The confluence of Martin Luther King Jr. Day on the third Monday in January and Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27 is a recent development.
The first date was established in 1986; the second one, marking the liberation of Auschwitz in 1945, in 2005. But if you had to pick one person to best reflect both commemorations, that person would probably be Rabbi Joachim Prinz, who fled Germany in 1937, led a synagogue in Newark for decades, and spoke in the August 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom immediately before Dr. King himself.
That makes “Joachim Prinz: I Shall Not Be Silent” the perfect documentary to show on Sunday afternoon in the Teaneck Public Library. (See box.) The screening is co-sponsored by the Northern New Jersey Holocaust Museum and Education Center committee and Teaneck’s Enslaved African Memorial Committee. The two groups are working to develop a Garden of Human Understanding on the Teaneck Municipal Green that will commemorate both the Holocaust and American slavery, although the two will be kept separate.
In the summer of 1963, Rabbi Prinz was the president of the American Jewish Congress. He was, in many circles — certainly among the older generation — a bigger celebrity than young Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, who sang for the crowd of a quarter-million marchers.
But several decades later, when Rachel Pasternak was studying for a graduate degree in Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, she had never heard of Rabbi Prinz, who had died in 1988. She was looking for a research project. Her grandparents had been members of his Temple B’nai Abraham in Newark and her family recalled him as a rabble-rouser.
Her research led her to the rabbi’s daughter, Deborah Prinz, who had a then-unpublished memoir by her father. And that ultimately led Ms. Pasternak to partner with her friend, Rachel Fischer, in creating the documentary.
Dr. Fischer — the filmmaker has a Ph.D. in religious studies from the University of California, Santa Barbara — said what sold her on the Rabbi Prinz project was reading his speech at the Washington March.
“I was blown away by what he had to say,” she said. “I had studied modern Jewish thought, had studied African American history in college. Yet I had never heard of Rabbi Prinz. And here was this speech that was delivered before I was born, saying something I always wanted to hear.”
The core of the speech, Dr. Fischer said, “is his description of the intrinsic Jewish religious reason for working for civil rights. Rabbi Prinz’s point of view is that you don’t work for civil rights to be nice or to be a good person, but it’s actually a religious imperative because of the commandment to love your neighbor. That really resonated.”
And then there was the lesson he brought from his experience in Germany, the lesson which gives the film its silence:
“When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, I learned many things,” Rabbi Prinz told the crowd in 1963. “The most important thing that I learned under those tragic circumstances was that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful, and the most tragic problem is silence.
“A great people which had created a great civilization had become a nation of silent onlookers. They remained silent in the face of hate, in the face of brutality, and in the face of mass murder.”
The film tells the story of how Rabbi Prinz, who grew up in a secular, assimilated family, one of the only Jews in his town, became a rabbi and a Zionist in an act of rebellion. (He has his own entry in the Internet Movie Database, for his role in writing “Hatikvah,” a 1936 documentary about Zionism created to encourage German Jews to emigrate to Palestine.)
A key moment came when he was a young boy and saw a crowd gathering around a violin player in the street.
“I’m going to be like that,” he thought.
“He knew from an early age,” Dr. Fischer said. “He had really great charisma and an incredible speaking ability. I don’t think he ever thought he wouldn’t use that talent to make things better for people. Then he was called to do that by the situation in Germany.”
“He was a natural on stage,” Ms. Pasternak said. “When he gave a sermon at his temple, he would jump down the steps. He was trained in Germany not to use notes when preaching. It led to a dramatic style of presentation. When Stephen Wise was trying to bring him to America, he wrote ‘We need his voice. We need him to explain what’s happening in Germany and what’s going on.’”
And indeed, on arriving in America, he began touring the country, lecturing on behalf of what was then called the United Palestine Appeal.
His travels in America, and his experiences in Newark, “awakened him to issues of segregation and justice very early,” Ms. Pasternak said. “He was traveling the country speaking about the need to help Jews in Germany get to Palestine, and he observed and empathized with what African Americans were experiencing. Once he became the president of the American Jewish Congress” — he served from 1958 to 1966, and headed the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations from 1965 to 1967 — “he had the opportunity to have a soapbox for civil rights and to bring the entire organization into the forefront of civil rights work.”
There’s a piece of film footage from 1958 that is one of Ms. Pasternak’s favorite moments of the documentary.
“It doesn’t involve Rabbi Prinz per se,” she said. “It’s an African American woman in Newark talking about white flight.” She had run across a refence to the clip, from a network news segment, in indices to old footage. “It was hard to get our hands on it. We were really proud when we found it. It sort of surprises people, to have a black woman of that time speaking for herself and being the star.”
For Dr. Fischer, some of the most moving moments are when the film ventures into the 21st century.
“Toward the end, we loop back to the present day. After Rabbi Prinz’s congregation moved from Newark to Livingston, they kept up a relationship with the evangelical church that moved into the synagogue. The congregation is still linked to Newark because it was so important to Rabbi Prinz.”
And then came a moment, late in the film’s production process, when President Barack Obama received a humanitarian medal in Israel and quoted from Rabbi Prinz’s Washington speech.
“It brought a new life to the story,” she said. “It added a whole other layer.”
What: Film, “Joachim Prinz: I Shall Not Be Silent,” followed by discussion with its directors.
When: Sunday, January 27, at 2 p.m.
Where: Teaneck Public Library, 840 Teaneck Road, Teaneck
Cost: Admission is free