The year 2012 marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking of Titanic, the ship believed to have been unsinkable when she set sail for her one and only voyage April 10, 1912. From a re-release of the 1997 James Cameron film of the same name to museum exhibits dedicated to the oceanliner opening worldwide (including one at San Diego’s own Natural History Museum, called “Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition,” open through Sept. 9), people worldwide remain fascinated by the ship’s story. Not surprisingly, the Titanic’s passenger list was not without a solid Jewish representation (though no one can give an exact count). To mark a century since her fall to the ocean floor and since the deaths of 1,514 people on board, we remember Titanic through a Jewish lens.
TWISTS OF FATE
The story of Titanic survivors Leah and ‘Filly’ Aks
By Marshall Weiss
(The Dayton Jewish Observer) — When Titanic departed on its first and last voyage from Southampton, England, on Wednesday, April 10, 1912, 18-year-old Jewish immigrant Leah Aks and her 10-month-old son, Philip, were on board.
Passover had concluded the day before. On sailing day, Leah was pleased to find that the third class was not completely booked; she and Philip had a cabin all to themselves.
Leah was born in Warsaw, Poland. In London, she had met Sam Aks, a tailor who was also from Warsaw. They were married there.
“In London he was barely making a living,” wrote Valery Bazarov, historian for the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, in a piece about the family for HIAS. “A cousin who lived in America visited him in London and told him that if he came to America he’d make money very quickly. So he came over, got a job and soon saved enough money to bring Mrs. Aks and the baby over.”
Sam settled in Norfolk, Va., and entered the scrap metal business. In “Titanic: Women and Children First,” author Judith B. Geller indicates that all the money Sam earned was used for Leah and “Filly’s” trip to join him. Their arrival in Norfolk would mark the first time Sam would meet his son.
Though Leah and Filly were booked on an earlier ship, Bazarov explained that Leah’s mother convinced her to wait a week and travel on Titanic, considered the world’s safest liner.
Four days into their journey, after the ship struck an iceberg, Leah and Filly followed other third-class passengers to the bottom of the third-class staircase at the rear of the ship.
At 12:30 p.m., the crew permitted women and children in this group to make their way to the boat deck. When crew members saw that Leah and Filly couldn’t get through the crowd up the stairs, they carried the two. Leah and Filly made it to the boat deck, part of the first-class area of the ship. Madeline Astor, the young wife of millionaire John Jacob Astor, covered Filly’s head with her silk scarf.
According to Bazarov, a distraught man — who had been rebuffed by the crew when he attempted to get into a lifeboat — ran up to Leah and said, “I’ll show you women and children first!”
The man grabbed Filly and threw him overboard.
Leah searched the deck until someone urged or pushed her into lifeboat 13. She sat in the middle of the Atlantic with 63 others in number 13, a broken woman. Hours after Titanic went down and the cries for help from those dying in the water faded, the liner Carpathia arrived at daybreak.
Leah searched the deck of Carpathia in vain for her baby. Despondent, she took to a mattress for two days. Titanic survivor Selena Cook urged Leah to come up on deck for air. When she did, she heard Filly’s cry.
Unknown to Leah, Filly had fallen into lifeboat number 11, right into another woman’s arms. In Geller’s account, the woman is presumed to have been Italian immigrant Argene del Carlo. Her husband was not permitted to follow the pregnant Argene into the lifeboat.
“Argene shared her warmth with Filly through the long night,” Geller writes. “Toward morning she began to believe that God had sent this child to her as a replacement for Sebastino [her husband] and a brother for the child she carried in her womb.”
On the deck of Carpathia, the woman who had cared for Filly since Titanic sank refused to give Leah the child.
Leah appealed to the Carpathia’s captain, Arthur Roston, now put in the role of King Solomon.
In an e-mail interview with The Observer, Gilbert Binder, the husband of Leah’s late granddaughter, Rebecca, described what happened next.
