The Myth and Melodies of the Jewish Couple Lost in the Titanic


Jun 24, 2023

In the cold, early hours of April 15, 1912, the new White Star liner RMS Titanic — the largest and most luxurious passenger vessel in the world — disappeared beneath the strangely still surface of the North Atlantic, less than three hours after striking an iceberg. She took with her more than 1,500 lives.

There were many Jewish passengers on Titanic’s maiden voyage. Although the true number is now irrecoverable, estimates range from several dozen to well over a hundred. Many were immigrants traveling in steerage (including a female survivor who was probably a distant cousin of this writer), where the White Star line — catering to the lucrative immigrant trade — even offered a kosher kitchen. They, like most steerage passengers, attracted little notice at the time, even though the Titanic’s steerage death toll was appalling.

There were also well-known Jewish names aboard. Wealthy 46-year-old businessman Benjamin Guggenheim (brother of Simon Guggenheim, then Senator from Colorado) had a playboy reputation; he was traveling first class with his mistress (who was saved). He and his valet attracted favorable press when survivors reported that they had dressed in their evening best, “prepared to go down like gentlemen.” Guggenheim asked that his wife (not aboard) be informed that he had done his best to do his duty.

But it was a Jewish couple, Isidor and Ida Straus, who truly became Titanic legends — from the very start. Isidor, a very prominent businessman, was born in Bavaria in 1845 and emigrated to the United States as a child, first living in Georgia (where he actively supported the Confederacy in the Civil War) before ultimately settling in New York. With his brother Nathan, Straus became co-owner of Macy’s department store, and was active in Democratic party politics. He married Ida Blun (born 1849 in Worms, Germany) in 1871. They were by all accounts an especially devoted couple, with seven children, of whom six survived to adulthood. Both were active in philanthropic causes, including assistance for new Jewish immigrants.

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