A Real Titanic Love Story
One hundred years ago today, the RMS Carpathia pulled into New York's Pier 54 carrying 705 survivors of the Titanic disaster. Most of the survivors were women and children from first class. But Ida Straus, one of the wealthiest and possibly one of the oldest women on board, was not among them. Neither was her husband Isidor, owner of Macy's department store and a former U.S. congressman. Not until the following day did eyewitnesses describe the "most remarkable exhibition of love and devotion" shown by the couple in the chaos of that hellish night, a love and devotion that led to both their deaths.
Isidor, witnesses said, was offered a seat in lifeboat number four but insisted that women—and younger men—be saved before him. And Ida refused to leave without him. "I will not be separated from my husband," she said. "As we have lived so will we die together."
On Shabbat following the tragedy, New York synagogues were packed as congregations commemorated the Jews who had lost their lives on the Titanic; but the Strauses' heroism was perhaps the tragedy's most widely publicized story. There were memorial services for the Strauses throughout the city, and three years later, Straus Park was opened near the couple's home at 105th Street and Broadway. A planned lecture about the Strauses by the scholar, maggid, and great expositor of Zionism, Rabbi Zevi Hirsch Maslinksy, had to be canceled because of a dangerously large turnout.
Ironically, Isidor Straus's own writing—his correspondence and posthumously discovered autobiography—reveals that he was a committed secularist and anti-Zionist.
Ida appears to have had some appreciation for Jewish tradition: Before the couple's departure on the Titanic, she wrote to her children from London, reminding them that "this is already the third day of Pesach" and "you should all be eating your Matzos." But Isidor had little patience for such things. In a 1909 letter to Charles W. Eliot, former president of Harvard, he wrote, "While I was born in the Jewish faith, I have never belonged to any synagogue or temple" and "have brought up a family of six children, all now having families of their own, none of whom have ever associated themselves with any religious organization."
Isidor's lack of interest in organized religion was no rebellion. June Hall McCash, in her new biography of the Strauses, A Titanic Love Story, portrays his upbringing as virtually devoid of traditional Jewish education. Isidor was born in Germany but raised in Talbotton, Georgia, where his father had opened a dry goods store after immigrating in the wake of the failed 19th-century German revolutions. There was no Talbotton synagogue. The Strauses ate bacon prepared in their own smokehouse. And when the Civil War broke out, Isidor, then 16, wanted to serve the Confederacy.
Isidor's views on Zionism were unequivocal. In 1907, he wrote:
I look upon Zionism as a dangerous dogma for us in this country . . . If Zionism means a home for the Jews, I am radically opposed to it . . . Zionism in any shape, manner, or form, as a propaganda in this country, I have no patience with, and I am utterly and irrevocably opposed to it.
These were remarkable words, considering how close he was to the movement. His brother Nathan had become a Zionist after traveling to the Holy Land in 1904. His brother Oscar was serving as U.S. ambassador to the Ottoman Empire when Theodore Herzl visited Ottoman Palestine in 1898. He was also a friend of the legendary Reform rabbi and Zionist Judah Magnes.
The threads connecting all of the Strauses' activities, personal and professional, were a strong sense of family and community and the love and devotion that come with it. Isidor and Nathan were business partners. Isidor, when entrusting his sons with his share of Macy's, showed his enduring affection for Nathan: "Never bear him any malice; his peculiarities are to his virtues as the alloy of iron is to pure gold." The Straus family homes—in New York, the Adirondacks, and Elberon, New Jersey—were, as described by McCash, bursting at the seams with extended family. After buying Macy's, Isidor and Nathan became the first businessmen in America to form a Mutual Aid Society for their workers. (They covered the deficits out of their own pockets.) They rented a summer home and offered employees inexpensive vacations there.
Moreover, Isidor's alienation from Jewish religion and nationhood did not prevent him from being charitable to the Jewish community, even parts of the community with which he disagreed. He and Ida nurtured countless Jewish institutions and causes. Isidor served as president of Montefiore Home, described by the New York Times as "the largest Jewish hospital in the world." In 1889 he co-founded and served as first president of the Educational Alliance, which assisted Jewish immigrants to the United States. When a Jewish man lay dying in a New York hospital with a single wish to see his Russian family once more, Ida and Isidor brought them to America and helped them become self-supporting. Most, if not all, of the 27 Jewish survivors of Titanic were third-class passengers, likely seeking to immigrate to the United States. It is safe to assume that Ida and Isidor, if they had survived, would have helped establish them in this country.
In short, the Strauses were among the small number of Titanic victims whose lives would have merited biographies even if they had never set foot on the doomed vessel.
In one of the most moving eyewitness accounts of the Strauses on the Titanic, Charles E. Stengel, a Newark man, said, "The last thing I saw as we pulled away in the boats was the woman in whose gentle heart was a heroism greater than I have ever witnessed, standing clasped in her husband's arms while the water mounted about them." Ida's body was never found. Isidor's, one of 56 identified on April 26, 1912, lies in the Straus family plot in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. On the side of his tomb is a verse from the Song of Songs, usually read aloud this time of year: "Many waters cannot quench love; neither can floods drown it."
Philip Getz is associate editor of the Jewish Review of Books.
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