On May 13, 1939, the HAPAG liner ST. LOUIS left the port of Hamburg with the destination Havana (Cuba). On board was 17-year-old Fritz Buff (1921-2017). He had embarked on the voyage without any relatives and summarized his experiences in an eleven-page travel report. The document is divided into three parts, which describe his journey from Hamburg to Havana, being in limbo in the Cuban port and cruising the Atlantic until finally docking in Antwerp, Belgium. Buff recorded the events immediately on the spot. In doing so, he reflected his own emotional world as well as the mood on board and the political negotiations to obtain a landing permit for the ship. A later copy differs from the original only in spelling and some word changes. The third section of the report presented here documents the events after the ship was forced to leave the Cuban port, the passengers’ holding out at sea and their temporary rescue in Antwerp.
Together with Fritz Buff, another 936 people, most of them Jews from Germany, were on the ST. LOUIS. When the ship reached the island state in the Caribbean on May 27, the Cuban government denied them entry. After fruitless negotiations, it had to leave port on June 2. The ST. LOUIS cruised the Atlantic for days. Captain Gustav Schröder delayed the return trip to Europe, and Jewish aid organizations tried to find a solution until Great Britain, the Netherlands, Belgium and France agreed to take in the passengers.
After the “Anschluss” of Austria and the November pogroms of 1938, the situation of the Jewish population in the German Reich had radically deteriorated. Their economic existence had been destroyed, and tens of thousands of Jewish men had been deported to concentration camps in November 1938. 1939 became the main year of emigration during the National Socialist dictatorship. Considerable bureaucratic and financial burdens had been imposed on those fleeing Germany, which they could hardly overcome due to their catastrophic situation. When the Hamburg shipping company HAPAG announced a special trip to Cuba in April 1939, many Jews saw an opportunity to leave the country. The majority of them wanted to hold out in Cuba until the waiting list numbers for a U.S. visa, for which most of them had already applied, would take effect. For Cuba itself, most of them had only simple entry permits, issued arbitrarily by the immigration authorities there under Manuel Benitez Gonzales, who personally enriched himself from the proceeds. Difficulties were already looming before the Atlantic crossing. Xenophobia and antisemitism were rampant in Cuba. On May 5, 1939, the government there issued Decree 937, which made entry more difficult and rendered the Benitez Permits ineffective. Although the Foreign Office was aware that the Cuban government had tightened the legislation and that HAPAG had also been informed of expected problems, the voyage of the ST. LOUIS went ahead – a fact that later give rise to the claim that the entire special voyage had been deliberately orchestrated by the Reich Ministry of Propaganda.
Among the passengers hoping for passage to the USA was Fritz Buff. He was born on July 26, 1921 in Krumbach in Bavaria. He spent his childhood there and in Ulm. At the time of the November pogroms in 1938, Buff was attending a Jewish vocational school in Munich. He had left Munich with friends on November 8 to escape the celebrations marking the anniversary of the Hitler-Ludendorff putsch. It was thanks to this circumstance that he was able to reach his hometown unharmed after the Pogrom Night. His father had been deported to Dachau, but was released after four weeks. Having experienced these events, the family tried to find a way to leave the country. Fritz Buff received the documents for entry to Cuba from relatives in the United States. He was to wait for his parents there and then prepare with them for the onward journey to the USA.
On May 13, 1939 the ST. LOUIS departed. For the emigrants, the port of Hamburg became a symbol of a new beginning after years of persecution. At the same time, it also represented the end of their previous lives in Germany. Buff noted in the first part of his account: “With mixed feelings, each individual said goodbye to Germany and at the same time came to terms with his or her previous life.” (p. 1) Due to the complicated initial situation, Captain Schröder took the more difficult but faster route via the Azores in order to arrive earlier than two emigrant ships leaving Europe at the same time. The passengers on board were initially unaware of the complications. After years of systematic discrimination, the situation on board the ship was completely out of the ordinary for them. The ship’s personnel had been instructed by Captain Schröder to treat the Jewish passengers with the same courtesy as the non-Jewish passengers on earlier pleasure cruises, such as the cruises of the Nazi party organization Kraft durch Freude [“Strength through Joy”]. Buff describes the situation on board in the first part of his account. The meals were in accordance with the HAPAG standard and were sumptuous; kosher alternatives were available for religious travelers. Facilities for Jewish religious services were provided. An extensive recreational program, dance evenings, and a Bavarian-style bock beer festival were offered to secular travelers. Thus Buff reports a cheerful, exuberant mood that increased as the distance from Hamburg grew. It cannot be conclusively determined for whom the young traveler recorded his experiences. In many passages, the report is kept in the style of a personal travel journey. Individual phrases (“The last greeting goes to my parents and my sister in the hope to see them again soon in good health”, p. 4) suggest that the text was intended as a souvenir for the family’s reunion in Cuba. The first section of the account is written in a cheerful and lighthearted manner; the young man obviously enjoyed life on board and the leisure activities, as did many of his fellow passengers.
A rude awakening occurred when the ship reached
Havana Bay on
May 27, 1939. Some Spanish and Cuban fellow
passengers, who used the ST. LOUIS for a regular crossing,
as well as a small number of German Jews with complete entry papers, were
allowed to leave the ship, but 906 passengers were denied
landing. An unreal situation arose. Relatives of the
refugees from Germany approached the
ST. LOUIS in order to at least see their relatives on deck.
with the government in
“One day after another passed, still the boats approached, again and again we were tested from one day to the next, but gradually the faces of those who called up to us also darkened. Something was wrong, we all realized, but what? (p. 6)
The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) sent attorney Morris Troper as a negotiator. Buff’s report at this point is still optimistic. Like many of the passengers, he trusted in the negotiating skills of the JDC and the ship’s captain, as well as in the validity of legally obtained Benitez permits. But the Cuban government stood by its position and forced the ST. LOUIS to leave port on June 2, 1939.
