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Wandering Jews

The true ‘voyage of the damned’

Because most countries turned their backs on Jews fleeing Germany, Germany’s rulers (like Josef Goebbels) felt that this justified their argument that murder was the only way to deal with the “Jewish problem.”

In 1938, only the Dominican Republic — out of 32 nations — agreed to accept Jewish refugees after an international conference on the subject in Evian, France. The reason: Rafael Trujillo, who ruled the island, supposedly wanted to “whiten” the indigenous race. But although 100,000 Jews were allowed admission, only 645 Jews immigrated. They set up a prosperous agricultural cooperative in a former jungle area, Sosua. (Today, few Jews live there.)

The St. Louis, a German ocean-liner, had seven decks that held 400 first-class passengers and 500 tourist class passengers. The cost was high, and first-class passengers had to pay 33 percent more.

Of the 937 passengers on the St. Louis, the majority were women. All were Jewish, with just one exception.

The St. Louis set sail on May 13, 1939. The trip to Cuba and back to Europe, to Belgium, took 40 days — to June 17. It was the November 1938 pogrom, which the Nazis called Kristallnacht, the “night of broken glass,” that persuaded Jews like Buff that Germany was no longer a place for Jews to live.

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Captain Gustav Schroeder was posthumously named a Righteous Gentile by Yad Vashem. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Herbert & Vera Karliner

Gustav Schroeder, captain of the St. Louis, made sure the crew treated the passengers with respect. In 1993, Yad Vashem recognized him, posthumously, as Righteous Among the Nations. (He died in 1959.)

U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull was against letting the Jews enter the United States, apparently because Southern Democrats — anti-immigrants — threatened to stop supporting Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election.

While the St. Louis passengers were awaiting their fate, the Wagner-Rogers bill died in committee. It would have let 20,000 Jewish children from Germany come to the United States. Asked for her opinion of the bill, Laura Delano Houghteling, wife of the commissioner of immigration and a cousin of Roosevelt’s, said that “20,000 ugly children would all too soon grow up into 20,000 ugly adults.”

Some passengers with visas were able to debark in Cuba or the United States. When the 620 remaining passengers returned and debarked at Antwerp, Belgium, some went to the United Kingdom, some to France, some remained in Belgium, some went to the Netherlands. Of the 620 remaining passengers, 254 who debarked in Belgium, the Netherlands, and France were eventually killed by the Nazis. Some 364 survived the war.

Joseph P. Kennedy, U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom, helped passengers on the St. Louis find refuge in Britain. Although he would sometimes make anti-Semitic remarks, his efforts to help Jews led the Arab National League to call him a “Zionist Charlie McCarthy.”

The St. Louis itself was badly damaged by Allied planes and was scrapped in 1952.

“Riding the Storm Waves” was edited by Maryann McLoughlin of The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey’s Holocaust Resource Center. Of the 160 pages, 37 are devoted to the diary. With its plentiful notes, the book is meant to be used in schools, from grades five through college. Paul Winkler, executive director of the New Jersey Holocaust Education Commission, was instrumental in seeing that the book was published. It can be purchased online at www.ComteQpublishing.com, or by calling (609) 487-9000.

 
 

Wandering Jews

The story of the St. Louis

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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?

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Buff on the deck of the St. Louis. On the trip to Cuba, spirits were high. On the trip back, there was a suicide patrol. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Fred Buff

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?”

 
 

UJA-NNJ Cuba trip ‘a study in contrasts’

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A Jewish cemetery in Havana, Cuba
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Lawrence Krule and Susan Fader arrive in Havana as part of a UJA-NNJ delegation.

The small Jewish community of Cuba is short on material goods but thriving spiritually — that’s the picture painted by a 24-member delegation that visited the island nation last month as part of the outreach program of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey.

The trip was a study in contrasts, the New Jersey visitors said, with signs of deprivation counterbalanced by a Jewish community imbued with a robust tie to religion.

“Cuba was extremely cool and amazing,” said Larry Krule of Teaneck. “It felt like 1959 frozen in time, with buildings in various states of decay,” he continued, and the trip was an opportunity to help a Jewish community that is “tenacious.”

U.S. government restrictions bar trade with Cuba, but religious and humanitarian gifts are permitted, said Bob Miller, director of missions for UJA-NNJ, who went along on the trip.

For Judy Gold of Norwood and her family, it was a journey of giving, but also of receiving a lesson on how the have-nots manage to survive. She was accompanied by her husband, Ron, and their children — Samantha, 21, Jessica, 16, and Evan, 14. They are members of Temple Sinai in Tenafly and Temple Emanu-El in Closter.

Also along were Ron Gold’s parents, Abe and Anita Gold, his sister, Karen Kashin, and her son and daughter, Michael, 24, and Rachel 21. The family dedicated the community’s pharmacy and helped stock it with items they brought.

“The people have nothing; it’s sad,” Judy Gold said. Among items they brought were Advil, Desitin, Tums, sanitary products, and soap and toothbrushes.