Binder said that Filly was returned to Leah because “she identified him as a Jewish baby, and he was circumcised. The [other] woman was Catholic and Italian, and her male child would not have been circumcised.”
After their arrival in New York, Leah and Filly were taken to HIAS’ shelter and remained there until Frank could come for them.
“Leah Aks gave birth to a baby girl nine months after arriving in this country and intended to name her Sara Carpathia,” in honor of the rescue ship, Binder explained. “The nuns at the hospital in Norfolk, Va., got confused and named the baby Sara Titanic Aks. I have a copy of her birth certificate.” Sara was Binder’s mother-in-law.
Leah lived until 1967; her son, Filly, until 1991.
• Marshall Weiss is the editor and publisher of The Dayton Jewish Observer.
AT HALIFAX’S JEWISH CEMETERY, A TITANIC SECTION
How 10 victims of Titanic came to be buried at Baron de Hirsch Cemetery
By Marshall Weiss
(The Dayton Jewish Observer) — No one knows for certain how many Jewish passengers were on board Titanic, let alone how many of them died. Of the more than 1,500 people who went down with Titanic, ships later recovered only 340 bodies.
The White Star Line chartered three ships from Halifax, Nova Scotia, and contracted almost every available embalmer in Nova Scotia to recover and embalm the remaining bodies.
At a makeshift morgue set up in the Mayflower Curling Rink in Halifax, family members or representatives on their behalf came to collect the remains that could be identified. Bodies that were neither identified nor claimed would be buried in Halifax.
Ultimately, 10 bodies were buried in a special Titanic plot at Halifax’s Jewish cemetery, the Baron de Hirsch Cemetery. All were male; only three were identified.
The story of how these bodies came to be buried there began on the evening of May 2, 1912. By then, the makeshift morgue had the first 59 bodies ready for burial at Fairview Cemetery, a nonsectarian cemetery. The funeral was to take place the following morning.
As John Eaton and Charles Haas document in “Titanic: Triumph and Tragedy,” late on the night of May 2, Rabbi Jacob Walter went to the curling rink, inspected as many coffins as he was able, and decided that eight victims had been Jewish. He had their coffins separated for interment at de Hirsch.”
The rabbi continued his work the next day, bringing his tally of Jewish bodies to 18. “During the memorial service in town, [Rabbi Walter] had gone to Fairview Cemetery, where the caskets were arriving from the Mayflower Rink for interment, opened the caskets, satisfied himself that 10 contained victims of the Jewish faith, and directed the undertaker’s team and several leading citizens of Halifax’s Jewish community to take them to the adjacent Baron de Hirsch Cemetery.”
Eighteen bodies, presumed to be Jewish, were then at Baron de Hirsch; members of the Nova Scotia Jewish community hastily prepared to dig graves and inter the remains properly before the Sabbath would begin that evening.
When the funeral service began at Fairview, those present realized 10 coffins were missing.
Authorities then prohibited the Jewish community from burying the second set of remains Rabbi Walter had identified but did allow the burial of the first eight at de Hirsch. Authorities also granted two more burial permits for “Hebrew” victims May 4.
Rabbi Walter was allowed to inspect all other bodies at the morgue. He declared there were 44 Jewish bodies in all. But his skills at determining who was Jewish weren’t always reliable.
One victim buried at de Hirsch was a Catholic, Michel Navratil, who traveled under the name “Hoffman.” The White Star Line determined that four of the deceased Rabbi Walter had identified as Jews were also Catholics; others bodies had been claimed by family members.
In the end, the 10 bodies in question — which had been in the de Hirsch receiving vault since the day they were almost buried — were returned to the curling rink.
• Marshall Weiss is the editor and publisher of The Dayton Jewish Observer.
OF LOVE AND PRINCIPLE
The story of two Titanic victims who refused to part, even with certainty of death
By Masada Siegel
It is one of the greatest love stories of modern times, filled with love, honor, integrity and the ultimate act of selflessness. His principles came first, and her love for her husband would not allow her to part from him, under any circumstances.
