27 October 2014

As If He Were Green

I heard a good story recently and wanted to write it down.  To share it, so it could be remembered.

A short time after his survival in a work camp during the Second World War, a Jewish immigrant to the United States, who had lost most of his family in the Holocaust, was brought out of the Displaced Persons camp where he was placed immediately after the war's end and then transported to America with his wife and son by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.  

American Jewish communities in virtually every part of the United States participated in this highly coordinated effort to relocate refugees and allow them an opportunity to begin life all over again, an often devastatingly difficult endeavor, given all that had been lost and destroyed.  "Since one starts with absolutely nothing--no family, no town, no history--one had to decide who one would be." 

Some transcended the destruction with a will to begin again--vibrant, hopeful, alluringly engaging, reflecting the notion that every breath of life is an expression of good fortune, a blessing.  Others remained in place, if not in unavoidable decline, shrouded in the darkness of death, mired in the shadowed valley.

One such man, yeshiva-trained in Poland, fiercely intellectual, destined for a higher education and an exemplary professional life, emerged from the war never quite able to break free from its bonds.  He would have no such luxury.  His pride and dignity bolstered his refusal to take "charity" once he was brought to America and with no time to devote himself to getting the university training once he was distributed and settled into a small, southern Jewish community, he set out to find whatever work he could.  He wouldn't aspire.  He would merely work.  But his Jewish principles remained rock solid.

He saw an ad for a job with the designation, "Colored Only Need Apply," so he applied.  
"I'm Colored," he declared.  After all, he explained, everyone kept calling him "Greenhorn" when he arrived.  The application was for a driving job and the man who taught him to drive was an older African American, who graciously accepted him into his world.  Others, seeing the Jewish survivor driven around town by a Black man as he received his lessons asked what he was doing with a "Colored person."  "I'm Colored," he said.  "I'm Green."

As I heard this I was reminded of a story I once read about Rabbi Joachim Prinz, a German Jewish refugee himself who was a rabbi in Berlin before serving with distinction in Newark, New Jersey. American Jews often refer to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in near iconic terms, from his stand against the Vietnam  War to marching with Dr. King during the Civil Rights era; but it was Prinz who preceded King on the dais at the March on Washington in 1963.

You can find and listen to his speech here.

In 1937, Prinz also went south for a time following his arrival in America; and as the story goes, was on a speaking tour in Atlanta, raising awareness of the Jewish plight in Europe and for the Zionist cause.  One of his first stops in Atlanta, then still deeply segregated, was a visit to Dr. Willis Jefferson King, an African American Bible scholar.  Prinz had actually met King the prior year in Jerusalem at an academic conference under the auspices of the American School for Oriental Research.  

After their visit, explained Prinz in his autobiography, he invited the professor for a drink and dinner in his hotel.  "We should eat in your room," said Dr. King, fully aware of the racially divide, taboos against inter-racial amity, and the undergirding assumptions and racist barriers of "southern etiquette."  

Later, on the same trip, Prinz was in a Jewish home when his host expressed shock that he had broken bread with a Black man.  "I simply did not understand nor had I known that Jews, the classical victims of racial persecution, could themselves be racist," wrote Prinz.  "I said that what was evidently happening to the black people of America was the very same thing that was happening to the Jewish people in Europe."  The argument ensued and to break the tension, the host offered Rabbi Prinz a drink.  Hoping for a stiff whiskey to ease the impasse, he was passed a Coca Cola.  It would be the first and last time in his life he'd drink a Coke.  "Coca-Cola was for me a symbol of hatred and prejudice with which I did not want to be identified."

While there was great Jewish heroism during the Civil Rights movement, there were also pockets of Jewish racism and Prinz's story has always been an inspiring one.  The insidious associations to color and race in American history is an ongoing, ever-unfolding burden that each of us continue to bear as citizens obligated to uphold the greatest values embedded in our democratic ideals.

In his speech to the March on Washington in 1963, Prinz said, "America must not become a nation of onlookers.  America must not remain silent.  Not merely black America but all of America.  It must speak up and act, from the President down to the humblest of all, and not for the sake of the Negro, not for the sake of the black community but for the sake of the image, the idea and the aspiration of America itself."

He knew that truth--from heart to his bones to the surface of skin.  And it showed on the surface.  As apparent to all as if he were green.

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