In so many ways, it seems that the Holocaust is much closer to us, in memory and consciousness, now, so many decades later, than it was then when our parents carried its fresh scars and their children, who came of age in the 1960s, were all about changing the world, heedless of their anxious memories and associations. I come to the topic as an American, a Jew, a child of German-Jewish refugees, and a quite young participant in the civil rights movement, the New Left, and then, probably most comfortably, the feminist movement that emerged out of the first two. As a historian of modern Germany, the Shoah, and its aftermath, I come also with an abiding curiosity about all the ways in which the “shadow of the Holocaust” was for the very most part indeed shadowy, a barely articulated or acknowledged presence for activists, even for Jews, even for the children of the refugees and survivors, in the ’60s. This disconnect from relatively recent events seems both hard to understand and completely in keeping with the spirit of what were radically forward-looking times.

It is important to remember also that the ’50s had been haunted much more deeply by the “bomb” (and by McCarthyism, a particular trauma for many refugees from fascism) than by the Holocaust. As New York City schoolchildren, we found our war memorials in exhibits about the horrors of the bomb, which introduced the obligatory but also fascinating tours of the gleaming new United Nations building on the banks of the East River. The consequences of nuclear warfare appeared incontrovertibly more immediately dangerous and requiring of action than a death camp set up by a thoroughly defeated regime that no longer posed an existential threat. And this despite the fact that both my grandmothers had been murdered in Auschwitz, and their ghosts, as well as the entire refugee experience, surely inhabited our small apartment on the Upper West Side.

None of which is to say of course that the Holocaust was absent. In the United States as well as in Germany, references to Fascism, Hitler, the Gestapo, punctuated the rhetoric of ’60s radicals. But—and this is, I think, absolutely key—the historical referents were quite different: “Never Again” in the ’60s meant “Never again a good German,” never again a faceless Arendt-ian cog in a bureaucratic wheel of oppression, murder, and genocide, never again a perpetrator, and never again an apathetic bystander to, and facilitator for, an unjust regime engaged in racial persecution and aggressive wars. For ’60s activists, the injunction “never again” relied on images of, and assumptions about, ordinary Germans tolerating the crimes of the Third Reich. Even today, a quick search of general histories of the ’60s reveals that many, if not most, do not have the word Jews in their index, although the texts are crisscrossed by Jewish names. But looking back now, it seems clear that “Never again a good German” may have provoked different associations or differing levels of intensity of association in Jewish and non-Jewish activists. As Bob Ross recalled about his student days at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, he had originally joined the picket line boycotting a segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter because “It was the Jewish thing. If you’re silent, you’re complicit.”

Key to any understanding of the American ’60s is the central place of the Civil Rights Movement and the inspiration derived from the black struggle for justice and equality in the South. This also meant a central space for various expressions of Christianity, particularly the liberal social gospel tradition of American Protestantism, influenced by the theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer that preached the active involvement of religion in the world, “beyond cheap grace,” as well as Catholic liberation theology and Catholic Worker communities, Quaker consensus, Buddhism, and Ghandism combined with Old Testament themes of justice, expressed especially in Exodus and the prophets. All these Christian commitments folded into, and intertwined with, the traditions of the black churches.

It was African American spirituals and sermons that gave voice to the struggle. It was in black churches that the civil rights movement found sanctuary. It was the liberal Protestant American Council of Churches or the Christian Ys that helped fund the movement, and it was clergymen like Ralph Abernathy and Martin Luther King or militants raised in the black church who provided both the leadership and the shock troops of the movement. When the civil rights workers were attacked (viewing the documentaries aired about the Freedom Riders on their 50th Anniversary, one is shocked once again by the vicious brutality of that struggle and the courage of those who participated) the same epithets were hurled at all of them: “nigger lover, white nigger, Commie, Jew.” Jews—and Blacks as well—did sense the special connection woven by a (somewhat invented) shared tradition of slavery, and the unmistakably Jewish names of Mickey Schwerner and Andrew Goodman are forever enshrined, together with their young black “brother” James Cheney, in the martyrology of the movement. But it was in the Christian churches, in the “beloved community” invoked by King and other preachers and activists, that the mourning was done.

