A century after the sinking of the Titanic on April 14, 1912, the world’s most
luxurious and tragic cruise ship continues to be a subject of fascination in the
world. Newspaper supplements and TV specials will proliferate to mark the
Titanic’s crash, fleshing out passengers’ details, speculating on causes, making
lofty statements about faulty decision-making.
We love a story with a
Among the passengers were Jews, returning or emigrating to the
The ones best known to those of us who live in Israel were Isidor and
Ida Blum Straus, brother and sister-in-law of Nathan Straus, for whom our city of
Netanya was named. The usual story goes that the two Straus brothers and their
wives were touring together in pre-state Israel. Isidor and Ida hurried to
return to the US on the luxurious Titanic, while Nathan and his wife, Lina
Guterz Straus, stayed to help the needy, leaving their berths on the Titanic
empty. Because they were saved, Nathan and Lina devoted the rest of their lives
to contributing to the people of pre-state Israel. I’ve heard this story many
But much of it is wrong. And the implication that Isidor and Ida
Straus drowned due to paucity of social dedication is maligning and
Here’s the story, gleaned from the biography by David de Sola
Pool (1885-1970) – rabbi, writer and president of the American Jewish Historical
Society – and from the Straus historical archives.
Isidor and his younger
brother Nathan were extremely close. Born in Otterberg, Germany, they arrived in
the United States with their mother, Sara, in 1854 as young boys. Their father,
Lazarus, had been discouraged by the flow of history in central Europe and
preceded them by two years, first earning a living as a peddler and later
opening up a general store in a town in Georgia. Sara and Lazarus were first
cousins; their grandfather Jacob Lazar Straus had been a member of the Sanhedrin
that Napoleon convened in 1806. The boys studied in a log-cabin
They received their Jewish education at home.
family’s first American-earned fortune was in cotton, and they lost it when the
South lost the Civil War.
Lazarus paid off his debts by succeeding at a
new business, this time a pottery and glassware firm in the North. Isidor worked
in the firm; Nathan became their dynamic sales rep. After a heralded meeting
with R.H. Macy, the company got the use of the eponymous store’s basement for a
showroom. Within a year, Isidor and Nathan were partners in
Twenty years later, the two brothers owned the business, relying
on their combination of administrative and creative prowess. They also became
partners in another store: Abraham and Straus.
BUT IT wasn’t all
business. The brothers had strong social consciousness.
When one of their
saleswomen fainted from hunger because she was scrimping to support her invalid
mother, they opened the first subsidized workers’ cafeteria. Both brothers were
involved in philanthropy, particularly for health issues, and public service in
New York – sometimes jointly, sometimes separately.
Isidor served in
Congress. He was a founding member of the American Jewish Committee. Nathan was
the president of the New York Board of Health. Both brothers had long and
devoted marriages to outstanding women and were devoted to their large
In January 1912, Isidor and Ida went to France. Isidor was
recovering from an illness. They visited family in Germany, where both of them
were born, and traveled to London, where Isidor tried to help resolve a
problematic coal strike. They also visited pre-state Israel.
meantime, Nathan and Lina sailed to Israel in February together with Hebrew
University founder and first president Yehuda Magnes. The timing suited them
because Nathan had committed to representing the US at an International
Tuberculosis Congress in Rome in April.
Because of the coal strike, many
ships weren’t sailing to America. The Titanic was. Isidor and Ida booked
tickets. Nathan and Lina weren’t planning to return just then.
of their beloved Isidor and Ida must certainly have impacted them. They had
already endured the deaths of two of their children: a two-year-old daughter and
a 17- year-old son. But they had long been involved in life-saving
Beginning in 1892, they invested enormous effort and money in
promulgating pasteurization of milk, the lack of which was a possible cause of
their children’s deaths.
They had to overcome fierce opposition from
dairy farmers, politicians and sometimes doctors to making use of Louis
Their pasteurized milk distribution centers in New
York saved tens of thousands of lives and became the models for the Western
world. Lina published a monograph called Diseases of Milk – The Remedy
By the time the Titanic sailed, Henrietta Szold had
returned from her trip to Israel and established Hadassah.
It makes sense
that her fellow practical Zionists and pioneers of the revolutionary milk
distribution stations would have wanted to support the budding effort of medical
care in Jerusalem. Not only did Nathan and Lina volunteer to pay for one of the
two nurses dispatched to Jerusalem in 1913, but they sailed with
They subsequently set up health centers as they had in New York,
and Hadassah began distributing pasteurized milk through a program called Tipat
Halav (the origin of the wellbaby mother and child clinics in
Nathan and Lina went on to support many important causes, among
them establishing an alternative hotel in Lakewood, New Jersey, when family
members were rejected from another because they were Jews, and opposing Henry
Two thirds of their fortune was given
WE HAVE no idea what other good works Isidor and Ida would have
accomplished if they had lived to old age, too. By all reports, they were
remarkable people. Isidor refused a place in a lifeboat that might have gone to
women and children. Ida refused to leave without him. They have gone down in
history for their nobility.
What a shame that their memory should be
denigrated for the sake of fashioning a false morality tale.
of our people are a cherished heritage. Passover is the time when we, men and
women both, are reminded of the sacred commandment to pass along the stories of
our people. We were slaves to Pharaoh, not just physically, but
God needed a strong hand and a powerful arm to redeem us
because we weren’t so eager to leave. We were complainers.
Ours is a
complex, nuanced, rich tradition, not hagiography, whether in the cold water of
the Atlantic or the splitting waters of the Re(e)d Sea.
The more we tell
our stories, the greater is the glory of our people and our Maker.The
author is a Jerusalem writer who focuses on the wondrous stories of modern
Israel. She serves as the Israel director of public relations for Hadassah, the
Women’s Zionist Organization of America.The views in her columns are her