Jew on Board

Stretching eight hundred and eighty two feet and eight inches, carrying four cases of opium, fifty cases of toothpaste, one Renault 35 horse-power automobile (owned by passenger William Carter), a cask of china headed for Tiffany’s, and five grand pianos, the Titanic has captured our hearts and interest for almost one hundred years. There were 705 survivors and 1523 people died tragically. The Titanic has many fascinating mysteries waiting to be revealed. Did you know what else was on the boat? Seven parcels of parchment of the Torah owned by Hersh L. Siebald were on board. Captain Smith was planning to retire after the maiden voyage of Titanic. The Titanic cost $7,500,000 to make in the early 1900s which is equivalent to $400,000,000 today. What did it cost to travel on the Titanic? The lowest fare for third-class passage was approximately $36.25 one way for a single person willing to share a cabin. In second-class, the starting price for similar travel terms was $66. First-class started at $125, but could escalate quickly depending on the size and décor of the room. The highest priced deluxe suite was priced at £900, or $4,500. This was a fabulous sum of money when an ordinary house at the time could be purchased for less than $1,000 dollars, hence the nickname: “The Millionaire’s Suite.”

What did passengers eat? The different classes of passengers on the Titanic ate in their own dining rooms. The cost of meals was included in the ticket price, except for those first-class passengers who chose the option of dining in a deluxe, pay-as-you-go restaurant. First-class menus show a special effort to tempt the jaded palates of the very rich, long accustomed to the best of the best. Dinner in first-class was served in eight or nine courses, typically starting with hors d’œuvres variés and oysters. Afterwards, each course would be presented separately, requiring a constant parade of table service and waiters. The last meal in the first-class dining room included Consommé Olga (a veal stock soup garnished with sturgeon spinal marrow); Salmon garnished with Cucumber and Mousseline Sauce (a Hollandaise variation); Filets Mignons Lili (prepared with foie gras, artichoke hearts, and truffle); Lamb with Mint Sauce; Creamed Carrots, Roasted Squab on Cress, Cold Asparagus Vinaigrette, and Pâté de Foie Gras. Desserts the final day a sea included Peaches in Chartreuse Jelly and Waldorf Pudding. The recipe for the last item has been lost over the years. Perhaps it was a “house specialty” of the White Star Line and never committed to paper. The second-class luncheon menu was far more straight forward and included pea soup, spaghetti au gratin, corned beef, vegetable dumplings, roast mutton, baked jacket potatoes, ox tongue, pickles, tapioca pudding, and apple tart. Third-class menus typically featured simple to prepare soups and stews: vegetable soup, roast pork, sage and onions, green peas, boiled potatoes, cabin biscuits, fresh bread, plum pudding in sweet sauce, and oranges were options at a typical midday meal.

The Titanic was designed to be spacious and luxurious, not a speed record breaker. The Titanic had been designed for a speed of 21 knots (24 miles per hour) and could not compete with the Cunard Line’s Mauretania, which held the speed record in 1912 of 26 knots (30 miles per hour).

Why didn’t Titanic carry enough lifeboats? The Titanic’s lifeboat capacity was governed by the British Board of Trade’s rules, which was drafted in 1894. By 1912, these lifeboat regulations were badly out of date. The Titanic was four times larger than the largest legal classification considered under the eighteen year old rules and so by law was not required to carry more than sixteen lifeboats, regardless of the actual number of people onboard. When she left Southampton, the Titanic actually carried more than the law required: the sixteen rigid lifeboats were supplemented by four additional collapsible boats. The shipping industry was aware that the lifeboat regulations were going to be changed soon and Titanic’s deck space and davits were designed for the anticipated “boats for all” policy, but until the law actually changed, White Star was not going to install them. The decision seems difficult to understand today, but in 1912, the attitude towards accident prevention was much different. At the turn of the century, ship owners were reluctant to exceed the legal minimum because lifeboats took up most of the space on first- and second-class decks. Boats were expensive to purchase, maintain, and affected a ship’s stability. Finally, in the years before the Titanic Disaster, it was felt that the very presence of large numbers of lifeboats suggested that somehow the vessel was unsafe. The same reluctance showed up as late as the 1950s for automobile seatbelts. Car makers at that time were also reluctant to install seatbelts because the belts seemed to imply there was something unsafe about the car.

