By Bruce Adolphe
At the March on Washington, August 28, 1963, right before Martin Luther King, Jr., gave his “I Have a Dream” speech, Joachim Prinz delivered a powerful message that included these words:
“When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, I learned many things. 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. America must not become a nation of onlookers…”
Today, this message is as important as it was then. The best way to contribute to society is to make your voice heard. Never leave it to others. Discuss, debate, respond, write, march, protest, speak out, vote. In a country like ours, with so many leisure distractions, it is all too easy to be lulled into complacency, to think of “the news” as something to watch without the realization that you can be involved, you can affect change, you can be heard. When running for office, President Obama knew the power of the phrase, “Yes we can.” It is about doing rather than watching; it is about speaking out rather than being silent.
My wife’s family is related to Joachim Prinz (he was the brother-in-law of my father-in-law’s first cousin) and so I learned about this extraordinary man through personal stories rather than through media of any kind. Jonathan Prinz, Joachim’s son, married my wife and me. We have visited with Lucie Prinz, Joachim’s daughter. When I read Joachim Prinz’s autobiography Joachim Prinz Rebellious Rabbi (edited and with an introduction by Michael A. Meyer) I knew I had to compose some music about him, to bring his life and message to others in the best way I could.
In an oratorio I composed in 2011 called Reach Out, Raise Hope, Change Society — which is about civil rights and justice around the world — I set to music Prinz’s words, “The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence”. Soon after, I began to ponder how else I might compose music inspired by Prinz. I feel strongly that Prinz’s life, his courage to speak out, and his eloquence should be more widely known so that more people could be inspired by his example.
Born in Germany in 1902, Prinz was a brave, outspoken rabbi in Berlin during the Nazi years who saved thousands of lives and risked his own by warning Jews of the evils to come under Hitler. Escaping to America in 1937, Prinz became a friend of Martin Luther King, Jr. and a vociferous, inspiring leader of the Civil Rights Movement. Prinz’s participation in the March on Washington was, he always felt, a highlight of his life, the culmination of all the things he had stood for throughout his career both in America and earlier in Germany.
In that speech, he said, “In the realm of the spirit, our fathers taught us thousands of years ago that when God created man, he created him as everybody’s neighbor. Neighbor is not a geographic concept. It is a moral concept. It means our collective responsibility for the preservation of man’s dignity and integrity.”
President Obama quoted these words when he spoke from Israel on March 21, 2013. Suddenly, people around the world heard of Joachim Prinz for the first time and were moved by his message. Personally, I was amazed and delighted that our president knew of Joachim Prinz and had decided to include Prinz’s words in a speech of his own.
In the 1950s, the Quakers coined the phrase speak truth to power — it is a phrase that describes the life of Joachim Prinz perfectly. One voice that will not be silent.
For me, music is the most effective way to speak out. The solo violin throughout the piece portrays Joachim Prinz, while the orchestra represents Nazi Germany (in the first movement) and America during the civil rights movement (in the second movement). The more you understand Joachim Prinz and his message of freedom, equality, and — most of all — speaking truth to power, the more you will hear in the music.
I invite you to explore and contemplate the life of Joachim Prinz, and to let his story inspire you now and in the years to come.