Thursday, Apr 18, 2024

The Unsinkable Titanic

Sunday, the 15th of April, marked a century since the sinking of the Titanic and the death of 1,512 of her passengers and crew. Besides Coca Cola, few names are more famous than that of the ill-fated Titanic, the technological marvel that never survived its maiden voyage from Southampton, England, to New York. Largest Man-Made Device in the World Titanic of the White Star Line was the largest ship of its time, built in Belfast by the company Harland and Wolff, co-owned by Gustave Wolff, a Jewish industrialist born into an assimilated German family. Ten stories high and almost a sixth of a mile long, the Titanic was the largest man made object in the world propelled by a daily diet of 600 tons of coal manually shoveled into its roaring ovens. Its electrical plant rivaled those of small cities.

In February 1911, the Living Age Magazine described the age of magnificence represented by this new breed of vessel:
“Today, a floating city; tomorrow, a floating island. No other word is spacious enough for the gigantic ships now coming into existence. Next midsummer the largest ship in the World will be ploughing the Atlantic under the flag of the White Star
Line. This vessel, the Olympic, launched at Belfast two months ago, and her sister-ship, the Titanic, which is expected to take the water a few months hence, will each have the enormous tonnage of 45,000. They will be 882 ft. long and 92 ft. broad, and will be propelled at 21 knots by the combination of reciprocating engines and turbines already employed in the Laurentic.”
There was one catch. The Titanic’s most fragile components were the 2,000 iron plates covering its sides. Only about an inch thick, they were made of low quality iron (by today’s standards) that could become dangerously brittle in the frozen waters of the northern seas. This was the ship’s undoing.


The wealthiest person to board the Titanic was millionaire Colonel John Jacob Astor IV (valued at $150 million) together with his wife. Runners up were two Jewish millionaires, Benjamin Guggenheim (worth $95 million, he helped install the elevators of the Eiffel Tower), and the elderly Isidor Straus (worth $50 million, one of New York’s leading philanthropists and co-developer with his two brothers of the Macy Department Store) and his wife Ida.


But the majority of the passengers were third class; the Titanic was legally defined as an immigrant ship. As Filson Young wrote in his book “Titanic,” printed 37 days after the disaster:


“The thousand odd steerage passengers represented a kind of Babel of nationalities, all the world in little, united by nothing except poverty and the fact that they were in a transition stage of their existence, leaving behind them for the most part a life of failure and hopelessness, and looking forward to a new life of success and hope: Jews, Christians, and Mohammedans, missionaries and heathen, Russians, Poles, Greeks, Roumanians, Germans, Italians, Chinese, Finns, Spaniards, English, and French–with a strong contingent of Irish, the inevitable link in that melancholy chain of emigration that has united Ireland and America since the Famine.”


Yet in the Titanic, even third class passengers enjoyed a modicum of comfort with plenty of food and reasonably comfortable beds. They only lacked washing facilities; two bathtubs were deemed enough for all.


Well over a hundred of the ship’s passengers were Jewish. Between 1880 and 1914, about a million Jews left for America from England’s western ports and kosher food was available on many major trans-Atlantic trips since the first decade of the 20th century. A 1909 Immigration Commission reported of the White Star ships:


“The Hebrew steerage passengers were looked after by a Hebrew who is employed by the company as a cook, and is at the same time appointed by Rabbi as guardian of such passengers. This particular man told me that he is a pioneer in this work. He was the first to receive such an appointment. It is his duty to see that all the Jewish passengers are assigned to sleeping quarters that are as comfortable and as good as any; to see that kosher food is provided and to prepare it. He has done duty on most of the ships of the White Star Line. On each he has instituted this system of caring for the Hebrews and then has left it to be looked after by some successor.”


The Titanic had kosher food, utensils marked for meat or milk, and a special “Hebrew chef,” Charles Kennel, who was among the nearly 700 crew members who perished.


The Titanic was regarded almost unsinkable. In 1907, Captain Edward J. Smith said of his company’s ships in general: “I cannot imagine any condition which would cause a ship to founder. I cannot conceive of any vital disaster happening to this vessel. Modern shipbuilding has gone beyond that.”


Papers and magazines pointed out that, “The Captain may, by simply moving an electric switch, instantly close the doors throughout and make the vessel practically unsinkable.”


However, the infamous statement that even G-d couldn’t make the boat sink (chas veshalom) was uttered not by anyone of standing but by a common deckhand.


During the boarding, a passenger, Mrs. Albert Caldwell, watching deckhands carrying luggage aboard, asked one of them, “Is this ship really unsinkable?”


To which the man replied, “Yes, lady. G-d Himself couldn’t sink this ship.”




