How One of America’s Great Rabbis Handled Christian Antisemitism
A recently unearthed 1944 correspondence between Joachim Prinz and a Texas army chaplain.
One July evening in 1944, Rabbi Joachim Prinz gave a lecture at Camp Barkeley, 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 travelling 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.
Camp Berkeley, Texas
Hearing your lecture in Camp Berkeley last evening set me to thinking. I asked publicly a few questions, re the future of your people should Russia prevail in Europe, re the British Mandate over Palestine and the strength of the National Reich church. But there are a few matters I did not wish to ask about in public, since they are not complimentary in their implications. I feel, however, that I should convey them to you in private and take this opportunity to do so.
1. You spoke emphatically of the necessity of the Jew regaining his dignity and living on a dignified plane with men of other nationalities. To that I would say—agreed. But I hasten to make an observation. I have discerned time and again that the Jew cares very little about dignity, if he can, by losing it, make a dime. It is common knowledge, and men often speak of it, that the Jew will be living in rags and slummy circumstances just to gain more and more of the “yellow dust”. Hence he becomes wealthy, to be sure, but at too great cost in the estimation of other nationalities. It would therefore be most appropriate to tell your fellow-nationals to get away from their devotion to mammon and strive for higher things. I might add that whenever I speak to anyone in the Army or in Civilian community, there is perfect agreement on this score—the Jew grovels till his Bank Roll is fat and then by the economies of Capitalism takes advantage of his fellow-men. The result is an accumulation of wrath that ends in his suffering.
2. You spoke of the obligation on the part of the post-war world to restore properties lost by the Jews in Europe. I’m afraid you hit the wrong note there, sir. Is it not true that the Jews took advantage of an impoverished Germany after World War I and bought every thing they could put hands on? The judgment of myself and others here is that this is a type of robbery and stolen goods need not be returned when recaptured.
I realize I am touching a sore spot, but to hide it is wrong. It is the characteristic of your people to watch with eagle-eye the disaster of mankind and then capitalize on the wreckage. But strangely enough, they are blind to the disasters that they eventually always bring upon themselves in so doing. I truly sympathize with your people in all their sufferings. I hate intensely the cruelty which has been meted out to them. I am a Chaplain because I want to help our soldiers defeat this barbarism and wipe it off the earth. In this, I realize I may have to give my own life. Nevertheless, I am all the while conscious that the Jew is constantly accumulating the wrath of his fellow-man by what I mentioned at the beginning of this paragraph. I feel you would do much good if in your lectures you world impart this to them.
3. Now to say one of the hardest of all things to say. I may be wrong but before you dismiss it I’m sure you will weigh it carefully. I have felt for a long time that this is a prevailing practice of your people: to take advantage of the fruits of Christianity and grease their own purses with it. Let me explain. A new country comes into being, or a new city or community. Christian principles saturate the Constitution and formulate much of the foundations of this new entity. These christian principles teach us to live and let live and, granting they are effective, they set our minds on higher things than mammon. Very well, into this new group comes your inevitable, eagle-eyed Jew. His mind isn’t much troubled by the high standards of Jesus Christ. His one aim appears to be to get right into the center and help himself to the pie. And invariably he succeeds and to him the pie is very good, indeed.
Now, Dr. Prinz, it will not do for you to reply that I’m wrong in this and that there is nothing to it. I assure you I am speaking the minds of many when I say this. I have traveled in 31 states of our Union and lived 12 years in Canada and there traveled in all the provinces from Nova Scotia to British Columbia. I have tried to keep my eyes open. I am seeking to give you the hard, sad discoveries I myself have made. I say to you sincerely and with concern that in our Country there are many who have lost all sympathy for the Jew for the reasons I have given. May God open your eyes to see this and keep from you the deception that your people have nothing to fear here. If you have not read “Under Cover” it will pay you to do so.
My one hope for your people is the Christianization of them. Until that happens, I fear they will always turn their genius into channels for material gain, blinded to anything higher and powerless to obtain the higher. Their material gain will in turn become their bitterness and cause of their persecution.
I have honestly said what I felt I should say. I cordially await your reply.
Signed--Chaplain A. Rockamp
September 14, 1944
Chaplain A. Rochamp, 0-524310
Camp Berkeley, Texas
It is only now that I returned to my desk that I saw your letter of July 18th. You will, I hope, forgive me for answering so belatedly. I read your letter most carefully and you may rest assured that I appreciate your kindness in writing to me, and the fact that you expressed your sincere wishes to discuss these matters openly and frankly. I gather, from some of your remarks, how keenly you feel about it and that it is your intention to call my attention, and that of other Jewish leaders, to these facts. I want you to know that I believe you when you say that the letter expressed your honest opinion and that it is for the sake of truth, religion and better relations between the various groups that you felt prompted to write to me.
