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!
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • Professor Dan Markel, 41 years old, was found shot and killed in his Tallahassee home on Friday. Jay Michaelson can't explain the death, just grieve for it.
  • Employees complained that the food they received to end the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan was not enough (no non-kosher food is allowed in the plant). The next day, they were dismissed.
  • Why are peace activists getting beat up in Tel Aviv? http://jd.fo/s4YsG
  • Backstreet's...not back.
  • Before there was 'Homeland,' there was 'Prisoners of War.' And before there was Claire Danes, there was Adi Ezroni. Share this with 'Homeland' fans!
  • BREAKING: Was an Israeli soldier just kidnapped in Gaza? Hamas' military wing says yes.
  • What's a "telegenically dead" Palestinian?
  • 13 Israeli soldiers die in Gaza — the deadliest day for the IDF in decades. So much for 'precision' strikes and easy exit strategies.
  • What do a Southern staple like okra and an Israeli favorite like tahini have in common? New Orleans chef Alon Shaya brings sabra tastes to the Big Easy.
  • The Cossacks were a feature in every European Jewish kid's worst nightmare. Tuvia Tenenbom went looking for the real-life variety in Ukraine — but you won't believe what he found. http://forward.com/articles/202181/my-hunt-for-the-cossacks-in-ukraine/?
  • 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.