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On the 104th Anniversary of the Titanic's Sinking, a Look at Its Jewish Passengers and Links to Today

On the 104th Anniversary of the Titanic's Sinking, a Look at Its Jewish Passengers and Links to Today

The now-familiar specter of refugees from Syria and other war-ravaged countries crowding onto unseaworthy vessels and perishing at sea evokes tragedies of an earlier era of a mass migration.

At the peak of the bloody pogroms in Czarist Russia, hundreds of Jewish refugees boarded the Danish liner SS Norge bound for New York. On June 28, 1904, the steamer ran aground off Rockall, an uninhabited granite islet. It was the worst civilian maritime disaster in the Atlantic – until the RMS Titanic went down eight years later on April 15, 1912.

The Jewish Chronicle reported that Russian Jews constituted roughly one-third of the 635 fatalities on the SS Norge. Many of these victims might have been saved, had the steamship company provided enough lifeboats – a lesson not learned by the British operator of the RMS Titanic. The survival rate of third-class (steerage) passengers on the RMS Titanic was 37%, as compared to 62% for those in first-class, largely because steerage passengers had no dedicated lifeboats. More than half the women and children in steerage perished.

For all the luxury the RMS Titanic afforded its first-class passengers, it was a death trap for the majority of those traveling in its lower levels.

More than 1,500 passengers died in the Titanic disaster. An estimated 100 Jews were among the victims, though the actual number may never be known, in part because surnames were used to determine religious identity, and many passengers traveled on forged travel documents.

We do know the names of two Jewish men traveling in first-class who famously chose to die so that others might live.

Mining baron Benjamin Guggenheim, 46, was traveling with his mistress and entourage. He refused to board a lifeboat, declaring, “No woman shall be left aboard this ship because Ben Guggenheim was a coward.”

Isador Straus, 67, philanthropist and co-owner of Macy’s department store, refused seating on a lifeboat so long as women and children remained on the sinking ship. His wife, Ida, refused to leave without her husband, saying, “As we have lived, so will we die – together.” The couple was last seen arm in arm on the deck of the first cabin. Isador’s body was recovered and brought to the nearest port, in Halifax, Canada, where it was identified and shipped to New York for burial. The bodies of Ida Straus and Benjamin Guggenheim were never found.

Ten of the Titanic’s victims were buried in Halifax’s Jewish Baron de Hirsch Cemetery, but it is not known whether any of them were in fact Jews. Blair Beed, author of Titanic Victims in Halifax Graveyards, reports that the local rabbi, in a rush to identify Jewish victims and bury them within the prescribed time under Jewish law, spirited away 10 male bodies awaiting interment in the Protestant graveyard and instead buried them in the Jewish cemetery.

Eight of the 10 have never been identified. The ninth, Frederick Wormald, was later discovered to be a member of the Church of England. The tenth, Michael Navratil, was a Catholic traveling under the false name Louis M. Hoffman to hide the fact that he had abducted his two sons from his estranged wife. Both boys survived the disaster and were reunited with their mother in France. Eighty-four years later, one of the sons visited Halifax and arranged for a Roman Catholic priest to say a blessing at his father’s grave in the Jewish cemetery.

The drama surrounding the epic tale of the RMS Titanic may obscure the fact that its creation owes to the highly lucrative and competitive emigrant trade. Even at steerage prices – roughly a month’s salary per person – third-class passengers constituted the most profitable class of passengers. Europe’s steamship lines made fortunes transporting some 30 million newcomers to America from the mid-19th century until the Immigration Act of 1924, severely limited the number of immigrants from eastern and southern Europe.  

Thousands of lives might have been saved had steamship lines put the safety of steerage customers ahead of profit.

Today, the migrant trade is again prospering, as Europe-bound refugees pay dearly for a spot on ill-equipped, over-crowded vessels – and then pray they will not be swallowed up by the sea.

Aron Hirt-Manheimer is the Union for Reform Judaism's editor-at-large.
Photo credit: Rose Eichenbaum

Aron Hirt-Manheimer
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