“It’s nice to do tzedakah at home, but it’s important to do it abroad,” she said. It was her second trip to the island; she’d been there last May on a similar visit. For her children, she said, the trip was a valuable eye-opener. “The kids needed to see things like this,” she said.

“It let me see how privileged we are to have the things we have in the U.S.,” said Evan, a ninth-grader at Dwight Englewood School. He cited medicine, cars, and electronics. Evan noted that a single X-Box video player the group brought would be shared at the community center, known as the Patronato, while in the United States, youngsters typically have their own.

It’s not all about material things, Evan said. “Kids there [in Cuba] really wanted to go to services,” he said. “I’d love to go back, I want to give.”

The group stayed in what Gold described as a nice hotel, the Melia Cohiba, but when they walked outside the area looked “bombed out.” The shops were bare and the houses dilapidated, she said. Krule told of seeing bakeries run out of bread and simply close their doors.

The Americans visited Cuba’s three synagogues, all in Havana — the Orthodox Adot Israel, a Sephardic congregation, and the Conservative Beth Sholom. The last houses the Patronato, the community center that also serves as the liaison of the Jewish community to the government.

Besides Jewish services, the group saw few overt signs of religion in Havana. They arrived on Christmas Eve, Dec. 24, and found signs of the holiday scarce, said Miller — just one crèche and some decorations. They left on Dec. 28.

Today, the Jewish population is reportedly 1,500. There is no permanent rabbi, but the island’s three synagogues are served periodically by visiting rabbis from Latin America. The community is active and vibrant, with hot chicken dinner on Friday nights, regular Shabat services, and a children’s Hebrew school, the visitors said.

Besides the pharmaceutical items, the visitors brought other gifts, including prayer shawls and prayerbooks, video games, and the X-Box videogame player for the community center. Yarmulkes were a big hit, said Bob Miller.

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Ron and Judy Gold stand in front of a pharmacy they dedicated.

“I would have expected the Jewish people to be more downtrodden,” said Miller, who described them as upbeat. “They are a small group and they stick together,” he said.

“The gifts are so valuable to Jews in Cuba, it encourages them,” Miller said. “They have such a hard time,” living in small, decrepit apartments.

“It was inspiring that there continue to be Jews in this land of deprivation,” Krule said.

While aid from the United States is restricted, assistance flows from Jewish communities in places like Panama and Mexico.

The visitors did not see any hint of anti-Semitism, and Krule told of street signs leading to the synagogues.

There were many incongruities. Krule told of riding in a taxi that was a 1928 Ford, a vehicle that would be vary valuable as an antique in the States. He also told of visiting a restored hotel, a relic from the glory days of Cuba as a resort, where the front entrance and the door to each room had a mezuzah and the rooms were named after biblical people and places.

Krule, a member of Cong. Rinat Yisrael and founder of the Davar Institute in Teaneck, was accompanied by his wife, Susan Fader, and their college-age children, Miriam, Laura, and Jackson.

“Everybody was suffering from deprivation,” Krule said. “We had the sense that anything we could leave behind would be appreciated.” He said while most buildings suffered from age and deterioration, the synagogues were generally in good shape.

Fader cited the children’s participation in the Havdalah service. “It was incredibly moving to hear the kids singing the same tunes that Jewish kids are singing all over the world,” she said.

In a place with such an isolated and small Jewish community, it’s a “remarkable continuity” of Jewish life, she said. “I was really amazed at the openness and friendliness of the Jewish community.”

The group had a sense of freedom of travel, Krule said, and they were not trailed or monitored.

A Jewish presence in Cuba is centuries old. A crewman with Columbus’ expedition to the new world was reported to be the first Jew on the island. An influx of Jews from Brazil was reported in the 16th and 17th centuries.

An American connection took root after the Spanish-American War, and a congregation was founded in 1904. More Jews settled on the island after World War I, with a wave of immigration from Turkey and Eastern Europe, according to B’nai B’rith International.

The Jewish community prospered over the following decades, largely in the apparel business and the professions, and the Jewish population reached a reported peak of 15,000. Jews joined the exodus of other Cubans after the 1959 Cuban Revolution, and the Jewish population was reportedly reduced by 90 percent.

While religion is freely practiced now, it wasn’t always so. The Jewish community “skipped a step,” said Miller, and a whole generation grew up without much religion. He thought that is the reason that the older people and the younger ones are more evident in Jewish life, with “a chunk missing in the middle.”

The Castro regime took an anti-Israel stand, but was reportedly generally respectful of its Jewish population. Cuba had been part of the Soviet bloc, but when that came apart the government eased its restrictions on religious practice in 1994, Miller said.

Today the government still does not have relations with Israel, but in the Jewish community there are ties to the Jewish state. The Israeli and Cuban flags are displayed side-by-side in the synagogues and one of the community members received training in Israel as a ritual slaughterer, Miller said.

While the visitors brought the Cuban Jews a message of hope, they also brought that same message home with them.

“In spite of everything, Jewish life survives,” Krule said. “It was depressing and inspirational at the same time. We will go back.”

 
 
 
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