Human Spirit: Storytelling and the 'Titanic'
April 5, 2012
Ours is a complex, nuanced, rich tradition, not hagiography, whether in the cold water of the Atlantic or the splitting waters of the Re(e)d Sea.A century after the sinking of the Titanic on April 14, 1912, the world’s most luxurious and tragic cruise ship continues to be a subject of fascination in the world. Newspaper supplements and TV specials will proliferate to mark the Titanic’s crash, fleshing out passengers’ details, speculating on causes, making lofty statements about faulty decision-making.
We love a story with a moral.
Among the passengers were Jews, returning or emigrating to the US.
The ones best known to those of us who live in Israel were Isidor and Ida Blum Straus, brother and sister-in-law of Nathan Straus, for whom our city of Netanya was named. The usual story goes that the two Straus brothers and their wives were touring together in pre-state Israel. Isidor and Ida hurried to return to the US on the luxurious Titanic, while Nathan and his wife, Lina Guterz Straus, stayed to help the needy, leaving their berths on the Titanic empty. Because they were saved, Nathan and Lina devoted the rest of their lives to contributing to the people of pre-state Israel. I’ve heard this story many times.
But much of it is wrong. And the implication that Isidor and Ida Straus drowned due to paucity of social dedication is maligning and offensive.
Here’s the story, gleaned from the biography by David de Sola Pool (1885-1970) – rabbi, writer and president of the American Jewish Historical Society – and from the Straus historical archives.
Isidor and his younger brother Nathan were extremely close. Born in Otterberg, Germany, they arrived in the United States with their mother, Sara, in 1854 as young boys. Their father, Lazarus, had been discouraged by the flow of history in central Europe and preceded them by two years, first earning a living as a peddler and later opening up a general store in a town in Georgia. Sara and Lazarus were first cousins; their grandfather Jacob Lazar Straus had been a member of the Sanhedrin that Napoleon convened in 1806. The boys studied in a log-cabin schoolhouse.
They received their Jewish education at home.
The family’s first American-earned fortune was in cotton, and they lost it when the South lost the Civil War.
Lazarus paid off his debts by succeeding at a new business, this time a pottery and glassware firm in the North. Isidor worked in the firm; Nathan became their dynamic sales rep. After a heralded meeting with R.H. Macy, the company got the use of the eponymous store’s basement for a showroom. Within a year, Isidor and Nathan were partners in Macy’s.
Twenty years later, the two brothers owned the business, relying on their combination of administrative and creative prowess. They also became partners in another store: Abraham and Straus.
BUT IT wasn’t all business. The brothers had strong social consciousness.
When one of their saleswomen fainted from hunger because she was scrimping to support her invalid mother, they opened the first subsidized workers’ cafeteria. Both brothers were involved in philanthropy, particularly for health issues, and public service in New York – sometimes jointly, sometimes separately.
Isidor served in Congress. He was a founding member of the American Jewish Committee. Nathan was the president of the New York Board of Health. Both brothers had long and devoted marriages to outstanding women and were devoted to their large families.
In January 1912, Isidor and Ida went to France. Isidor was recovering from an illness. They visited family in Germany, where both of them were born, and traveled to London, where Isidor tried to help resolve a problematic coal strike. They also visited pre-state Israel.
In the meantime, Nathan and Lina sailed to Israel in February together with Hebrew University founder and first president Yehuda Magnes. The timing suited them because Nathan had committed to representing the US at an International Tuberculosis Congress in Rome in April.
Because of the coal strike, many ships weren’t sailing to America. The Titanic was. Isidor and Ida booked tickets. Nathan and Lina weren’t planning to return just then.
The death of their beloved Isidor and Ida must certainly have impacted them. They had already endured the deaths of two of their children: a two-year-old daughter and a 17- year-old son. But they had long been involved in life-saving work.
Beginning in 1892, they invested enormous effort and money in promulgating pasteurization of milk, the lack of which was a possible cause of their children’s deaths.
They had to overcome fierce opposition from dairy farmers, politicians and sometimes doctors to making use of Louis Pasteur’s discovery.
Their pasteurized milk distribution centers in New York saved tens of thousands of lives and became the models for the Western world. Lina published a monograph called Diseases of Milk – The Remedy Pasteurization.
By the time the Titanic sailed, Henrietta Szold had returned from her trip to Israel and established Hadassah.
It makes sense that her fellow practical Zionists and pioneers of the revolutionary milk distribution stations would have wanted to support the budding effort of medical care in Jerusalem. Not only did Nathan and Lina volunteer to pay for one of the two nurses dispatched to Jerusalem in 1913, but they sailed with them.
They subsequently set up health centers as they had in New York, and Hadassah began distributing pasteurized milk through a program called Tipat Halav (the origin of the wellbaby mother and child clinics in Israel).
Nathan and Lina went on to support many important causes, among them establishing an alternative hotel in Lakewood, New Jersey, when family members were rejected from another because they were Jews, and opposing Henry Ford’s anti-Semitism.
Two thirds of their fortune was given away.
WE HAVE no idea what other good works Isidor and Ida would have accomplished if they had lived to old age, too. By all reports, they were remarkable people. Isidor refused a place in a lifeboat that might have gone to women and children. Ida refused to leave without him. They have gone down in history for their nobility.
What a shame that their memory should be denigrated for the sake of fashioning a false morality tale.
The stories of our people are a cherished heritage. Passover is the time when we, men and women both, are reminded of the sacred commandment to pass along the stories of our people. We were slaves to Pharaoh, not just physically, but spiritually.
God needed a strong hand and a powerful arm to redeem us because we weren’t so eager to leave. We were complainers.
Ours is a complex, nuanced, rich tradition, not hagiography, whether in the cold water of the Atlantic or the splitting waters of the Re(e)d Sea.
The more we tell our stories, the greater is the glory of our people and our Maker.
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