When was the Titanic built and how long did it take? White Star publicly announced their intention of building the Titanic in 1907 during the maiden voyage of RMS Lusitania, owned by their archrival the Cunard Line. In the years that followed 1907, money was raised for construction, plans and specifications drawn up, and negotiations started with New York port authorities for permission to construct lengthened piers to accommodate the new leviathans. Physical construction on Titanic started on March 22, 1909 with the riveting together of the first of the Ship’s steel plates. A little over two years later, the Titanic was launched on May 31, 1911; however, much work still needed to be done. Ships at that time were typically launched as empty hulls to keep the launch weight down to a minimum. It would take almost an additional year to install the Ship’s engines, boilers, interiors, galleys, and navigating equipment. Titanic was delivered to the White Star Line in early April, and on April 10, 1912, the Titanic left Southampton, England, for her first trip to New York City.

How was the Titanic different from the competition? White Star began planning Titanic in 1907. The rival Cunard Line was having great success with their new ships Lusitania and Mauretania, which were the largest and fastest ships in the world at the time. Their record breaking crossings, however, came with an enormous price tag in terms of coal, vibration, and manpower, so White Star wisely decided not to compete directly with Cunard in terms of speed. By foregoing speed, the White Star Line committed to a slightly slower design, but one that proved far more spacious, comfortable, and luxurious.

What is a “sister ship” and did Titanic have any? The White Star Line decided to build three identical ships, called “sister ships” from the one set of plans that Harland and Wolff was preparing. These ships were later given the names “Olympic”, “Titanic”, and “Britannic”. It was common for steamship companies to build several ships from the same plans. A great deal of money could be saved this way since engineers only had to draw up one set of blueprints for the whole series of ships. More important, it allows steamship lines to offer “balanced weekly service”. If White Star had only built the Titanic, given her speed and the amount of time it takes to get the Ship ready between voyages, the Titanic could only visit New York once a month. This was too long between voyages and passengers on a tight schedule would naturally consider booking passage on another line with a ship ready to leave. By building three similar vessels, White Star was able to offer passage on a luxury liner once every seven days. Since each of the sister ships was supposed to be identical, passengers would not have a strong preference to travel on one ship over the other. Of course, as sister ships were built, the newer ships were modified to improve on the earlier ones. Olympic made her debut in 1911, and by the time of Titanic’s maiden voyage in 1912, several changes were made in the latter ship’s design including the addition of more luxury suites and the enclosing the forward Promenade Deck. The third ship, ultimately named Britannic, was heavily modified in light of the Titanic disaster with additional watertight bulkheads and new lifeboat arrangements.

I came across the following amazing story and wished to share it:

By Rabbi Pesach Krohn (with my modifications based on personal research)

I am grateful to Mr. and Mrs. Gilbert and Roberta Binder and Mrs. Marie Aks of Virginia Beach, Virginia, for providing recordings and personal information about this story.

In 1910, Mr. Sam Aks of Turek, Poland, immigrated to England where he married Leah Rosen. They lived in London for a while after their wedding, and they decided to move to America where there were better business opportunities. They settled on moving to Norfolk, Virginia. By this time Leah was expecting their first child and her parents felt strongly that in her condition she should not make such an arduous trip across the ocean. They felt it would be too exhausting for her and dangerous for the unborn child. It was decided that Sam would travel alone, set up a home in Norfolk and a few months after the child was born, Leah would come with the infant. The newspapers and media at the time were ablaze with the news of the opulent, gigantic ocean liner, the Titanic that was to make its historic maiden voyage from Southampton, England to New York City in April of 1912.

The White Star Line, the Flagship Company of the Titanic, confidently claimed that their luxury liner was safe, sturdy and even majestic. On April 10, Mrs. Leah Aks and her baby, with 912 other passengers, boarded the ship in Southampton, England, accompanied by great fanfare and ceremony. Leah and her infant were in steerage, the third class cabin, with many other immigrants to America. The high society wealthy people were in the luxurious first class cabins. More passengers boarded at other ports before the Titanic crossed the ocean. Everyone on board would lose their lives unless they could get on lifeboats and be rescued by passing ships. Four days later, shortly before midnight on April 14, as the ship was 95 miles south of the Grand Banks in Newfoundland, it sideswiped and crashed into an iceberg that towered a hundred feet over the deck. [Ninety percent of an iceberg is hidden beneath the water. Thus the iceberg was literally a mountain of ice close to a thousand feet from top to bottom. Its massive knife-like edges beneath the water surface punctured and gashed the ship along 250 feet of its hull].

Twenty minutes later, after consulting with the ship’s designer, Thomas Andrews, Captain Edward Smith realized that the ship would sink within two hours. Everyone on board would lose their lives unless they could get on lifeboats and be rescued by passing ships.

