The Titanic’s sinking in 1912 coincided with one of the most vibrant moments in American Jewish history, when Jews in New York, Chicago and beyond were organizing to ease the passage of their contemporaries from Eastern Europe. Jewish organizations like the National Council of Jewish Women and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society were in a unique position to help the survivors of the Titanic while boosting their profiles in the philanthropic world. “That story was so big and so heart-rending,” said Brandeis professor of Jewish history, Jonathan Sarna, “that every Jewish organization wanted to tie themselves to it because it was the only way you would get any traction at that time.” In addition to the NCJW and HIAS, Hadassah, the women’s Zionist organization, has immediate ties to the Titanic story. Here’s a look at how these three major groups are linked to that historic event.
National Council of Jewish Women
The National Council of Jewish Women was a small but ascendant organization at the time of the Titanic disaster, having recently established a national network of 250 representatives to help immigrant Jewish girls.
When the Titanic’s rescue ship, the Carpathia, docked at Pier 54 on April 18, the New York Chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women was there with a welcoming committee — led by a “Mrs. Perlman” and the curiously named “Mrs. American,” according to an April 20, 1912 article in the Forverts — to transport survivors in borrowed cars to the Hospitality Society and the Clara de Hirsch Home for Working Girls, a charity that provided lodging and vocational training to immigrant girls.
Like many women’s organizations at the time, the NCJW became a clearinghouse for donations for Jewish and non-Jewish survivors alike. An April 22 article in The New York Times proclaimed: “More Than Enough Gifts for Survivors: Women Workers’ Offices Flooded with Clothing That Titanic Folk Do Not Need.” Donations in the form of women’s suits, dresses and corsets came from private individuals and clothiers. Perhaps in keeping with the Jewish tradition of anonymous giving, one $18 donation came with a card simply signed, “Six Friends.”
The NCJW could not provide the Forward with details about the survivors it assisted or the whereabouts of their descendants. But an April 19, 1912 article in The New York Times provided this assurance: “The Council will keep in touch with the women and girls until they are properly adjusted in normal conditions.”
“That’s the kind of thing the council did in those days,” said Nancy Kaufman, chief executive officer of the NCJW. “They were at the cutting edge of helping people in trouble, people in crisis, people coming to this country.”
Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society
At the time of the Titanic disaster, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society — founded in 1881— was busy acclimating tens of thousands of Jewish immigrants to life in America from its storefront on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
When survivors of the disaster arrived in New York, HIAS, then called the Hebrew Immigrant Sheltering and Aid Society, added another 27 cases to its roster, supplying food, temporary shelter and transportation to survivors with families outside of New York. HIAS raised more than $1,000 in donations for the Titanic passengers.
“HIAS didn’t look at who is Jewish and who is not,” said Valery Bazarov, the agency’s director of family history and location services. “You take what you can and you help who you can.”
Among the survivors assisted by HIAS were Leah Aks and her infant son, Frank, whose stories were recounted in the book, “I20 HIAS Stories,” for the organization’s 120th anniversary in 2001. According to the book, Leah Aks purchased a ticket on the Titanic so that she could rejoin her husband, Sam, who had moved from London to Virginia to work as a tailor. When the ship struck the iceberg, Leah Aks fled with her child from third class to first class, forgetting in her haste to properly dress her son. On the first-class deck, Madeleine Talmadge Astor, the wife of millionaire John Jacob Astor, saw the baby and wrapped her silk scarf around his head.
As the story goes, a male passenger, frustrated that women and children were being lowered in lifeboats while men were being left to go down with the ship, grabbed Leah Aks’s infant from her arms and tossed him overboard. Unbeknownst to Leah Aks, her son had fallen into the lap of a woman on a lifeboat. When a despondent Leah Aks boarded the Carpathia, the ship that rescued the Titanic’s survivors, she heard the baby crying. But the woman who had caught the baby, considering him a gift from God, refused to give him up. The Carpathia’s captain soon found himself in the role of King Solomon, judging Leah Aks to be the true mother when she correctly described the location of her baby’s birthmark.
When the Carpathia docked in New York, Leah and Frank Aks stayed in HIAS accommodations until Sam Aks arrived from Virginia to take them home.
In the anniversary book, HIAS also recounts helping several other Titanic survivors.
Hadassah: The Women’s Zionist Organization Of America
It’s no coincidence that Hadassah, the American women’s Zionist organization, was created the same year as the Titanic disaster. The group’s founder, a Baltimore teacher named Henrietta Szold, was an acquaintance of Nathan Straus, whose brother, Isidor Straus, died when the ship sank.
Nathan and his wife, Lina, had traveled to Europe with Isidor and his wife, Ida. Rather than return to America on the Titanic, Nathan and Lina went on to pre-state Palestine, where he heard the news of his brother’s death. In his grief, Nathan Straus, who co-owned the R.H. Macy & Co. department store in New York with Isidor, devoted his life to philanthropy.
One of Nathan Straus’s first major donations was to the fledgling Hadassah organization. At that time, according to the Hadassah history book, “It Takes a Dream,” the group had just $283 in its treasury. Straus told Szold he would fund a medical mission in Jerusalem if Hadassah would take over paying the nurse’s salary after four months, — a total of $2,500 for two years’ pay.
Hadassah raised enough money to send not one, but two nurses to Palestine, thus initiating its medical mission. Straus continued giving to Hadassah over the next 20 years until his death in 1931. Hadassah went on to become a major force in Israeli medicine, founding two university hospitals in Jerusalem as well as several other medical programs.
“Would Hadassah have gotten where it is today,” asked current Hadassah national president Marcie Natan, “had there not been Nathan Straus at that pivotal moment in time? It’s hard to say.”
Naomi Zeveloff is the Middle East correspondent of the Forward, primarily covering Israel and the Palestinian Territories.