Wandering Jews: The story of the St. Louis
Many of the passengers were children, and there was much happiness on the trip to Cuba, whence many of them planned to immigrate to the United States. Many passengers wound up back in Europe, and many died. Some 32 of the surviving passengers will attend a reunion in Miami on Dec. 13. The United States Holocaust Museum
It was another dispiriting instance of man’s inhumanity to man, and it contributed to the Holocaust that followed: the refusal of almost all of the world’s nations to admit the 937 Jews on board the German ship St. Louis in 1939, 70 years ago.
The Jews were fugitives from Nazi Germany, sailing hopefully to Cuba, then despondently around the world. Some passengers — once they learned they were headed back to anti-Semitic Germany — decided to set up nightly suicide patrols.
Even the United States refused them admittance, although the St. Louis — rebuffed by Cuba — sailed so close to Miami that passengers could see hotel lights and pleasure boats.
Eventually four nations, perhaps because of the international publicity, relented and, after the Jews’ five-week journey, allowed them asylum — Great Britain, France, the Netherlands, and Belgium. But apart from those heading to Great Britain, many of the rest wound up dying before the war’s end, some in concentration camps.
Of the surviving passengers, 32 — now ages 71 to 91— will attend a reunion on Dec. 13, in (naturally) Miami. (They were ages 1 to 21 in 1939.) They will sign U.S. Senate Resolution 111, which honors the survivors, and see the first performance of a play by Robert Krakow, “The Trial of Franklin D. Roosevelt.” Dignitaries from around the world will be present, including Rep. Ron Klein (D., Fla.) and the Rev. Rosemary Schindler, a cousin of Oskar Schindler. Sponsoring the reunion is the National Fund for Jewish Continuity, based in Boca Raton.
Among those attending will be Fred (originally Fritz) and Lotte Buff of Paramus, both 88. Fred Buff is the author of a short diary of the voyage, written when he was 17 and published earlier this year by ComteQ Publishing in Margate. It’s called “Riding the Storm Waves: The St. Louis Diary of Fritz Buff.”
Buff will autograph copies of his book at the Jewish Community Center of Paramus at 9:30 a.m. on Dec. 6.
The Jewish Standard interviewed the Buffs recently in their one-story, comfortable home in a hilly section of Paramus. Fred Buff answered my questions — thoughtfully, intelligently — while his wife sometimes corrected him or added key details. Both seemed remarkably healthy and mentally sharp.
First question: Where is the actual diary now?
Buff: The paper disintegrated. It was thin paper, and it was handwritten. I only translated it from the German five years ago.
J.S.: What did you think of the film made of the St. Louis episode, in 1978, “Voyage of the Damned”? (It featured Julie Harris, Lee Grant, Faye Dunaway, and Max von Sydow.)
Buff: It was a Hollywood production. It had a lot of good things, but some things were exaggerated.
I wasn’t aware of the love scenes.
J.S.: Will you recognize the people you will see at the reunion in Miami?
Buff: I know several of them from earlier meetings. They probably were children when we were on the St. Louis, and I didn’t know many of them even then. We did socialize aboard the ship, and almost every evening we would get together. On the way to Cuba, there was always something on the program. Dancing, movies, a beer fest.
J.S.: Did your experience aboard the St. Louis change your life in any way?
Buff: I don’t think so. But I was lucky to get out of Germany in 1939. If I hadn’t gotten out before Germany invaded the Low Countries and France, I wouldn’t be sitting here today.
J.S.: There were attempted suicides on the St. Louis?
Buff: There was one suicide — he cut his veins, but he was saved. Someone else jumped into the ocean, but he was rescued by a crew member and survived. We set up a suicide watch.
J.S.: Passengers became depressed when Cuba refused to admit you?
Buff: When we knew that we were not getting off, it changed our thinking. Dramatically and quickly. There was despair. The sickbay was full of depressed people. We hoped that we would not go back to Germany — that would have been catastrophic — we knew what to expect there.
J.S.: Captain Gustav Schroeder — what was he like?
Buff: Terrific. He was determined to keep us from going back to Germany. He even talked about beaching the ship on a sandbar off the English coast and having us get into lifeboats to land. When he returned to Germany, he never got another commission.
J.S.: Secretary of State Cordell Hull urged Roosevelt not to admit the Jews. What are your thoughts about him and FDR?
Buff: There were other considerations. There was high unemployment. There was anti-Semitism, the German bund, pressure from Congress. FDR couldn’t be a saint. We shouldn’t be too critical.
J.S.: When did you begin speaking in public schools about your experiences? And how do the students respond?
Buff: Ten years ago I started. Students are attentive. In Paterson, 50 of them raised their hands to ask questions after my talk. I read my speeches. One reason is that my memory is not so good, and since I have only 40 minutes to talk, I don’t want to skip something that should have been said.
J.S.: When did you first come to Paramus?
Buff: In 1950. Paramus had 3,000 people then, now almost 30,000. There were no overpasses on Route 17 then. There was no mail delivery — just a little post office, where you picked up mail. There were no telephones in the homes, just outside some of homes. I was paid $2 a month to notify people if they had a phone call. There was no synagogue — I was one of the founders of the Jewish Community Center.
J.S.: How did you meet your wife?
Buff: My sister introduced her to me, here in the United States.
J.S.: Have you ever returned to Germany?
Buff: I had terribly hard feelings, but I’ve returned there many times, on business. I was in the synthetic-foam business. For a time I refused to speak German. I made them talk English. But after a while I saw that they were intelligent people, and like me in business to do business. And in Nazi Germany, you were not allowed to be a good German. If the Nazis found out, you would be arrested.
J.S.: Why has there been so much anti-Semitism throughout history?
Buff: I don’t know. Maybe because we’ve always been different.
J.S.: What do you think of Anne Frank’s statement, that she believes that “people are truly good at heart”?
Buff: [pauses] That was an immature assumption. She was a very young lady.
J.S.: Some Jews in concentration camps were angry at God….
Buff: [pauses] Religion provides a lot of benefits and does a lot of good. But not everyone believes in God.
Buff was born in 1921, in Krumbach, Germany. His parents and sister reached the United States a few months before he did. When the St. Louis returned to Europe, in 1939, he was accepted into Belgium. Later he sailed to England, then to the United States, arriving at Ellis Island in 1940 and later meeting up with his parents.
In 1944, despite his deferment for working in the defense industry, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy. In 1945, in Okinawa, he took part in the largest amphibious assault in the Pacific, which lasted 82 days.
After the war he attended City College of New York at night and the Advanced Management Program of Harvard Business School. He worked for Tenneco Chemical Company, becoming president of his division. Later, he started Tekpak, which manufactured foam products.
In 1952, he became a charter member of the JCC of Paramus, and from 1974 to 1976 he was president.
His diary is an electrifying document — you feel you are there, on board the St. Louis as it makes its horrifying voyage. Sometimes it’s funny: Because the ship has seven decks, at times Buff gets lost and must ask directions back to his cabin. Sometimes it’s heartening: Sailing on a German ship during the Nazi era, he never expected to be served kosher meals. And poignant: The passengers, approaching Havana, could only wave to any of their relatives on shore or in small boats. As for the United States, “We could not understand why this land of our dreams and also of our likely final destination would not liberate us from our agony and uncertainty…. Are we destined to become another ship like the Flying Dutchman in Wagner’s opera?”