A "voyage of the damned" has gone down in history as one of the most despicable acts of political cruelty just before the second World War. One of the passengers on that journey was Fred Buff, who was 18 years old when he and 936 other passengers set sail on the SS St. Louis from Hamburg and headed for Havana on May 13, 1939. None of them knew they were about to become pawns in world politics and that their story would become a symbol of the greed, apathy, callousness, hatred, and xenophobia that so characterized the Holocaust.
Fred Buff, inset, was a passenger on the SS St. Louis, here surrounded by smaller vessels in the port of Havana.
The passengers had boarded the ship amid the worsening conditions for Jews in Germany in an attempt to save their lives. But when the ship attempted to dock in Havana, where Spanish dictator Francisco Franco and his Fascist legions were in control, it was turned back. Buff is one of the lucky ones who managed to survive what happened once the ship returned to Europe.
Today, at 85, Buff, who lives in Paramus, travels from group to group and school to school to tell his story, making history personal. And since his early life played itself out against the backdrop of Hitler’s rise to power, he is able to bring the message of the futility of hatred home, especially when he talks to teens.
Buff is somewhat bemused about his popularity, but as one of the few who survived the St. Louis episode, he is living history and therefore much in demand. "When people found out I was on the St. Louis, they got hold of my phone number, and the calls started coming in," he said in an interview. "That happened about three years ago, and since then I’ve spoken to classes in at least ‘0 school districts. Then one of the program directors at [the Paramus chapter of] Hadassah asked me to speak on Yom HaShoah," which he did on Monday, April 17.
Buff was born in 19’1 to a well-to-do, reasonably observant family in Krumbach, Germany, a town with 15 Jewish families among a population of about 4,500. When the Nazis took control in 1933, things became progressively worse for the town’s few Jews. His father was forced to sell his upholstery business for a fraction of its worth under Aryanization laws.
Buff was the only Jewish student who attended the regional high school in Ulm. By the time he graduated, no one was permitted to speak to him. Following Kristallnacht, Nov. 9-10, 1938, his father was arrested and incarcerated in the Dachau concentration camp for a month.
"That night," said Buff of Kristallnacht, "everyone realized it was the beginning of the end, so my parents applied for visas. Family members had lived in the States since before the first World War. That fact, and a payment in American dollars, got me a visa and a berth on the St. Louis." Fortuitously, his younger sister and parents left after he did, via Italy, and made it to New York long before him.
On May ‘8, 1939, people behind the scenes attempted to negotiate the St. Louis passengers’ freedom. The Cubans allowed a handful to disembark, consigning the rest to their fate. As the ship floated close enough to American shores to see the lights of Miami, the U.S. Coast Guard patrolled the waters so that no one could jump ship. Pleas to President Roosevelt and the State Department were ignored or rebuffed. Though the American public, at least in the media, seemed to empathize with the plight of the refugees, immigration quotas had been met, and no one was about to let anyone else into the country. A Fortune magazine poll at the time indicated that 83 percent of Americans opposed relaxing restrictions on immigration. At that same time, a bill in Congress, set to rescue ‘0,000 Jewish children, was allowed to die in committee. America’s gates were effectively locked.
After failing with Cuba, officials of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee negotiated landing permits for England, Belgium, the Netherlands, and France. Buff-managed to get-off in Antwerp and then out of Belgium to England, shortly before Hitler invaded. A few weeks later he boarded a British ship and joined the rest of his family in New York. For that, he is eternally grateful.
"Most of those sent back died in the Holocaust, and there are lessons to be learned from that. It’s important that we know what happened and that young people understand why you need to care about your neighbors, why they need to be involved in the political process. They need to know why they have to prevent things like that from ever happening again. That’s why we know we have to speak out on Sudan."