Joachim Prinz (1902–1988) was one of the most extraordinary and innovative figures in modern Jewish history. Never one for conformity, Prinz developed and modeled a new rabbinical role that set him apart from his colleagues in Weimar Germany. Provocative, strikingly informal and determinedly anti-establishment, he repeatedly stirred up controversy. During the Hitler years, Prinz strove to preserve the self-respect and dignity of a Jewish community that was vilified on a daily basis by Nazi propaganda. After immigrating to the United States in 1937, he soon became a prominent rabbi in New Jersey, drawing thousands to his unpredictable sermons. Prinz's autobiography, superbly introduced and annotated by Michael A. Meyer, offers a fascinating glimpse into the life and personality of this unconventional and influential rabbi.
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About the Author
Michael A. Meyer is Adolph S. Ochs Professor of Jewish History at the Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, Ohio, and international president of the Leo Baeck Institute, devoted to the history and culture of German-speaking Jewry. He is author of Response to Modernity: A History of the Reform Movement in Judaism and co-editor (with Michael Brenner) of the four-volume German-Jewish History in Modern Times. He lives in Cincinnati, Ohio.
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Joachim Prinz, Rebellious Rabbi
An Autobiography â" the German and Early American Years
By Michael A. Meyer
Indiana University PressCopyright © 2008 Michael A. Meyer
All rights reserved.
Childhood and Youth
* * *
The village in which I was born cannot be found on any map. Even on the most minute maps of Upper Silesia, in the province in which it was situated, it is not even a dot. The name was Burkhardsdorf. The original name, however, dated back to the eighteenth century when Upper Silesia was a part of the kingdom of Poland, and at that time it was called Bierdzan. Evidently, nobody who was born there ever moved away. It is because of this fact that the peasants who lived in this tiny village still spoke a German mixed with many Polish words, and those who spoke Polish spoke a jargon which was a distorted language mixed with many German words. There were nine hundred people in the village. The peasants were serfs and depended upon the count who lived in a lovely eighteenth-century chateau, built on a hill and visible from every part of the little village, which was built around a pond. The count actually owned all the land and leased it to the people who worked diligently from early in the morning until the beginning of the night, taking home whatever fruit, vegetables, or wheat were harvested. I am sure that a considerable portion of the fruits of their labor had to be delivered to the count. I often saw his carriage drawn by four horses rush through the village, with him and his family sitting there stiffly, smiling from time to time, as the peasants stood around bowing their heads in reverence to the man who held them in some sort of beneficent slavery.
The houses in which the peasants lived looked decent and sturdy. They were neither dilapidated huts nor hovels or village slums. They were nicely kept. The gardens were cultivated and there were flowers all over the place. Nobody starved and nobody suffered. They were all pious Catholics who had a quiet and convincing form of rustic piety with many superstitions, strictly adhered to since the Middle Ages. None of them had gone to school longer than the prescribed years, which meant graduation at the age of fourteen. The son usually followed in his father's footsteps with regard to his work, as he had been doing since early childhood. It was a peaceful village, and I do not remember any kind of quarrel or loud noises. We must have had the proverbial village idiot, but I don't remember him. There were only two establishments accessible to the people, the inn and my father's general store. We were the only Jewish family; my parents were among the few who spoke nothing but German and who wrote clearly and spelled properly. The other two persons who were educated were the parish priest and the director of the school. Once every week my father met with these two gentlemen. The meeting was usually held in our home in the big living room, which was properly and formally furnished, with kerosene lamps standing on a covered table. I do not remember what kind of card game they played, but play they did, from shortly after suppertime until midnight. I always saw the two men come and watched my mother offer them refreshments and liquor, but, of course, I was fast asleep when they left.
The small one-room school was typical of villages all over the world. Since the village's inhabitants were Catholic, classes were usually taught by a priest. Like all German schools, it was orderly and very well disciplined. No one dared to talk during class hours. When the teacher came in, we all rose and stood until he asked us to sit down. But we were not permitted to sit without joining him in pronouncing the sacred words, "In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit." He would ask us to put our thumbs up to our foreheads and then make the sign of the Cross on the forehead, the mouth, and the chest. Only after we had done that were we allowed to sit down for the beginning of the class. We went to that school only for a bit over a year, but it was a sacred place, not merely sparklingly clean, but also somewhat divine. For to have a book and learn how to read and write was not merely an exercise of the mind but a personal involvement. I was probably more efficient at that than my classmates, for I came from a cultured family whereas they were the children of peasants. I was always properly dressed. I rose early in the morning and was dressed by one of the maids.
