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.
getty images
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.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

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.”


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • British Jews are having their 'Open Hillel' moment. Do you think Israel advocacy on campus runs the risk of excluding some Jewish students?
  • "What I didn’t realize before my trip was that I would leave Uganda with a powerful mandate on my shoulders — almost as if I had personally left Egypt."
  • Is it better to have a young, fresh rabbi, or a rabbi who stays with the same congregation for a long time? What do you think?
  • Why does the leader of Israel's social protest movement now work in a beauty parlor instead of the Knesset?
  • What's it like to be Chagall's granddaughter?
  • Is pot kosher for Passover. The rabbis say no, especially for Ashkenazi Jews. And it doesn't matter if its the unofficial Pot Day of April 20.
  • A Ukrainian rabbi says he thinks the leaflets ordering Jews in restive Donetsk to 'register' were a hoax. But the disturbing story still won't die.
  • Some snacks to help you get through the second half of Passover.
  • You wouldn't think that a Soviet-Jewish immigrant would find much in common with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But the famed novelist once helped one man find his first love. http://jd.fo/f3JiS
  • Can you relate?
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.