Four days into its voyage, the Titanic wandered into a deep ice field. The Titanic received six warnings of ice and icebergs by the time of its collision at 11:40 p.m., the last one coming less than one hour before the collision. They were ignored.


Filson Young describes the collision in graphic terms:


“The moon had set, and the night was very cold, clear and starry, except where here and there a slight haze hung on the surface of the water… Two pairs of sharp eyes were peering forward from the crow’s nest, another pair from the nose of the ship on the fo’c’stle head, and at least three pairs from the bridge itself, all staring into the dim night, quartering with busy glances the area of the black sea in front of them…


“At twenty minutes to twelve the silence of the night was broken by three sharp strokes on the gong sounding from the crow’s nest–a signal for something right ahead; while almost simultaneously came a voice through the telephone from the look-out announcing the presence of ice. There was a kind of haze in front of the ship the colour of the sea, but nothing could be distinguished from the bridge.


“Mr. Murdoch’s hand was on the telegraph immediately, and his voice rapped out the order to the quartermaster to starboard the helm. The wheel spun round, the answering click came up from the startled engine-room; but before anything else could happen there was a slight shock, and a splintering sound from the bows of the ship as she crashed into yielding ice. That was followed by a rubbing, jarring, grinding sensation along her starboard bilge, and a peak of dark-colored ice glided past close alongside.


“As the engines stopped in obedience to the telegraph, Mr. Murdoch turned the switches that closed the water-tight doors. Captain Smith came running out of the chart room. ‘What is it?’ he asked. ‘We have struck ice, Sir.’ ‘Close the water-tight doors.’ ‘It is already done, Sir.’”


Lawrence Beesly, a passenger, wrote in a subsequent book that due to the ship’s massiveness, passengers barely felt the collision at all.


“As I read in the quietness of the night, broken only by the muffled sound that came to me through the ventilators of stewards talking and moving along the corridors, when nearly all the passengers were in their cabins, some asleep in bed, others undressing, and others only just down from the smoking-room and still discussing many things, there came what seemed to me nothing more than an extra heave of the engines and a more than usually obvious dancing motion of the mattress on which I sat. Nothing more than that–no sound of a crash or of anything else: no sense of shock, no jar that felt like one heavy body meeting another. And presently the same thing repeated with about the same intensity.”


As the ship drew to a stop, passengers joked that the iceberg had scraped off some paint “and the captain doesn’t like to go on until she is painted up again.” They were jolted into reality by a loud shout, “All passengers on deck with lifebelts on.”


Passengers streamed aboveboard and prepared to board the ship’s lifeboats.


“Fortunately there was no wind to beat the cold air through our clothing,” Beesely recalls. “Even the breeze caused by the ship’s motion had died entirely away, for the engines had stopped again and the Titanic lay peacefully on the surface of the sea–motionless, quiet, not even rocking to the roll of the sea; indeed, as we were to discover presently, the sea was as calm as an inland lake save for the gentle swell which could impart no motion to a ship the size of the Titanic. To stand on the deck many feet above the water lapping idly against her sides, and looking much farther off than it really was because of the darkness, gave one a sense of wonderful security.”  


But water was pouring into the ship at the rate of hundreds of tons a minute. Five of the ship’s sixteen watertight bulkheads were ruptured by the massive force of the collision. Rescue rockets shot into the air as passengers lined up to enter the lifeboats, women and children first.




The lack of lifeboats condemned 1,512 of the 2,225 people on board. Deck stewards and passengers vainly attempted to make flimsy rafts out of chairs.


Both Jewish millionaires drowned. Benjamin Guggenheim asked someone to deliver a message to his wife in New York:


“I think there is grave doubt that the men will get off. I am willing to remain and play the man’s game if there are not enough boats for more than the women and children. I won’t die like a beast. Tell my wife, Johnson, that if it should happen that my secretary and I both go down and you are saved, tell her I played the game straight and to the end. No woman shall be left aboard this ship because Ben Guggenheim was a coward.”


Filson Young describes how Mrs. Ida Straus refused to leave her husband and joined him as the ship went down.


“They were both old people, and on two separate occasions an Englishman who knew her tried to persuade her to get into a boat, but she would not leave her husband,” he writes. “The second time the boat was not full and he went to Mr. Straus and said: ‘Do go with your wife. Nobody can object to an old gentleman like you going. There is plenty of room in the boat.’ The old gentleman thanked him calmly and said: ‘I won’t go before the other men.’ And Mrs. Straus got out and, going up to him, said: ‘We have been together for forty years and we will not separate now.’ And she remained by his side until that happened to them which happened to the rest.”


A monument to their memory bears the possuk: “Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it.”