With this in mind and in the same spirit, I am writing to you. I know that neither you nor I wish to indulge in vague generalities, and that both you and I are convinced that only a serious treatment of the question can help.
Let me make a general remark at the outset. Unfortunately, neither Judaism nor Christianity were very successful. In spite of the teachings of Moses and Jesus, we have not been able to penetrate into the hearts of the people. Neither the Commandments of Mount Sinai nor the Sermon on the Mount have been fulfilled. Both Christianity and Judaism are in the midst of a great struggle for the conquest of the human hearts. We Jews are only a small people, and we have not reached the high status of other nations who are responsibly participating in the government of political and national affairs in the world. The vast majority of those people are Christians. But apparently they are only Christians by name, because if they were true to their faith, there would be neither war nor persecution nor so much misery in the world of today. If you look at the events from the termination of the first world war till today, you would think that the world was governed by pagans who were out for conquest, domination and exploitation, rather than the fulfillment of the old testamentarian “Thou Shalt Love Thy Neighbor as Thyself”, or the new testamentarian, “Thou Shalt Love Thine Enemy”.
As Christianity was not successful in molding the characters of an educated, enlightened and therefore most influential people in the governments of the world, so was it quite unsuccessful in making the average man and woman good Christians. The papers are full of stories that tell the gigantic failures of the Christian mission. There is so much robbery, murder, theft and betrayal of the principles of religion, so much greed and lust for money. The great Christian leaders whom I know are utterly desparate and are at a loss to know what to do about it.
If Christianity was unsuccessful, so were we. There are a great many Jews among us who have never understood what Judaism means. They follow the example of their Christian fellow citizens who violate the Christian laws and do just the same. There are a great many greedy, money-minded people among us. Some of them, as immigrants of the first generation would be likely to do, have little interest in things other than that of earning their livelihood; and I know of a great many people who in doing so have fallen in love with money-making and have become despicable people with no interest for their own religion nor concern for their fellow men.
You will readily see that this is not a Jewish problem. You would, I know, be justified in accusing me of an insincere, unreligious attitude if I would generalize and say that all Christians are murderers, robbers and thieves because we find many among them. It would never occur to me to accuse the Catholic religion or the Catholic people in terms of generalizations because Hitler and Mussolini are Catholics or some of the South American dictators are regular church goers. It would also not occur to me to charge all of the Christian people and the Protestant religion with the responsibility for the many transgressors of the Protestant faith. I accept these transgressors as individual cases and I never think for a moment that they are violating the laws of decency because they are Protestants.
That which is true of my attitude toward the thousands of crimes and violations committed by Christian people, must be true of your attitude toward violations by Jewish people. You cannot possibly have met the whole of the Jewish people. I was arrested in Germany by orders of the Secret Police. I have seen hundreds of people, all of them Christians, beat and torture innocent persons. I would not for a moment have thought that these were Christians. I knew then and I know now, that although these people may call themselves Christians, they do not deserve that I should identify them with Christianity. I pray for you that you have the strength and religious fortitude to do what your great Master did when he spoke of forgiving them for “they know not what they do”. I hope that God will restore to you that faith which you seem to have lost. Whenever you see Jews violating the rules of decency, or whenever you observe Christians doing so, I hope you will pray that God may help them to see the light, and you may not resort to the attitude of an uneducated layman who would easily and lightly condemn not only them, but the whole people of which they happen to be members.
I know all of Canada as you do. I have spoken in all the nine provinces of the country, and I have met the bulk of Canadian Jewry. I have also traveled in forty-two of the states of our Union and I have had an opportunity to meet a great many of our people. I cannot say that they are not reflecting, in their business pursuits and their lives, the attitudes of the average man in the various communities. There are good and bad people among them. I have met, particularly in Canada to which you refer, Jewish men and women who had worked in the early days of pioneering in the Canadian West, building the railroads and clearing the forests. I can tell you that among Canadian Jewry there are a great many who command the greatest respect in the various communities and I will never forget the day when in the City of Ottowa the chimes in the tower of the Parliament played Jewish melodies because of the birthday of a Jewish woman, revered by thousands of people as the mother of the community—Jews and Gentiles alike. I do not say that in the City of Ottowa there were not bad Jews. I do not say that in the City of Ottowa there were not bad Christians. I say that in Ottowa and in a thousand other communities all over the world, there is enough work for both you and me to be done among my people and among yours.