Our house, when I think back to it, appears to have been very large, although I am sure that memories taken from childhood often cause us to forge facts and to remember some things as being very large when, in fact, they are quite small. But small it was not. It had many rooms. I was the eldest of three children, all born in a succession of one-and-a-half-year intervals, as though it had been carefully calculated. I believe that we had a large room together at first. It was only later that I had my own room, long after we left the village. So I must have shared a room with my brothers until that day.
The house was surrounded by a very large courtyard. Next to the house was a well from which we pumped water. There was no water in the house, nor were there flush toilets. The courtyard led to a large barn where we kept our horses. I don't remember whether we ever had cattle. The most important part of the barn, however, was the upper floor because my father was a pigeon fancier and bought all kinds of pigeons, some of them rather fancy. There must have been several hundred of them. It was the only hobby he really had, or at least the only one I remember. All his time was given over to our general store.
There were large tracts of land: gardens for flowers and others for vegetables, a field with wheat and large meadows, and a little brook in which we played and caught fish. The water needed in the house for cooking and washing was brought in by one of the many servants we had. We never had less than three or four in addition to one or two young girls who were in charge of the children. They used to take us out for long walks in the fields and forests and introduced us rather early in life to sexual experiments of which we understood very little. They asked us to crawl underneath their skirts and play with their private parts, which we found rather amusing and sometimes a burden of our day, but which nevertheless, at least at that time, played no part in our lives. The smell of the blueberries and wild strawberries, and the many kinds of mushrooms we found in the forest, were more important to us than the little sex games the girls evidently expected us to play with them.
My father had inherited all of his property from his father. His mother was always very sickly and had died in the village long before my birth. My grandfather had left the property to his eldest son. Apparently, he was the only one determined to stay in the village; his brothers and sisters had moved away to larger towns, married there, and founded their own families. Only my father stayed on. Whether he did so because he loved the village and the simple life we lived appealed to him more than the great adventure of establishing a new life in a larger city, I do not know. The village was very close to him and everybody in the village knew him, of course. The store was the only place where one could buy things. There was no other within a radius of a hundred miles.
The store, founded by my grandfather, was very profitable. Naturally, it would have been ridiculous to carry such items as butter, milk, or bread in the store. All these staples of life were produced by the peasants themselves and they would not have dreamed of buying them in a store. Of course, there was no one in the village who did not have many chickens that provided the family with eggs. Our courtyard was replete with them. Every morning one of the maids would collect the eggs, which we ate for breakfast. I do not know where we bought our meat. There might even have been a butcher in the village, but I do not remember. I only know that food was plentiful, and some of the peasant dishes, which were served regularly in addition to the typical meals of that time, I still remember fondly. Once in awhile I try to recreate them in my present life. Our food was very German. We never had any notion of Jewish food, although I do not believe that in the village my father ate ham every day as he did in later years or that we served pork. Money was never discussed, nor was it ever an object of any kind of serious consideration. We got a new outfit of clothes every year; we knew nothing of monetary restrictions, or poverty, or any kind of need. We were always well provided for as befitting a middle-class family living in the midst of a population of peasants.
Somehow I knew that I was a Jew, but not because of any Jewish customs that were observed in the house. I remember that we had a Hebrew prayer book, but it was only taken out when there was a thunderstorm. I remember that whenever there was loud thunder and frightening lightning, my mother would take out the prayer book, open it to a certain prayer, put it on the table, and tell me that the prayer on that page would protect our lives. Evidently it did because the house was never struck by lightning.
We felt that we were Jews especially when our relatives would visit, maybe once or twice a year. We knew we were different from the others, but it was simply that the others were Catholics and we were not. This did not prevent us from observing certain Catholic customs. Whenever we met peasants in the street or walking in the fields, they would say, "In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit," and we would answer, "In all eternity may it be so. Amen." I never forgot that sentence. It was said with great sincerity, and I learned early in life to respect the faith of others. My first religious experiences, if they can be called that, were in the Catholic church.
The church was a lovely little village church without any architectural significance. I write this although I knew very little about architecture at that time. It might very well be that it was an old church, for the village was old. The church was surrounded by the churchyard, which served as a cemetery. During the cold autumn months, we commemorated the day of All Souls. The maids would take us to the cemetery after sunset to the graves of their ancestors or members of the family, and each of us would light a candle on the graves. It was one of the most profound and solemn memories of my youth. The churchyard was rather small, but there was not a single grave without many candles. Although the wind sometimes blew them out, they were immediately lit again. Remembering it now, it seemed to me then as though the cemetery were an ocean of light. The light was not merely beautiful but also very comforting because the nights were cold and warmth came from the burning candles. We were all bundled up and it was pleasant to come home, where we were given a plate of soup to warm us up until we undressed and crawled into the big beds, covering ourselves with down quilts. They were not the kind we have today, however; they were very heavy and caused us to dream terrible dreams.