Isidore and his brother, Nathan, had been touring Europe when Nathan decided they should all hop over to Palestine. After a week, Isidore returned to Europe while Nathan felt impelled to remain to help Palestine’s needy and only arrived in London on April 12, too late to join his brother on the doomed ship. The city of Netanya and Rechov Straus in Yerushalayim are named after him. 


As the boat continued to submerge, its stern tore from the front of the boat, rising to an almost vertical angle.


“As we gazed awe-struck, she tilted slowly up, revolving apparently about a centre of gravity just astern of amidships, until she attained a vertically upright position; and there she remained–motionless!” Beesely recalled. “As she swung up, her lights, which had shone without a flicker all night, went out suddenly, came on again for a single flash, then went out altogether. And as they did so, there came a noise which many people, wrongly I think, have described as an explosion; it has always seemed to me that it was nothing but the engines and machinery coming loose from their bolts and bearings, and falling through the compartments, smashing everything in their way.”


As the stern returned to the horizontal, the ship went to its eternal rest at 2:20 a.m. on April 15. The Evening World reported later how a passengers joined a multi denomination service as the boat went down:


“Two priests of the Roman Catholic Church went down on the Titanic with men and women grouped about them responding to prayers. Not only Catholics, but Protestants and Jews, realizing that their last hour was at hand, took part in the final religious service on the sloping deck of the Titanic as she was heading downward for the depths.”




Victims in the water froze. Colonel Gracie of the United States army described how hundreds of people froze to death in the 28 degree Fahrenheit water, four degrees below freezing. Only thirteen were helped into lifeboats.


“I saw wreckage everywhere, and what came within reach I clung to,” he wrote. “I moved from one piece to another until I reached the collapsible boat. She soon became so full that it seemed as if she would sink if more came on board her. We had to refuse to let any others climb on board. This was the most pathetic and horrible scene of all. The piteous cries of those around us ring in my ears, and I will remember them to my dying day. ‘Hold on to what you have, old boy,’ we shouted to each man who tried to get on board. ‘One more of you would sink us all.’ Many of those whom we refused answered, as they went to their death, ‘Good luck; G-d bless you.’ All the time we were buoyed up and sustained by the hope of rescue.”


A number of ships had received the Titanic’s distress calls and hurried towards the disaster, but it was too late. Only 710 survivors were saved after the RMS Carpathia reached the scene at around four a.m.


Due to confusion, the news of the Titanic’s sad fate took time reaching the world. Ironically, this led to Mr. Franklin, vice-president of the American Trust to which the White Star Company belonged, issuing an erroneous statement from New York the morning after when the boat no longer existed about the ship’s invincibility.


“We have nothing direct from the Titanic, but are perfectly satisfied that the vessel is unsinkable,” he wrote. “The fact that the Marconi messages have ceased means nothing; it may be due to atmospheric conditions or the coming up of the ships, or something of that sort. We are not worried over the possible loss of the ship, as she will not go down, but we are sorry for the inconvenience caused to the traveling public. We are absolutely certain that the Titanic is able to withstand any damage. She may be down by the head, but would float indefinitely in that condition.”


Monday headlines announced: “The great new ship, Titanic, has some problems in the Atlantic: everyone safe.” But second editions reported the terrible truth that at least “1300 passengers have been lost.”


An inquiry concluded that the regulations on the number of lifeboats ships should carry were out of date, that Captain Smith had failed to heed ice warnings, that the lifeboats were not properly filled or crewed, and that the ship had steamed into a dangerous area at too high a speed.




After the disaster, ships combed the area and found 328 bodies. Those not interred elsewhere, were buried in local cemeteries of Halifax, Nova Scotia, with Jewish victims hopefully identified by a Rabbi Jacob Walter. Until this day, ten nearly identical headstones stand in the Jewish Baron de Hirsch cemetery of Halifax, each bearing the date of the sinking, April 15, 1912. One “Jewish” victim, identified as Louis Hoffman, was later discovered to be a non-Jew, Michel Navaitril, who was traveling under an alias to escape creditors.


In New York, Titanic survivors were assisted by many charitable organizations including the National Council of Jewish Women and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. The victims were mourned throughout the world. At least a hundred American shuls held memorial services and about two hundred songs were composed in their memory.