This is where the third part of Buff’s report begins. While the first section was marked by euphoria and joy and the second by cautious optimism, despair now set in as the passengers left the Cuban port. “Swept back into the night of uncertainty,” Buff writes. The passengers may have sensed what lay ahead. The young observer describes how announcements posted on the ship’s bulletin board were less and less likely to be registered or taken seriously. By the time the landing problems set in, an on-board committee had formed. It consisted of passengers who had been influential figures in Germany before the Nazi takeover and still had good contacts abroad. On board, the committee took on the task of negotiating with the shipping company and potential host countries. To this end, the committee members were also in contact with Jewish aid organizations and prominent individuals such as Max Warburg. In addition, they were responsible for communicating with the passengers. Time and again, their hopes were dashed, as Buff’s account reveals. The Roosevelt administration in the U.S., confronted with growing xenophobia in its own country, refused entry even though most of the passengers could have entered the United States perfectly legally after a certain waiting period, as did the governments of Canada and a number of Latin American countries. A landing at Isla de Pinos, then Cuba’s prison island, that had been considered at some point also failed. The drama of the situation did not escape the 17-year-old Buff.
When the ST. LOUIS was only about a day’s voyage away from the European continent, the passengers’ committee announced good news: Great Britain, the Netherlands, Belgium, and France had agreed to admit the passengers. Behind the scenes, Morris Troper of the JDC, representatives of the Intergovernmental Committee on Refugees (IGCR) formed the previous year, and the passengers’ committee had corresponded and negotiated for days. Buff’s account reveals the relieved mood when the outcome of the negotiations was announced: “Our jubilation knows no bounds now, we are drunk with joy, the horizon is beginning to clear above us, we have not been forgotten as we almost had to assume.”
On June 17, 1939 the ST. LOUIS reached the port of Antwerp in Belgium. The passengers were distributed among the receiving countries in the following days. The initiative of the JDC and the passengers’ committee, the mediation work of the Intergovernmental Committee on Refugees, and the tactics of the captain in favor of the passengers all had brought about a temporary rescue. Gustav Schröder was posthumously honored as one of the Righteous Among the Nations by the Yad Vashem memorial in 1993. He was the first of the “Righteous” whose work in aid of the persecuted Jews took place before the beginning of the Second World War. The city of Hamburg commemorates the events in a public space, focusing above all on the role of the captain In Langenhorn, the Kapitän-Schröder-Weg has been named after him since 1989 / 90. In 2000, a commemorative plaque was unveiled at the Landungsbrücken on bridge 3 (https://www.gedenkstaetten-in-hamburg.de/gedenkstaetten/gedenkort/gedenktafel-fuer-das-fluechtlingsschiff-st-louis/), not far from where the ST. LOUIS departed. Since 2019 there is a park in Altona named Kapitän-Schröder-Park..
At the end of his account, Buff writes that none of the passengers wanted to make claims regarding the choice of their host country – what was to happen in 1940 was still unimaginable to him. In fact, fellow passengers with a justified sense of foreboding sought a place on the list for the British contingent. Only about a year after the “odyssey”, the Netherlands, Belgium and France were occupied by the German Wehrmacht. A large number of the passengers faced renewed persecution and were once again forced to flee. For those who remained on the continent, there was at best the hope of leaving for Great Britain or escaping across the Pyrenees. According to current research, 254 of the 906 passengers who returned to Europe perished in German camps.
Fritz Buff found a temporary place to stay in Belgium after landing in Antwerp. He was lucky. His parents and sister managed to emigrate to the USA from Italy at the end of 1939. Fritz Buff himself reached the port of New York on January 13, 1940, less than four months before the German invasion of Belgium. In 2017, shortly before his death, Fritz (now: Fred) Buff gave the surviving text to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. His writing is a remarkably reflective eyewitness account, recorded immediately after the event. Time and again, it is evident that the 17-year-old, who was traveling alone, followed the events closely, had an overview of foreign affairs, and empathically grasped the mood on board. The literary quality of his text is remarkable. Fritz Buff’s travel report is a unique source for the microcosm of the ST. LOUIS in May and June 1939. No other known document gives such a direct and complete account of the events on board, of the alternation between hope and despair, liberation and threat during this extraordinary escape.
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Matthias Loeber is Doctoral student at the University of Hamburg (Prof. Dr. Dr. Rainer Hering). His research interest is political right-wing organizations in Hamburg and Bremen between 1890-1925. He further works for Yad Vashem and as lecturer at the University of Bremen. He was member of the project “No refuge. Nowhere. The Évian Conference and the ST. LOUIS 1938/39” as part of the series “From the Documents to the Stage” (Dr. Eva Schöck-Quinteros) at the University of Bremen in 2018/19.
Matthias Loeber, “Swept back into the unseen vastness of the sea” - Fritz Buff’s account of his voyage aboard the ST. LOUIS, May and June 1939 (translated by Insa Kummer), in: Key Documents of German-Jewish History, March 15, 2021. <https://dx.doi.org/10.23691/jgo:article-266.en.v1> [September 27, 2023].