"Gosh, what a headline that is," he marveled. "Ninety-two-year-old Holocaust survivor, World War II veteran, finally gets high school diploma."
Voss was making that headline real Friday night, marking the culmination of an amazing journey with a diploma from Lansing High School outside Ithaca, 45 miles southwest of Syracuse.
Voss, who already has a GED and has spoken out against hatred to high school and college students for nearly three decades, said he would accept it on behalf of the Jewish children who were never able to pursue their education.
"I've waited for this for 77 years, so I'm really very proud to receive a high school diploma in the name of 1.5 million Jewish children—from tiny babies to early teenagers—whose innocent lives perished in the Holocaust," Voss said. "How many future brilliant scholars were lost? How many of those children might have contributed to allowing all of us to live in a better world? They were forced out of schools. Rather than be educated, they were killed. The world will never know."
Voss grew up in Aachen in western Germany, not far from the borders with Belgium and the Netherlands, and had a normal childhood before his world came crashing down the day of his bar mitzvah in 1933. When the family returned home after the ceremony, soldiers barred the way.
That began a six-year struggle for Voss and his family. He was beaten by members of the Hitler Youth and forbidden from going to school. The family home and textile store were destroyed during the infamous Kristallnacht. His father was sent to a concentration camp for two months.
"The Nazis took everything," Voss said. "We had 30 days to get out."
Though 67 members of his and his future wife's family were killed, Voss escaped to England with his parents in early 1939, just months before Germany invaded Poland, starting World War II. In 1940, the family moved to New York City. After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Fred enlisted in the Army and was sent back to Europe, taking part in the liberation of Paris and later helping to remove mines the Nazis had left behind in his homeland.
After his discharge, Voss took a low-level job at a textile factory in New York City and worked his way up to vice president before retiring in 1985. At the urging of Nobel Peace Prize winner and fellow Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, Voss began publicly speaking 27 years ago about the atrocities inflicted by the Nazis.
His message is simple.
"I don't care what the color of a person's skin is, whatever their sexual orientation is, whatever their origin is," Voss said. "I don't want anyone to hate them for that."
And it has reverberated at Lansing High School, where Voss has spoken to sophomores every year since moving a decade ago to Ithaca, where his daughter lives.
"We have students from a very broad spectrum," said Daniel Ferguson, a history and geography teacher. "Some go home to million-dollar homes and some go home to trailers. Every kid stares at this 92-year-old guy and they get it. They really have this direct connection and they remember. They say, 'Mr. Voss doesn't want us to forget.'"
Co-salutatorian Sally Stoyell, one of about 100 students in the graduating class, has heard that message and is honored to share the stage with the school's oldest graduate.
"I feel like he made a lot of people think," Stoyell said. "That day we heard him talk, it was really quiet in the room and I know everybody was reflecting on what he had to say. At least he made people think about what he was saying. The topic just didn't fade away."
Though Voss did receive his GED through Operation Recognition, a government program for veterans, this diploma is very special to everybody, including Voss's 91-year-old wife, Ilse, whom he met in London during the war when their refugee families shared the same boarding house. She had been forced out of her home in Austria and never received her high school diploma.
"That's all right," she said. "I'm proud that he made it. I really am very, very proud."
Voss, who wrote a memoir titled "Miracles, Milestones, and Memories," recently gave his final talk at Lansing—he's retiring again—and says his past is no longer so haunting.
"The older I get, the less I think about it," Voss said with a faint laugh. "What can I tell you? I've been blessed. You want to know something—life is good after all."