A sinking feeling

A sinking feeling

December 10, 2009 16:50
titanic cemetery 248.88

titanic cemetery 248.88. (photo credit: Paul Ross)


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If my grandmother were still alive, she'd probably ask: "Was the Titanic good for the Jews?" And the answer would have been yes and no. Yes, because the White Star Line, which built and owned the Titanic, honored its Jewish passengers. No because, along with all the other victims, Jews perished on the infamous maiden voyage of the state-of-the-art ship. I had heard that there was a Jewish cemetery for Titanic victims in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and, on a recent visit, I was determined to find it. After doing the usual thing - asking the hotel concierge, inquiring of wait staff in restaurants - and coming up short, I decided to call the local Chabad rabbi, Mendel Feldman, who I had heard was young, affable and open-hearted. His reputation was well earned because he immediately agreed to drive over to meet me at my hotel. "I've heard there's a Titanic grave site in the Baron de Hirsch cemetery, " he began, "and I have performed funerals there, but I have never seen the site." "Can we go there?" I asked. "Well," he hesitated, "it's Sunday and the man who has the keys is out of town." I frowned. He smiled. "Would you be willing to jump the wall?" he inquired. Half an hour later, the rabbi went first, and I followed him. He looked left and right, saw the coast was clear, and jumped down into the Baron de Hirsch cemetery. We wandered around for a while and then the rabbinic sniffer led him in the right direction. A small sign pointed to the Titanic Jewish site. There - in a special area of the cemetery - we found it. Ten identical headstones, each about 45 cm. high, bore the same date: April 15, 1912, the day the Titanic went under. There were no names on the stones, but, rather, numbers: 264, 144, 248, 291, 136. Of all the Titanic exhibits, movies, articles I had read, nothing brought the disaster home as much as those silent, nameless stones under which the victims slept their eternal sleep. The numbers are a sad part of the story of the sinking. On April 10, 1912, the Titanic left on her maiden voyage, carrying more than 2,200 passengers and crew members. South of Newfoundland, four days later, the ship struck an iceberg and sank in two hours and 40 minutes (at 2:20 a.m. on April 15). Those approximately 700 lucky souls who survived in lifeboats were rescued by the Carpathia and taken to New York. The unlucky ones, who were feared or presumed dead because of the frigid waters, had another fate. The White Star Line, which had offices in Halifax, commissioned four Canadian vessels to search for bodies in the area of the disaster. Two of them, the Minia and the Mackay-Bennett, were cable ships based in Halifax, which was the closest major port to the area where the Titanic went under. Many of those who drowned were never found, and others, whose bodies were severely damaged or decomposed, were buried at sea. But 209 bodies were carried to a temporary morgue that was set up in Halifax. The bodies that could be identified were sent to families or, if the family desired, interred in Halifax. Each body retrieved at sea had been assigned a number, and all personal belongings were put into small canvas bags which were numbered to match the number of the body. Forty-four of the deceased were unidentified. The majority were buried in the Fairview Lawn Cemetery, others were interred in the Mount Olivet Catholic cemetery and 10 found their final resting place in the Baron de Hirsch Jewish Cemetery, where I stood. According to information panels close to the 10 graves, on May 3, 1912, Rabbi M. Walter interred nine Titanic victims; one more was to follow on May 15. Eight of the graves do not have a name. For about a third of the Titanic victims buried in Halifax, there were no distinguishing marks that would enable a positive identification of the body. All of the victims buried at Baron de Hirsch Cemetery were men, only two of whom were identified. "How did they know the nameless deceased were Jewish?" I asked Rabbi Feldman. He shrugged. I shrugged. "Strange," I said. He nodded. We read on. The story got more bizarre. One of the identified victims, Michel Navratil, was a second-class passenger. The other identified body belonged to Frederick H. Wormald, a first-class saloon steward. Based on the coroner's list, victim 248 was probably a member of the cook's department. Victims 136 and 278 were possibly firemen; victims 289, 264 and 214 were stewards. The status of victims 78 and 291 was not determined. Michel Navratil was traveling aboard the Titanic under the false name Louis Hoffman and he was packing heat; among his personal effects was a revolver. Navratil, a Slovakian by birth, had emigrated to Nice, France, in 1902. He had seized his two young sons, Michel and Edmond, after the breakup of his marriage. With his offspring, he traveled from Nice via Monaco and boarded the ship at Southampton. During the disaster, Navratil managed to place his children on the last lifeboat to leave the Titanic, and one can only imagine his state of mind as he stayed behind and perished. In 1982, 70 years after the sinking, Michel Navratil, the older of the two sons, found out that his father was buried in Halifax. In 1996, Michel Navratil, a retired philosophy professor in France, traveled to Halifax to visit his father's grave. A Roman Catholic priest blessed the burial site since it turned out that Michel Navratil was Catholic, not Jewish, as the authorities in 1912 had assumed. Prof. Navratil expressed his profound gratitude to the members of the Baron de Hirsch Congregation in Halifax for having taken such good care of his father for so many years. The second identified victim, Yorkshire-born Frederick H. Wormald, relocated with his family to Southampton so he could find work on ocean liners. He boarded the Titanic as a first-class saloon steward. When his body was recovered, the White Star Line paid for his wife and six children to sail to New York on the Olympic. Since they were impecunious and had no means of support, the American authorities refused to allow them to enter the United States. They were put back on the Olympic and forced to return to a life of impoverishment in Southampton. Ironically, after Wormald was buried in the Baron de Hirsch, it was discovered he was a member of the Church of England. "So that means eight of the 10 men buried here are Jewish," I said to Rabbi Feldman. "Or presumed to be Jewish." He nodded and I nodded. Then we walked in silence and made our way back to the wall, which we jumped again, into modern-day Halifax.

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