The Titanic Sinks, with Some Jewish Tidbits
In the early morning hours of Monday, April 15, 1912, the RMS Titanic sank in the North Atlantic Ocean after hitting an iceberg. The British luxury ship, operated by the White Star Line, set sail from Hampton, England, to New York City on April 10, 1912. Throughout the voyage, operators on the ship had received many weather warnings of icebergs. At approximately 11:40 PM on Sunday, April 14, an iceberg was spotted, and the engines were reversed. However, the ship was unable to turn wide enough and avoid collision; the side of the ship was scraped by the iceberg. By 2:18 AM, April 15, the lights went out and the ship broke into two pieces. Out of the 2,200 passengers and crew members, about 1,500 died when the ship went down.
According to analysis of the White Star Line’s passenger list, a little more than a hundred of the passengers were Jewish, most likely Jews escaping religious persecution. Eli Moskowitz, author of The Jews of The Titanic, notes that there were probably more Jews on the ship who had registered under forged identities.
Menus confirm that kosher food, cooked by a special kosher chef, was available, although most likely only first class passengers could take advantage of the option. At the bottom of a menu, ‘Kosher meat supplied and cooked for Jewish passengers as desired’ was imprinted. There have also been remnants of plates found that are labeled “fleshik” (yiddish for meat) and kosher.
A pocket watch with Hebrew letters and an inscription of Moshe holding the ten commandments was found in the pocket of Russian passenger Sinai Kantor, along with a pocket telescope, wallet, and coins. Despite his death, his wife Miriam was able to safely escape on the No. 12 lifeboat at about 1:30 am. Her later whereabouts are unknown.
Tragedies like the sinking of the Titanic unfortunately often raise difficult halachic situations. For a woman to remarry, she must either receive a get (writ of divorce) from her husband, or she or someone else must testify that her husband is dead; until then, the woman is considered an agunah (literally, “chained”), and she cannot remarry. Simon Maisner, a Jew, was a passenger on the Titanic; his wife, Zvia (Sarah), was not. Although he was presumed dead, his body was never recovered and identified, so Zvia was an agunah. Rabbi Jacob Meskin was able to release her from her marriage given the circumstance, and she remarried to Jacob Glaser in 1915. Zvia died in 1956 at age 76.
Young mother Leah Aks, another Jewish passenger on the ship, was traveling with her infant son, Frank, to meet her husband in America. While waiting on the deck, baby Frank was taken and tossed into Lifeboat 11. She wasn’t able to join him, but did make it into Lifeboat 13. After her rescue, Leah saw an Italian woman carrying her baby, so she went to Captain Arthur Henry Rostron of RMS Carpathia, a ship that helped rescue Titanic passengers, and proved it was her son by describing a birthmark on his chest.
Finally, the wealthiest Jewish passenger was prominent American businessman Benjamin Guggenheim. When he found out the ship was sinking, he refused to put on a lifebelt, sat in the reception hall, and waited to die while drinking and smoking. His body was never found, like so many of the other victims.
While we all know the story of the Titanic, learning about these individuals, especially the Jewish passengers, can make the story more personable.