Incredibly, there were not enough spaces in the lifeboats for everyone. Though there were 2200 passengers and crew on board, there was room for only 1178 on the lifeboats. More than a thousand people would surely die. One is astounded at the negligence of not being prepared for disaster. As the boat began tilting there was panic and pandemonium. The captain and crew ordered that women and children would be saved first. In the third class cabin, women were ordered to the front and men to the rear. Leah Aks held her son Frank Philip (Ephraim Fishel), in her arms and tried to get out onto the deck, but the gate in front of the cabin jammed and no one could get out. She stood pressed against the gate, screaming for help. A sailor saw her with her baby in her arms and he reached over the gate and lifted her and the child out, so that she could run to the deck where women and children were being put into lifeboats. (Most of the people in the third class cabin could not get out and 75% of them drowned. The first class cabin fared better, as only 40% died).

Leah ran up to the deck with her child and waited by the railing, trying to get on line to be rescued. It was frighteningly cold. People were shoving and pushing frantically trying to get onto lifeboats. Meanwhile down below, water poured thunderously through the gaping holes, flooding the bottom of the ship. As Leah stood on the deck, one if the wealthiest women on board, Lady Madeleine Astor, saw her and the baby huddled against the cold. Lady Astor, who was expecting a child, removed her beautiful eight-foot shawl and gave it to Leah saying, “Here, wrap your baby, it’s so cold out here.” Her teeth chattering, Leah thanked her profusely.

During this time, a man had pushed onto a lifeboat that was about to be lowered into the water. When cabin stewards saw him, they forced him out of the boat and pulled him back on deck, yelling that women and children were being rescued first. Somehow this man managed to get onto another lifeboat and once again the stewards saw him and forced him off the lifeboat, fighting with him, as they insisted that women and children were being given priority. The man saw Leah standing there with her baby now wrapped in the shawl. He was enraged. His eyes were wild as he stalked back and forth consumed by anger and frustration. In a demented moment of madness he ran towards Leah and screamed, “You think women are first! You think children are first! I’ll show you,” and he grabbed the infant from Leah’s arms and threw him overboard! Leah shrieked in horror and cried out for her child. Men on board lunged at this maniac but the deed had been done. People were yelling and screaming — but now it was Leah’s turn to get on a lifeboat. “I won’t go without my baby,” she cried. But the officers told her she had to save her own life. There was no point in staying on the sinking ship. The women around her tried to console her, but Leah cried hysterically as she was placed on the lifeboat and lowered into the water. Meanwhile Leah, still in a state of shock, was pushed into lifeboat 13 next to Selena Rogers Cook.

The lifeboats drifted for three hours until the Cunard liner, the Carpathia, came and rescued those who were fortunate enough to get off the Titanic (Cunard was the competitive line). Only 705 were saved, 1523 people died. Two days later, the grief-stricken Leah Aks was walking on the deck of the Carpathia when she saw a woman holding a child. The child lunged towards Leah. She recognized him. Leah screamed, “That’s my baby! That’s my child!”

The woman holding the child, Mrs. Elizabeth Ramell Nye, was dressed in a long black dress embroidered with a huge cross. “No it’s not,” she insisted. “This child was entrusted to me!” (Others contend the woman was possibly Aryene del Carlo from Italy.)

A wild argument ensued and Mrs. Nye claimed that while she was in the lifeboat, a child came flying into her waiting arms. To her that was a sign from Heaven that she had to care for the child the rest of her life.

People took sides in the argument. Soon the captain of the Carpathia, Arthur H. Rostron, was called to decide the issue. Leah was crying hysterically while Mrs. Nye was insisting her position. She would not be denied this child. When Captain Rostron arrived and heard the points of the argument, he told both women to come with the child to his quarters where he could reflect and decide the matter.

In the captain’s quarters, Leah suddenly called out, “I can prove this is my child.” The 18-year-old Leah spoke firmly and with certainty, “I am Jewish and my son was circumcised!” In Europe at that time, only Jewish children were circumcised. When Captain Rostron saw that indeed the child had had a circumcision, ten-month-old Ephraim Fishel was reunited with his mother. Eventually the Carpathia brought all the survivors to New York. Frank Philip Aks was raised in his rightful Jewish home. Eventually he married and had children and grandchildren. Frank passed away in 1991 at the age of 80. His wife, Marie, recently told me that as a youngster he would walk for miles on Shabbat to daven in the Orthodox shul in Norfolk, known as the Cumberland Street Shul.

After the traumatic events of the ill-fated journey, Leah was so grateful to Captain Rostron and his crew that years later when she had her only daughter she named her Sarah Carpathia Aks. Incredibly there was some confusion among the hospital secretaries and they recorded her name on her birth certificate as Sarah Titanic Aks!

Mrs. Aks died on June 22, 1967 and was buried at Forest Lawn Cemetery, Norfolk, Virginia. Frank died on July 15, 1991 and was buried in the family plot at Forest Lawn Cemetery, Norfolk, Virginia. His life and Jewish identity were something of great importance to him and a powerful lesson to all.