity was frowned upon, but it was a dream world. Democracy was simply not for the Germans, and anti-semitism grew, pointing toward Nazism. As a young rabbi in Berlin, Prinz was certainly innovative. He focused on the youngsters, even taking them skating, and he was an outspoken Zionist, despite the opposition of many community bigwigs. He claims to have recognized the real threat of Hitler by the late 1920’s, far earlier than anyone else. As the numbers of storm troopers and swastikas increased, “I knew that Hitler had conquered Germany.” Indeed, things began to grow worse for the Jews as soon as Hitler came to power in 1933. Jews were forced in on themselves, and Prinz describes the new intense feeling of the Sabbath prayer services. When Dr. Prinz offered a course in Jewish History, 7000 people showed up.

Prinz continued to express his views on the Nazis with reckless freedom and was in fact called in for questioning by the Gestapo several times. He was able to befriend a Gestapo officer who was assigned to watch the services at his synagogue. As the Nazis took over full control of Germany, the Jews were unable or unwilling to respond. That Prinz was not killed by the Nazis, he saw as due to divine protection, and he openly called for emigration as the only possible solution. Jews had felt themselves very deeply a part of German society, but that now proved to be an illusion. Jewish leaders refused to recognize the changes in what they saw as their Germany. It is notable that the universities were particular hotbeds of anti-Semitism.

The danger to Dr. Prinz personally increased. He visited the United States in 1936 and was accused afterward by the Gestapo of sabotaging the Hindenburg. Later, he was asked by the Gestapo to spy for them in the United States. After many difficulties, Prinz and his family were able to migrate to America. Adolph Eichmann came to keep watch at Dr. Prinz’s farewell sermon.

America was quite a culture shock for the Prinz family. Dr. Prinz found American rabbis mediocre and not too educated. They tried hard but with little success to attract people, and services were poorly attended. Organized Jewish life he found to be dominated by leaders who were wealthy but Jewishly illiterate. They had little idea of what was happening in Europe.

There are interesting anecdotes about how Dr. Prinz converted the English girl who would marry David Ben-Gurion’s son. The elder Mrs. Ben-Gurion would later refer to her as the best Jew in the family. Mrs. Orde Wingate was another acquaintance. Dr. Prinz was at the U.N. for the partition vote that helped launch the State of Israel. In London, he met the messenger who had delivered the original Balfour Declaration from Lord Balfour to Lord Rothschild thirty tears earlier.

Dr. Prinz was particularly devoted to Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, who had been very helpful to him, and the reader will feel that the book ends in medias res with Rabbi Wise’s passing.

This is the first book on the life and career of Joachim Prinz. It is a great read.

Matthew Schwartz is a professor in the history department of Wayne State University and a contributing editor.

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