Museum exhibit stirs up memories for S.S. St. Louis survivor

Fred Buff recently walked into the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU (JMOF-FIU) as a tourist only to find he was part of an exhibit.

The 91-year-old New Jersey resident was among a tour group for the Young Men’s Hebrew Association/Young Women’s Hebrew Association. As part of the group’s winter trip, they stopped at the Miami Beach museum to learn more about the history of Jews in Florida. While Buff’s wife, Lotte, was looking over the museum’s collection, she came across her husband’s signature.

Fred Buff at JMOF-FIU

S.S. St. Louis survivor Fred Buff came across a 2009 U.S. Senate resolution commemorating the doomed voyage of the German transatlantic liner at the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU.

Fred is one of the survivors of the German transatlantic liner St. Louis, a ship that carried more than 900 Jews out of Germany in 1939 in the hopes of finding them refuge in another country. The passengers were denied entry into Cuba, the United States and Canada.

“I was 17 years-old and alone on the ship. My parents had left Germany via Italy after I had boarded the S.S. St. Louis, but they had made it to the U.S. before I ever did,” Buff said. “My father had spent some time in a concentration camp and barely made it out. The entire time I kept on thinking what would happen if we had to go back to Germany. Some of us would rather jump off the ship instead of returning there, I had considered it a few times. It was a very bad situation, no one wanted us.”

With no choice but to return to Europe, the St. Louis docked in Antwerp, Belgium in June 1939. The passengers who survived the voyage were accepted into various countries throughout Europe. As many as a quarter of those are believed to have died in concentration camps during World War II.

Buff made it to Ellis Island in 1940, by way of England, before the Nazi invasion. He spent two weeks detained there until he was reunited with his parents.

“Almost 260 people who were on the ship had a chance to live, but they died because we had to return to Europe. It’s still hard to swallow that sometimes.” Buff said. “The hardest part of was having been born and raised in Germany to a family that had lived there for decades. My father had served our country in World War I. There were a lot of decent people that went along with the Nazi regime out of fear, but we, the Jews, had to move on.”

In 2009, the U.S. Senate passed Resolution 111 which commemorates the 70th anniversary of the voyage of the St. Louis. Buff is one of 33 survivors who signed the document four years ago at the museum. Little did he know, that during his recent trip to Miami, he would be reacquainted with a copy of the document.

“We were told it was going to be sent to Washington D.C. and, that’s it, we never followed up on it,” Lotte Buff said. “We came back to museum this year and had no idea the copy would be on display. We were looking at different things on display and I spotted his signature, then I looked up and saw it was the resolution. We didn’t expect to find it there at all.”

The Buffs currently live in Paramus, New Jersey. In 2009, Fred Buff’s diary from his voyage on the ship was turned into a book, The St. Louis Diary of Fritz Buff. He regularly speaks to youth and adult groups about his journey on the ship and the life lessons he learned.