Titan of the Sea Meets Its Match

Century Later, Tales of Courage and Cowardice Endure

Setting Sail” The Titanic is towed out to sea before its maiden voyage that ended in tragedy.
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Setting Sail” The Titanic is towed out to sea before its maiden voyage that ended in tragedy.

By Michael Hirsch

Published April 09, 2012, issue of April 13, 2012.
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Nearly a century after the sinking of the RMS Titanic, the stories about how those aboard fared during the ship’s final hours remain as fresh today as they were on the fateful night of April 14, 1912. The luxury ocean liner, helmed by Capt. Edward Smith, was carrying the fabulously wealthy and the steerage poor across the Atlantic on her maiden voyage from Southampton, England, and Cherbourg, France, to New York City. The ship held 2,207 passengers on the night of the disaster, and by some estimates, the manifest listed at least 89 Jewish surnames.

The Titanic was one of the greatest and grandest technological marvels of a century that would soon be filled with them. She was a floating city nearly four blocks long and 11 stories high. Owned by the White Star Line, the ship cost more than $7 million to build — about $140 million in today’s dollars. Her amenities included a grand staircase and ballroom, a swimming pool, electric elevators, indoor palm trees, Turkish baths and a fully equipped gymnasium.

But beyond her comforts, the great ship represented to many people yet another example of man’s ability to conquer worlds, including the natural one. She was called unsinkable and many believed this to be true; the Titanic’s state-of-the-art design boasted an advanced system of watertight compartments. This unshakable belief would have tragic consequences for her passengers after the Titanic struck an iceberg at 11:40 p.m. on April 14 in the middle of the North Atlantic. Though carrying 2,207 souls, the ship was outfitted with lifeboats that had room for only 1,178. Because many of those crafts were lowered into the sea with empty seats, an estimated 1,522 people perished and only 705 survived.

Among the most illustrious of the ill-fated passengers were Isidor and Ida Straus, who were among New York’s most prominent citizens and the pride of the Lower East Side. Isidor was a co-owner of R.H. Macy & Co. and its flagship department store; a former U.S. Congressman; and a longtime, trusted adviser to many of the leading figures of the day, including President Grover Cleveland.

However, it was not only the powerful who admired and respected the Strauses. Throughout New York City’s huge Jewish immigrant community, they were highly regarded benefactors who helped others in their struggle to find success in the New World.

Distress Call: The SS Burma receives the Titanic’s call for help from telegraph operator Jack Philips.
getty images
Distress Call: The SS Burma receives the Titanic’s call for help from telegraph operator Jack Philips.

Considered one of the leading philanthropists of his day, Isidor Straus funded cultural, educational, financial and public-health institutions throughout the city, including the Jewish Theological Seminary, Montefiore Hospital and the much-loved Educational Alliance, where he served as president from its founding in 1893 until his death.

By many accounts of the tragic night, the Strauses were in bed in their cabin on C Deck when the Titanic struck the iceberg. Ida Straus immediately began dressing and insisted that Isidor do the same. Making their way to the upper deck, the Strauses and their servants waited there with growing concern. As the order to fill the lifeboats was given, Isidor Straus began encouraging his wife to board one of the tiny boats. Ida was adamant — she would not leave her husband. Instead, she helped her maid, Edith Bird, into lifeboat No. 8. She gave Bird her fur coat, declaring that she would “no longer need it.”


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