Titanic’s hidden victims

Around 100 Jews died when the ship sank in 1912, many of them poor migrants whose stories have never been told


By Tony Kushner, April 11, 2012
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The JC report of the disaster — and its wealthier victims — in April 1912

The JC report of the disaster — and its wealthier victims — in April 1912

There is an old Jewish music hall joke: "Did you know that the Jews were responsible for the sinking of the Titanic?"

"No they weren't, it was the iceberg."

"Oy, already. Iceberg, Goldberg? What's the difference?"

There is also the old chestnut about the over-enthusiastic student writing an essay on "The Elephant and the Jewish Question" - not everything, he has to be reminded, has a Jewish angle.

Millionaire Benjamin Guggenheim, with his wife Florette. He refused a place on a lifeboat

Millionaire Benjamin Guggenheim, with his wife Florette. He refused a place on a lifeboat

And yet as we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, there are many Jewish connections that remain unrecognised. When the ship sank on 14/15 April 1912, it was very much a Jewish as it was a general tragedy, and it had Jewish links in almost every aspect.

First, the ship was built in Belfast by the company Harland and Wolff. Gustave Wolff was a German-Jewish immigrant industrialist and a major figure in the local community.

Second, those on board in all three classes included many Jews - up to 100 (and possibly more) of the 1,500 victims were Jewish.

Third, there were Jewish crew, including Herbert Klein, one of the barbers on the ship, who originated from Leeds.

Fourth, Jews were prominent in raising funds for the relief of victims' families and some Jewish survivors, such as Joseph Hyman of Manchester, gave evidence in the New York enquiry into the sinking.

Fifth, Jews have been part of the vibrant afterlife of the Titanic in the form of cultural representation. As Lew Grade quipped after his epic box-office failure, Raise the Titanic, in the end it would have been cheaper to lower the Atlantic.

Slowly there has been recognition of the impact of the tragedy not just on the world's rich and famous but also on the less prominent and wealthy. Southampton's Sea City Museum opens this anniversary week and is partly designed to spread awareness of the 500 deaths among the 700 crew who came from this port, the devastation of which was felt for generations.

Of the 12 villagers from the parish of Addergoole in County Mayo, Ireland, who boarded the Titanic, only three survived. Indeed, in the world of immigrant diasporas more generally - Finnish, Italian, Lebanese and many others - the tragedy was felt very keenly. The Titanic, it is often forgotten, was built as an immigrant ship and was legally defined as such by the American authorities. The loss of life was exceptionally heavy and disproportionate among the steerage passengers because they had to be kept physically separate from those in first- and second-class in order to avoid medical contamination.

Popular discourse at the time presented these steerage passengers as cowardly and unmanly and accused them of panicking on the Titanic - they were dismissed as "mostly low-class continentals". The reality was very different but few contemporary commentators had the vision of journalist Filson Young who wrote after the disaster that those immigrants on board were "united by nothing except poverty and the fact that they were in a transition stage of their existence, leaving behind them for the most part a life of failure and hopelessness, and looking forward to a new life of success and hope: Jews, Christians, and Mohammedans, missionaries and heathen, Russians, Poles, Greeks, Roumanians, Germans, Italians, Chinese, Finns, Spaniards, English and French - with a strong contingent of Irish".

The hostility to the steerage passengers reflected the wider wave of xenophobia that was growing in the western world at the turn of the 20th century. But such racism and antisemitism went beyond that aimed at poor Jews and others escaping from oppression and economic misery on the continent of Europe. Isador and Ida Straus and Benjamin Guggenheim in first class had to endure the "rich Jew" antisemitism that permeated elite American circles.

In the aftermath of the Titanic, those writing about the traumatic event took heart that under adversity the "Anglo-Saxon" virtues of chivalry and bravery had come to the fore. The poem Be British, penned in honour of Captain Smith's (alleged) last words, and recorded to raise money for the victims' families, contained the following lines:

What a glorious thing it is to know,

That the breed is just the same,

As it was when the Anglo-Saxon race

First gain'd immortal fame…

In this atmosphere of suspicion and antipathy towards those regarded as essentially alien and degenerate, it is not surprising that both on board and in the reporting of the tragedy, Jews would try to present themselves as equally deserving of pity and respect.

