Yavneh play tells the story of the St. Louis
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Yavneh play tells the story of the St. Louis

Over the years, the tragic story of the SS St. Louis has been told, and retold, in vehicles ranging from books to movies. Two weeks ago, the story was told once again, in an original play — "The Ship That Shamed the World: The Story of the SS St. Louis" —written and performed by the students of Yavneh Academy in Paramus.


SS St. Louis survivor Fred Buff with Yavneh student Jonathan Taubes, who portrayed Buff in Yavneh’s eighth-grade Holocaust play. Right, Rabbi Shmuel Burstein, one of the play’s producers. Dena Levie

The show, which took place at the Teaneck Jewish Center on April 3, is based on the book "Voyage of the Damned," by Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan- Witts, turned into an Oscar-winning movie in 1976.

Rabbis Shmuel Burstein, the school’s Holocaust studies coordinator, and Eugene I. Kwalwasser, Yavneh’s dean emeritus, produced the show, which students adapted from the book for the annual eighth-grade Holocaust drama project. All 97 members of the class participated in the production, whether writing, acting, or working behind the scenes.

The play portrays the personal and political drama of the 900 German Jews who boarded the SS St. Louis for Cuba, with hopes of escaping persecution and living in freedom. The anguish caused by Cuba’s refusal to accept them was compounded by the indifference of the United States — and every Central and South American country — to their plight. Left without an alternative, the captain set sail for Europe, and certain danger for the passengers.

"They were deeply impacted," Burstein said of the students’ reactions to the subject. "After the production, not only young ladies but young men who are 14 years old were very moved … with a great deal of emotion on their faces."

Jonathan Taubes, a 14-year-old from Fair Lawn and Teaneck, played the role of 15-year-old Fred Buff from Poland. Buff was not sent to a concentration camp because doctors at the hospital that treated his broken leg kept him hidden. Later, as a passenger on the SS St. Louis, he planned a mutiny on learning that the boat would return to Germany. But with the captain refusing to change course, the mutiny never occurred.

During Yavneh’s evening performance, as Jonathan played the character on stage, the real Fred Buff, now 87, sat in the audience, watching.

"It was unbelievable," Jonathan said. "I saw him crying when I was saying one of my lines. He told me I could be his stunt double, and it was a great honor for me."

At the end of the play Jonathan brought Buff on stage.

"He shook my hand and told me I did a reaAlly good job, which meant a lot to me," Jonathan said. "It was definitely the highlight of my Yavneh experience."

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