Liberal and left-wing American Jews were—for good reason—deeply attached to secularism and found protection in the constitutional guarantees of separation of church and state. But they were well aware that the civil rights movement (unlike the Communist Party, which, together with the black churches, was its midwife) was not secular. The deeply Christian nature of the movement was something that Jews in the movement simply accepted; historian James J. Farrell is not the only historian to suggest that “Sixties radicalism was substantially spiritual.” Michael Staub points out in his singular and extremely useful volume The Jewish 1960s: An American Sourcebook, “the difficult place of Jews both as insiders and outsiders to this southern (and typically Christian) struggle for African American civil rights.” For Jews involved in the movement, the intimacies and contradictions of the black-Jewish alliance were, therefore, always front and center. At the same time, however, the spiritual nature of the movement also opened the way for deep involvement by American rabbis; two of the most notable were refugees with their own recent Holocaust shadows.

Joachim Prinz, born in Upper Silesia, trained at the Jewish Theological Seminary of Breslau, a former Jewish chaplain at the Berlin University and rabbi in Nazi Berlin, who emigrated to the United States in 1937, helped plan the 1963 March on Washington and spoke immediately before Martin Luther King’s legendary “I Have a Dream” address. As Prinz writes in his memoir (edited by Michael A. Meyer), on a lecture tour in Atlanta in 1937, Prinz, apparently quite naïve about the American race situation, invited Dr. Willis Jefferson King, a Methodist Bishop and a professor of Old Testament at Gammon Theological Seminary, to dinner at his hotel. King tactfully suggested that they dine privately in Prinz’s room, but even so, members of the local southern Jewish community were outraged, leaving the German-Jewish refugee rabbi with the impression, “Altogether, the American Jews were a great disappointment to me.” (Prinz met Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at a meeting of the American Jewish Congress in 1959.) Years later, on Aug. 28, 1963, which he recalled as the “greatest religious experience of my life,” Prinz began by saying, “I speak to you as an American Jew” but then moved quickly to reference his background: “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 disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.”

Abraham Joshua Heschel, born in Warsaw—trained at the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums and the University of Berlin, whose family was decimated in the Holocaust—is inscribed into the history of the civil rights movement as the man with the long white Old Testament beard who marched with King on the frontline in Selma, Ala., in 1965. Heschel was preoccupied with questions of race in America, memorably writing in 1966: “In fact, it was easier for the children of Israel to cross the Red Sea than for a Negro to cross certain university campuses.” Speaking directly to much of the often newly comfortable Jewish middle class in both the South and North, he insisted, “We must act even when inclination and vested interests would militate against equality. Human self-interest is often our Nemesis! It is the audacity of faith that redeems us.”

As young Jews in the ’60s we were proud of those rabbis; they eased our identification with Judaism in a time of political and cultural turmoil. I still remember my excitement when Bernhard Cohn, the “American” son-in-law of the old Rabbi Hugo Hahn, who still gave his sermons in German at Congregation Habonim on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, joined the demonstrations in Selma. Jewish refugees from Nazism had multiple important roles in the civil rights movement, as individual activists, as philosophical inspirations, and, not to be forgotten, as professors in historically black colleges where they were welcomed when the Ivy League was still tightly closed. And if most of the southern Jews the civil rights activists encountered were wary of the movement, suspicious of the outside agitators, and content with treating their black help well, there were also others, like the German Jewish refugee scholar whom Michael Walzer recalls meeting while sitting at a lunch counter in Durham, N.C., who was teaching philosophy to “Negro” students at North Carolina College. Those outsiders with their strange names and accents are also part of the story.


Another critical and often neglected factor to consider in any discussion of Jews in the American ’60s is that for many young people the movement, with its All-American (and yes, therefore also Christian) embrace of difference and the “other,” became ironically the path to Americanization. This was certainly the case among the “red diaper babies,” the offspring of Communist Party members, alienated from the American mainstream by their parents’ political activities (and often persecution, including imprisonment), raised within their own enclaves of progressive schools, summer camps, and bungalow encampments, in the tight-knit and anxious community of the American Communist party.