On the Titanic itself, Ida Straus refused to abandon her husband Abraham - owner of the famous Macy's department store - and they both died as the ship went down. A witness recorded how "the aged couple stood arm in arm on the deck of the first cabin, very peaceful and calm amidst all the uproar and strife of the struggling hundreds at the boats". Refusing the offer of a lifeboat, "these two old persons stood calmly awaiting death which was inevitable". As the lifeboats drew away, the witness "could see the pair together still arm in arm, Straus bending towards the partner of his declining years, giving her a farewell kiss. It was an inspiring picture".

Millionaire banker Benjamin Guggenheim was equally stoical - according to the report of the disaster in the JC, he also refused a place in a lifeboat. "I will not go. No woman shall remain unsaved because I was a coward", he is quoted as saying. The paper added that, having "assisted the officers nobly in getting the women in the boats", he died "with a jest upon his lips".

With some relief an editorial in the JC commented that: "The whole incident shows that the Jewish race, after centuries of trampling under foot, retains its capacity for throwing up great types, and that even Jewish millionaires - the sport, sometimes, of so much idle and senseless declamation - may be numbered with the noblest breeds of men".

It is a sad reflection of the times a century ago, as Richard Davenport-Hines has suggested in his Titanic Lives (2012), that in such actions "Guggenheim, like Straus, wished to belie the antisemites".

Also reflecting the contemporary mores, the JC devoted little space to the ordinary Jews travelling steerage who perished in great numbers. Some names were given but little else. But Jewish bravery was certainly not confined to first-class, and it was reported in detail by rival newspaper, the Jewish World, in relation to a young man, Gershon Cohen, born in Whitechapel in 1892. A former member of the Brady Club, he had trained as a compositor but had saved up for a third-class ticket to join his uncle in Brooklyn with the hope of opening a haberdashery business.

The paper reproduced his letter to his parents written on board the Carpathia as it awaited entry into New York. A mixture of Boy's Own adventure and British imperial understatement, Gershon related how he jumped into the sea, managing to swim to a lifeboat. Although injured, he was one of only three men in the boat and he helped row it away from the swell of the fast-sinking Titanic. Five hours later, they were picked up by the Carpathia.

His "adventurous" life was far from over. At the start of the war he came back to Britain to join the army where he was wounded twice and left blinded. In the Second World War he survived the Blitz and died at a ripe old age in Southend. Not surprisingly, his nickname was "the cat". Certainly his optimism radiates from his letter back home - despite the horrors he had witnessed. In his section of steerage there were 42 Jews and "five only remained - one man, two married women, one single and myself, so I must be considered lucky".

Another of the survivors - Joseph Hyman (a distant relative of the author of this piece) - while traumatised by the disaster, turned his experiences to good use. He spent many months in America and was inspired by the New York Jewish delicatessens to open a shop in Manchester. In spite of slurs against his reputation - he was accused of dressing up as a woman to gain a place in the lifeboat - he rebuilt his life. Hyman used his Titanic compensation money to launch a company that still proudly uses his photograph and the image of the infamous ship in publicity for what is still a family-owned business.

Hyman and Cohen were among the small percentage of men from steerage who survived the Titanic. Scores of others left widowed families across the Jewish world. This was, however, far from the only maritime disaster affecting Jewish migrants before 1914. Eight years earlier the Norge had sank off Rockall - roughly one third of its 635 victims were Russian Jews. The abuses that were exposed in the Titanic such as the lack of lifeboats were present also with the Norge. No action, however, had been taken in the intermediate period. Shipping companies were scrimping in what was the cut-throat business of international migration and where the profits came from those travelling steerage.

In a powerful editorial on the Titanic the JC noted that "the journey across the Atlantic is a familiar one enough to many Jews. The vessel rode to its doom along a track over which Jewry has been impelled by destiny to pass in increasing numbers". The paper warned of the dangers of nature at its most ferocious and of man's continuing impotence against it even in the modern age.

Indeed, the loss of life earlier this year on the cruise ship Costa Concordia shows the power of the elements over humankind. It is a reminder of the bravery of the millions of men, women and children who, in spite of the perils of the sea, made the decision to leave behind the world of east European Jewry before 1914.

It is thus not only the Guggenheims and the Strauses whom we should be remembering at this sad anniversary. Consideration should also be given to those such as Selmon Slocovski and Leah Gilievsky - ordinary Russian Jews - who perished on the Titanic. They and many others from steerage were symbolic of the wider mass of migrants, who transformed the Jewish world.

Tony Kushner is director of the Parkes Institute, University of Southampton. He is the author of the forthcoming 'The Battle of Britishness: Migrant Journeys, 1685 to the Present' (Manchester University Press)

    Last updated: 1:10pm, April 11 2012