We were brought into this world by a midwife. If we needed a doctor, as we sometimes did, he had to be called from the town, which was many miles away. I remember that one of them later told me one day he had received a call from our village that Prince Joseph (my father's first name was Joseph) was ill and needed medical attention. He immediately had his horse-drawn carriage prepared, put on his best suit and his high hat because he was about to examine and probably cure a real prince. He must have been terribly disappointed when he discovered that it was not a prince, but a family by that name that he had to attend to. A reasonable bill came, as was the custom in those days, at the end of a year. My father was in the habit of paying his bills on the same day they arrived.
When my father was old enough to look for a wife, he found her in a small town not too far from us by the name of Guttentag. My maternal grandfather, Liebermann Berg, was a landholder, who had a large farm with hundreds of people working for him, as well as a moving business. He was a very important person in the town and one of the streets was named for him. He had two daughters and several sons. I do not know how my father discovered the Berg family, perhaps through a marriage broker. They were well-to-do. Before my grandfather moved to that town, he had been a manufacturer of cigars; he was rich enough to retire at the age of fifty and to live on the interest that had accumulated from his life's fortune. As was usual in those days, my mother had to have a dowry that was rather large and that my father never touched. It was Rabbi Leo Baeck, who later became very famous, who performed the wedding ceremony in 1901. He was a Liberal rabbi. I do not know where the ceremony took place. A year later I was born.
I do not now remember ever having seen my mother in the kitchen. I suppose she did some of the cooking, but most of it was done, under her supervision, by our cook. My mother helped my father in the store. She was very petite, soft-spoken, and terribly affectionate. Once in awhile I would hear her quarrel with my father who was stern, punctual, and completely dedicated to what he considered to be his duty. He was very Prussian. His father was born in an Eastern European province, but I am sure his grandfather was born in Poland. We never spoke about it. Polish Jews were not among my father's favorites. He never spoke about the fact that his grandfather might have been an Eastern European Jew. This may very well have been so because of my mother's family. They were very German, one of the old German-Jewish families. In the early seventeenth century, they lived in Upper Bavaria; how and why they moved to Upper Silesia I do not know. Their name was Fraenkel, and my great-grandfather's name was Joachim Fraenkel. He served as an inspector for the manufacturing of alcohol on the estate of a German count. I was named for him. I never knew him, but people who did used to tell me stories about him. He was a great wit and very well educated. He had seven children. His five sons went to universities, which was rare in the middle of the nineteenth century, particularly for Jewish families. The two girls went to public schools, but they also had a French governess. I remember my grandmother, my mother's mother, who was to play a very important role in my life, spoke French and recited French poetry. Later, when I knew some French, I was appalled at her German accent. My great-grandfather, who was born in a very old German enclave in Upper Silesia, lies buried in a cemetery there, where his parents are buried. I was always fascinated by the stories of the Fraenkel family. One of my great-grandfather's sons had become a famous lawyer who was in charge of the property of the French government in Germany, which went back to the days of Napoleon. All members of the family did very well, and my great-grandfather's children, particularly the sons, were very tall and looked very distinguished. None of them was poor; all of them were well educated.
My father was very much the father figure and the authority whom I respected more than I loved. His stern demeanor prevented me from ever speaking intimately and personally with him. But my mother made up for it. On every one of our birthdays, we were permitted to come into her bed in the early morning and lie there close to her warm, tiny body, and she always told us the story of our birth. I am sure that it was not biologically a good story, but it was always very sweet, and throughout the year we looked forward to that moment. It may have been the warmth of her body that attracted us. Although I am sure that occasionally we were permitted to sleep next to her, it was the birthday that was the important day, as it has remained in our family. Everybody knew that I was born on the tenth day of the month of May, and I still remember that my mother was born on the second of September in 1877. My great-grandfather was born in the middle of April of 1814. I have his birth certificate in my possession and I hope it will somehow remain in the possession of my family. The name of Fraenkel is probably derived from the fact that they used to live in Franconia, probably in the city of Augsburg.
Excerpted from Joachim Prinz, Rebellious Rabbi by Michael A. Meyer. Copyright © 2008 Michael A. Meyer. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents
1. Childhood and Youth
Studies in Breslau and Berlin
2. Rabbi in Berlin
The Weimar Years
The Nazi Years
3. Newark, New Jersey
Appendix A. Chronology
Appendix B. Prinz's Speech at the Lincoln Memorial, August 28, 1963
Appendix C. Books by Joachim Prinz
What People are Saying About This
Fascinating reading. . . a rare case where a public figure opens the doors widely to his private life . . . truly unique for the light it throws on the atmosphere among Jews in preNazi and Nazi Germany.