I was particularly interested in what you said about the German Jewry. I spoke, as you yourself recalled, about the restitution of property in Europe. This is not my invention. It is part of the plan of the United Nations and it is being translated into reality in all the liberated countries. The German government, as you know, has confiscated much property, among which there is property of the Catholic and Protestant Church. It has been agreed upon by the United Nations that such properties are to be restored to their former owners. You made the point that insofar as the Jews are concerned, it need not be restored to the people who owned it because “the Jews took advantage of an impoverished Germany after World War One, and bought everything they could put their hands on. The judgment of myself and others here is that this is a type of robbery, and stolen goods need not be returned when recaptured.” I am sure that you would not make such an alarming and accusing statement if you did not have it on very trustworthy authority. You are not accusing a group of five hundred thousand to have stolen whatever they possess. I am quite certain that you made it your business to read the laws of the German Nazi Government which were published in 1933 and later reiterated and fortified in 1938. In these laws you can read that Jewish property, that of the Jewish community and also that of private people can be confiscated in a great many ways. Factories, for instance, were expropriated by the so-called process of Aryanisation; others were taken away by some other so-called legal procedures. It may interest you to know that German Jewry has lived in Germany for over sixteen hundred years; the oldest tombstone can be found in the City of Trier in the Rhineland. It is dated 312. My own ancestors settled in Germany around the year 1500, probably in the City of Ausburg in southern Germany. As far as I know my people were merchants and farmers. We have inherited property for many generations. Jewish Synagogues existed that were built hundreds of years ago. I, myself, preached in a Synagogue in the city of Worms which was built in the year 1034. This Synagogue, together with all other Jewish buildings and private property, were confiscated. Nobody in the world who has any knowledge whatsoever, would claim that it was ever forcibly taken away from the Germans and that a restitution would be unjust and unfair. I am sure that if you think this over and try to get objective, trustworthy material from any of the libraries in this country, you will realize that you have done a great wrong to allege that the Jews of Germany stole their property and that it would be unfair to restore it to them. What is true of the German Jew is also true of those of North Africa, in France, in Austria, in Poland and other countries. What would become of society and mankind, what of religion and justice if we would make such a statement of yours without knowing with great certainty that what we say is absolutely true and based upon facts. You preface your remark by saying that it is a “sore spot” and that you hope I will not be insulted by what you say. I assure you I am not. I am earnestly and sincerely troubled by the thought that a man of your high standings—a Chaplain in the Army of the United States—and moreover, a Minister of a Christian Church, should not have tried to inform himself first, before accusing a people; a whole people; the people of the bible; a people that has produced the great things which nourish Judaism and Christianity alike.
Now that I am at the end of my letter, I am reading yours again, because I believe that you are in need of help. I am not talking to you as any official person but as a minister would talk to a fellow minister of his. I believe your sincerity and eagerness to help. I remember your face very well as you stood up to ask me some questions. It was the face of a man who is seeking truth. I am so profoundly concerned about the fact that you permitted yourself to be deceived by either biased propaganda of reports, or by your own thinking which did not consult the facts and figures, but above all, the religious and human implications of your assertions. For, I am sure, your solution—the conversion of the Jews to Christianity—is not a very good one. Christianity will have to do a great deal to christianize their own people. I have traveled in a great many camps and I have spoken to many of the Protestants’ Chaplains. You know yourself that the participation of Protestant soldiers in the services is alarmingly small, and since you are honest with yourself, you know that it would be good for the world if the Christian Ministers would see to it that their lost sheep are recaptured and that the Jewish Rabbis would endeavor to make those of our people who are gone astray, followers of the great and sacred precepts of Judaism. The Old Testament with its Ten Commandments and its great social laws, are sufficient guide for my people.
While I was dictating this letter, I was called by a member of my Congregation, the mother of a boy who participated as a gunner in the bombing of Germany. She informed me that he was killed in action. He was nineteen years old. He was one of many thousands of Jewish boys who are serving their country. It was a bit sad for me to think that there should be so much bitterness about our people that we could not recognise the fact that we live together and live for each other. That we must strive to become one large community regardless of race or creed, because so many of our boys, Christians and Jews alike, are laying down their lives because they hoped for just this. It would be tragic indeed if they would have died in vain and if false information and propaganda, spread by the enemies of this country who are also the enemies of our two great religions, would succeed in convincing even the educated among us, to misjudge and to forget principles of fairness, justice and piety.
I should be very happy, dear Chaplain, to hear from you. You will be among those for whom I will pray during the High Holy days which are now approaching. We will remember those millions of Jews who were innocently slain, not because they committed crimes but because they were members of a people that has been often crucified and seldom understood. With warm regards and personal wishes, I am,
Dr. Joachim Prinz