Thanks to her act of devotion, Ida and Isidor Strauss became a heroic symbol of the sinking. A New York song-writer, Solomon Small, wrote a song, Churban Titanic, oder Der Nasser Kever (The Titanic’s Disaster, or, The Watery Grave), arranged for piano by H.A. Russotto, that sold in the tens-of-thousands. On its cover, a depiction of the sinking boat shows victims trying to rappel to the sea on ropes. The spirits of Ida and Isidor tower above the wreck as an angel places a wreath upon their heads. The song praises Ida’s self-sacrifice and devotion:


“There stand, in woe, the thousands in need and know that death will dash them down. Then they cry, ‘Save yourselves into the boats quickly, women. No man dare take a place there. But listen to one woman-soul who can say, ‘I won’t stir from the spot, I’ll die here with my husband.’ Let small and great honor the name of Ida Straus!”


In 1913, Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt composed a special Keil Molei Rachamim “for the souls of the people of the Titanic who drowned in the sea and are gone to their eternal home.” It raised $150,000 for bereaved families.




In his book, Reflections of the Maggid (2002), Rabbi Paysach Krohn recounts the moving story of a third class Jewish passenger, Leah Aks, and her infant son, Frank.


Leah and her baby were traveling to America, where her husband Sam Aks had immigrated some time previously. In the commotion of the sinking, baby Frank, wrapped in a shawl, was torn from Leah’s arms by a maniacal man frustrated at not being able to get on a lifeboat and the baby was thrown overboard.  


Two days later, the grief-stricken Leah was walking on the deck of the rescue ship Carpathia, when she saw a woman holding a child. The child lunged toward Leah. She recognized him. Leah screamed, “That’s my baby! That’s my child.”


The woman, Elizabeth Nye, dressed in a long black dress embroidered with a huge cross, refused to release the child. She declared that while she was on the lifeboat, a child came flying into her waiting arms. To her that was a sign from Heaven that she had to care for the child for rest of her life.


A wild argument ensued. Soon the captain of the Carpathia, Arthur Rostron, was called in to decide the issue. Leah was crying hysterically, while Mrs Nye would not release the baby. Captain Roston told both women to come with the infant to his quarters where he could reflect and decide the matter.


In the captain’s quarter, Leah suddenly called out that she could prove the baby was hers. “I am Jewish and my son was circumcised!” When Captain Rostron saw that indeed the child had a bris, ten month old Frank was reunited with his mother. Frank Aks married and had children and grandchildren, eventually passing away in 1991 at the age of 80.


Rabbi Krohn relates: “After the traumatic events of the ill-fated journey, Leah was so grateful to Captain Rostron and his crew, that years later when she had a daughter she named her Sarah Carpathia Aks. Incredibly there was some confusion among the hospital secretaries and they recorded her name on her birth certificate as Sarah Titanic Aks!”


In a famous teshuvah, Rav Yaakov Hakohen Meskin, who later served as a rav in America, addressed the question of an agunah whose husband sailed overseas on the Titanic.


“He was one of the residents of our town, Novoprana in the Herson district and his name was Shimon Meizner,” he writes. “He left a young wife and three young children with no support. The miserable wife begged me repeatedly to tell her the halachah of the Torah whether she can remarry or not and also complained why I instructed her sons not to say Kaddish. I told her that in these severe matters I was afraid to put in my head. But because the chachomim put great effort in helping to free agunos I took time to look into this and find a leniency and this is what I wrote to the great gaon Rav Yitzchok Yaakov Rabinowitz the Ga’avad and Rosh Yeshiva of Ponevez, etc.”


Rav Itzele of Ponevez wrote back his own rationales for leniency and recommended that the question be decided by a beis din.




About a hundred Jews lost their lives on the Titanic. However, this was not the worst Jewish sea tragedy of the times. Teshuva seforim have a number of agunah sha’alos relating to sinkings during the great emigration from Russia to America. Only eight years earlier, 635 people drowned when the Danish liner Norge sank near Scotland in what was the greatest maritime disaster until the Titanic and the greatest maritime disaster of all time for Jews. Of the 233 Jews who boarded her at Libau, Lithuania, only thirty-five survived. Like the Titanic, there were insufficient lifeboats, only 250 for its 795 passengers.


The two halves of Titanic’s wreck were found in 1985 at a depth of 12,415 feet and have been extensively explored and photographed. It is estimated that within fifty years, little will remain of this magnificent vessel but its more durable interior fittings and a pile of rust. The last survivor of the Titanic, Elizabeth Gladys Millvina Dean, died three years ago at the age of 97. At nine weeks old, she was the youngest passenger to board the doomed ship that symbolizes the dashing of man’s pride and the power of his spirit.


(Sources: Lawrence Beesley, The Loss of the S.S. Titanic, June 1912. Filson Young. Titanic, Grant Richards, London 1912.Rav Krohn’s story is taken from The South African Jewish Maritime League site.)



My Take On the News

  Elad Katzir Murdered in Captivity It’s hard to know where to begin. Should I start with the news of another hostage who was found

Read More »


Subscribe to stay updated