The Titanic and Jews

It was sad when that great ship went down; there were husband and wives, little chillun lost their lives.

Titanic (illustrative) (photo credit: Francisco Bonilla / Reuters)
Titanic (illustrative)
(photo credit: Francisco Bonilla / Reuters)
It was sad – it was sad – it was sad when that great ship went down, hit the bottom – there were husband and wives, little chillun lost their lives – it was sad when that great ship went down.’ We sang the chorus of that song with gusto at our Jewish camp in North Carolina in the 1950s and the lead verse sticks in my memory defining what this was all about. “Oh they built the ship Titanic to sail the ocean blue – and they thought they had a ship that the water couldn’t get through,” but then none of us youngsters knew what that ship was or what happened to it.
I learned faster than some of my friends. On my late summer visits to Bubbie Birshtein in Norfolk Virginia, my mother’s mother, a surprise was in store for me. The Titanic words became real when I was introduced to a man in his forties, Mr. Aks, a family friend, and I was told that he was one of the babies who survived the sinking of the Titanic in 1912.
Amazingly, he was taken from his mother’s arms that terrible night as the ship began to carry its passengers under water and thrown overboard.
He was caught by a woman in a lifeboat, whose last name was Astor. She wrapped him in a blanket since he was only nine months old. Later he was returned to his mother, who did survive.
He kept that blanket as his good luck charm and spent his life in Norfolk where the family settled.
Still, my understanding of the Titanic was minimal even when I graduated college in 1959. I only got the vibes about fifteen years ago when I read a sermon by a rabbi in Atlanta Georgia, not family, who told his congregation on the Shabbat after the disaster in April 1912: “The sinking of the Titanic is an event of great importance to the American Jewish community.” His statement challenged me personally to find some answers. The ones I located are just the tip of the proverbial “iceberg” which took the Titanic down to the depths.
Let us think back, a century ago, to an era with only wireless, a primitive radio and Edison’s phonograph. There were silent films as well. Of course the greatest communication was via the newspapers. Since the actual information about the sinking took a while to reach the press, the Monday headlines read “The great new ship, Titanic, has some problems in the Atlantic: everyone safe.” Second editions that day and all the papers on Tuesday carried the horrible news that at least “1300 passengers have been lost.” In the next few days the descriptions became more vivid as survivors were interviewed.
What struck me was the minimal “Forbes-listing” of that era which pointed out again and again who were the rich who drowned. Number one was Col. John Jacob Astor worth then $150,000,000. Of course, it was his wife who saved the Aks baby. Number two wealth-wise was the copper baron and scion of a noted American Jewish family: Benjamin Guggenheim.
His wealth amounted to $95,000,000.
The only other Jew among the seven men of great wealth who lost their lives was Isidor Straus, a $50,000,000 man, whom we recall from the movie “Titanic” because his wife Ida refused to enter a lifeboat and perished with her husband.
Today we take the counting of wealth as a natural part of our lives.
The recent Forbes list of billionaires included 12 Israelis and many more Jews around the world. One hundred years ago Jews knew that people like Guggenheim and Straus were wealthy but there was no sense of how large that personal wealth was. Moreover, WASPish Americans only knew wealthy Jews as usurpers who made do with large interest rates. When those numbers appeared again and again in April and May 1912 – American Jews were amazed and Christians too. By the end of that first week after the catastrophe, The New York Times began reporting memorial services at Temple Emanuel and Temple Beth El in the city specifically for Guggenheim and Straus. We now know that at least 100 American synagogues throughout the USA held such services for the “big two” but also for individuals with local connections who lost their lives. The drama in the Jewish community played out in a different manner.
The best-known American Orthodox Jew of that second decade of the 20th century was Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt.
He acted instinctively with the great heart he had. For RCA Victor Records he cut an El Mole Rahamim for the unfortunate ones who were gone. You can pick it up easily on the internet by putting in his name. 100 years later we listen to Rosenblatt’s moving melodic musical interpretation. For his prayer he included in Hebrew, something new for that period, “for the people of the Titanic who drowned in the sea and are gone to their eternal home.”
That recording sold quickly – $150,000 was raised because Rosenblatt donated all his rights. Those funds, a very large sum, was contributed to the fund for the families who lost loved ones on the Titanic.
One Yiddish paper wrote, “the sinking of the Titanic was a tragedy that left no heart untouched.”
As the selfless act of love and devotion of Ida Straus, dying together with her husband Isidor, became better known, both Jews and Christians praised her to the sky. She was a woman of valor – following the words of Ruth to Naomi, “where you die – I will die.”
Pictures of Ida and pictures of Ida and Isidor filled the press.
They were the heroes of that tragedy and everyone knew that they were Jews, noted philanthropists whose love was incredible.
A New York Yiddish lyricist, Solomon Small, 1868-1943, did not hesitate for a moment.
He penned a song entitled Der Naser Kever (The Watery Grave.) Rosenblatt recorded the song and the sheet music was published with a moving illustration. On the cover one saw a drawing of the stricken ship. Floating above it are the spirits of the personages of Ida and Isidor Straus. An angel can be seen placing a wreath on the heads of the loving couple who are joined in an embrace.
We should listen to a few of the poignant words of that song.
“Standing there... are the thousands who know that death will dash them forever. They cry out.”
Here we can feel the anguish.
“Save yourselves... into the boats quickly women take a place there.” Now the song focuses on Ida. “But listen to that woman soul – I won’t stir from the spot, I’ll die here with my husband.”
The song concludes: “Let small and great honor the name of Ida Straus.”
From those whose Yiddish knowledge is extensive, I am told that the words captured the feelings of thousands – perhaps millions of people at that time.
The rabbi in Atlanta concluded his sermon with these memorable thoughts. “We have wept for all the victims of the Titanic together. Now we must interweave into our own lives that moving devotion of Ida for Isidor. Only then we will demonstrate what these two and all those who rest in the watery depths mean to us. May their souls be bound up in the bonds of life eternal.”