Isidor and Rosalie “Ida” Straus (nee Blun) were passengers on the ill-fated Titanic, returning home to America from a trip they had taken to Europe. Ida was on a lifeboat headed for safety when she realized her husband would not be coming. She stepped off and refused to leave his side.
Paul Kurzman, great-grandson of Isidor and Ida Straus, explains their legacy this way: “It was a grand life and a beautiful death. A death of such principle. My great grandfather said, ‘I will not get into the boat as long as there are women and children who need to be saved.’ He gave his life for his principle, and no less Ida was heard saying, ‘As we have lived together we will die together. I will go down in your arms.’”
The Strauses were both from prominent Jewish families who immigrated to the United States from Germany in the mid-1800s due to a quiet anti-Semitism that existed there, and for economic opportunities.
Ida was born the fifth of seven children and married Isador at age 22.
Isidor was the eldest son of three brothers and one sister in the Straus family and the one poised for a leadership position. Great-grandson Kurzman explains, “In every piece of correspondence everyone asked his opinion. He was a significant person in the family.”
The family originally settled in Talbotton, Ga., where they opened a general store. At the outbreak of the Civil War, 16-year-old Isador attempted to volunteer for the Confederate States Army but was refused due to his age. Following the war, the Straus family moved to New York City, after which Ida and Isador married.
It was in New York that the Straus family came to buy R.H. Macy and Co. (the early name of today’s Macy’s department stores, and at the time limited to one location at 18th Street and Broadway in New York City). They took calculated risks to improve the business, such as moving the store to 34th Street, which was farmland at the time. Today it is the flagship store of Macy’s in midtown Manhattan.
“The brothers built Macy’s into the largest department store in the world,” Kurzman says. “Isidor built it up, and at a certain point his brother Nathan sold out his share to Isidor, who ran the store until his death on the Titanic in 1912.”
Isidor was a busy man. He had seven children, six of which survived to adulthood; he ran Macy’s and was elected to the United States House of Representatives for a brief period, though he found it challenging to run his business and managing his government obligations from two different cities.
“That’s why he did it for one term,” Kurzman explains. “He couldn’t be in two cities at the same time. He was also a close friend and confidant of the President Grover Cleveland. They met once a month to discuss finances, such as the gold standard and tariffs, which were major issues at the time.”
Because Isidor felt a strong responsibility for new Jewish immigrants landing on the shores of America, he founded a settlement house community center, The Educational Alliance, which helped Eastern European Jews gain the skills necessary to integrate into the workforce. It still exists today, helping all New Yorkers in various capacities.
And though Isador was a busy man who traveled often, by all accounts, he and Ida were always very close, even inseparable, writing letters to one another each day they were apart. When it came time to part during the sinking of the Titanic, they couldn’t bring themselves to do that, either.
When ships went back to search for survivors and bodies, Ida’s was never found, but Isidor’s was recovered. The fob he wore on his pocket watch, which had photos of two of his children, was also recovered.
Kurzman is the keeper of this family heirloom, and it is his most valued possession.
“The locket is precious to me as a tangible connection to my past,” he says. “My grandmother’s words about how her father chose to use his life are equally a part of his legacy to me. My grandmother reminded me that not only did Isidor give generously as a businessman, but he also felt he had to give back to his country in a civic way. Especially because the USA afforded him opportunities he most likely would not have had in Germany.
“One distinguishing characteristic for me was they were very successful and generous with philanthropy. They left me a heritage. When you are blessed with success, even if you worked for it, you must give back to the country that has been so generous to you. My grandmother told me that he loved to give back. This country gave them religious freedom and economic freedom, which allowed them to become who they became.”
The sinking of the Titanic was unarguably tragic, but Kurzman chooses to view his great-grandparents’ story as one of love and honor.
“It was not sad,” he says, “but bittersweet. There is beauty about Isidor’s adherence to principle and Ida’s love of her spouse. This kind of love is difficult to duplicate, especially in the modern world.”
• Masada can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.