At the turn of the 20th century, four large ocean liner operators were making the journey from Europe to the United States: Hamburg-Amerika, North German Lloyd, Cunard (among whose vessels were the steamers Lusitania and Mauretania) and White Star, whose fleet included the Olympic and the Titanic which, as everyone knows, struck an iceberg on its maiden voyage on April 14, 1912 at 11:40 p.m. and sank at 2:20 a.m. the next morning.
Most the passengers died of hypothermia in the ocean after the ship sank and, of the 710 third-class “steerage” passengers on board, only 174 survived.
From 1880 to 1920, some three million Jews fled Russian pogroms and Eastern European anti-Semitism and, as such, it is not surprising that there were many Jewish passengers on the Titanic, most of them in steerage. Although the count of Jews aboard is unknown, there undoubtedly would have been far more but for the fact that the Titanic set sail a day after Passover.
Hebrew Immigration Aid Society (HIAS) records show that only 27 Jews on board survived, all of whom were initially taken from the ships that rescued them to the Hebrew Sheltering Home and Immigrant Aid Society in New York for the night.
The collective Jewish community viewed the sinking of the Titanic as a great tragedy, and hundreds of American synagogues held services in memory of the victims. Songwriters wrote original pieces honoring the dead; among them was Yiddish lyricist Solomon Small, who wrote Der Nasser Kever (“The Watery Grave”).
Famous Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt, who recorded a Kel Malei Rachamim in memory of the souls lost on the Titanic, donated the $150,000 he raised from sales of the album to help support the surviving families.
Exhibited here is a remarkable and soul-stirring firsthand account of the sinking of the Titanic from the May 7, 1912 issue of The Moriah, a Hebrew paper printed by the old Yishuv during Turkish rule.
THE TITANIC DISASTER
Six Chinese travelers on the ship were saved from death by being able to sneak and push under the seats of the rescue boat Carpathia.
An additional two Chinese who sought rescue in a similar manner were found trampled and crushed under the seats.
The survivors say that it was common to inform the passengers that the poor [i.e., the third-class steerage passengers] could be considered lost while the first rescue boat filled with people from those found close to her. The screaming surrounded the entire ship, and the women and children raised a howl, and then the captain appeared and said: women and children first! And what is worthy of note is the excellence manifested by everyone inside the boat immediately obeyed the order and, with no refusal, exited the lifeboat and yielded their spots to the weakest amongst them. At that time, the officers did not have to threaten their passengers with their guns.
All the passengers who were saved who arrived in New York received invitations from the Commission selected to investigate the details of the disaster to testify before it as to what they witnessed on the night of the ferries. Among them was Lady [Madeline] Astor, the wife of the billionaire [John Jacob] Astor, who lost his life on the ship, to give her testimony in this matter.
Some of the passengers confirm that the Captain threw himself over the waterproof ship’s lid. The officers shot themselves with their guns.
The ship’s company “North German Lloyd” denies the false rumor that the ship in question, the Frankfurt, had received the call for rescue from the sinking ship and did not respond to the call. This boat immediately turned north and arrived at the scene of the disaster at 10:35 the next day and then already met the Dina, the Virginia and the Carpathia.
BRINGING THE DEAD
The vessel Mackay-Bennett brought with it to Halifax beach [Nova Scotia] 190 dead.
One of the great appeals of the Titanic was its exotic fare for dining at sea, which was the ultimate in luxury for first-class passengers, comparable to the most exclusive European hotels, and exceptional also for those in second-class.
Given the absence of kosher food on voyages from Europe to America, observant Jews either survived on the meager rations they could bring with them or fasted during the entire trip. Some Jews paid a heavy price for their faithful observance of kashrut; for example, a Nov. 2, 1909 Washington Post article discusses the case of Gisella Greiner, a “young Hebrew immigrant,” who died of starvation in the hospital on Ellis Island due to fasting during the nine-day crossing.
At a certain point, though, major passenger lines crossing the Atlantic began offering kosher food for their Jewish passengers, mainly immigrants in third-class steerage, and, by the time the Titanic set sail, the White Star and Cunard lines had built kosher facilities aboard their ships. The earliest known reference to kosher service on an ocean liner dates to a June 1904 article in the Trenton Times, which, in discussing the S.S. Philadelphia, notes:
American Line officials arranged another innovation in the form of special kosher cooks for the Jews. The English will have their meals served separately and their cabins will also be separate from those of the Jews.
In 1905, Albert Ballin, a German shipping magnate and general director of the Hamburg-Amerika line who was known as “the father of the modern cruise ship,” responded to a request from several Jewish associations and instituted kosher kitchens on all his steamships sailing between New York and Bremen, Germany. Although not at all religiously observant – he even wed a Protestant woman in a Christian church service – he was a proud Jew who, notwithstanding pervasive German anti-Semitism and social ostracism, refused to deny his heritage or to change his Jewish name.
In most instances, the introduction of kosher service on these vessels was far from altruistic. The reputation of the luxury liners was one of lavishness and comfort (an image they strived mightily to maintain), but the reality was that they needed passengers in the third-class steerage section – including the millions of Jews seeking passage to America. This section generated significantly greater profit per passenger.
Indeed, without the significant income from steerage passengers, the Titanic could never have been built at all. And this income increased as Jewish passengers wrote home about the availability of kosher food, thereby encouraging other Jews to book passage on White Star.
All the kosher food on the Titanic was prepared in a small and crowded kosher kitchen located near the third-class kitchen on the F Deck of the ship. A Titanic deck plan included a small space for kosher service which was barely large enough for a single sink or workspace. In a December 1909 report by the U.S. Immigration Commission, which focused on the abysmal condition of the steerage passengers on these ocean liners, an immigration agent reported on the White Star ships:
The Hebrew steerage passengers were looked after by a Hebrew who is employed by the company as a cook, and is at the same time appointed by Rabbi as guardian of such passengers. This particular man told me that he is a pioneer in this work. He was the first to receive such an appointment. It is his duty to see that all the Jewish passengers are assigned to sleeping quarters that are as comfortable and as good as any; to see that kosher food is provided and to prepare it. He has done duty on most of the ships of the White Star line. On each he has instituted this system of caring for the Hebrews and then has left it to be looked after by some successor.
The Jews aboard the Titanic formed an independent community of sorts on the ship, as they ate together, prayed together, and, according to the 1909 Immigration Report, were assigned separate staterooms removed from all the others.
All kosher serving dinnerware and utensils for all classes on the Titanic were marked “milk” or “meat,” and mashgichim (supervising rabbis) were authorized by White Star to regularly inspect the ship’s catering departments in both England and New York. Those who ate kosher food used the same tables as everyone else, were served in the same manner, and were fed food of the same quality.
The rabbinical supervisor for White Star at the time the Titanic set sail was the rav of the Southampton Jewish community, Rabbi M. L. Gordon. The kosher butcher who supplied the meat to the Titanic and other ships was Galkoff’s Kosher Butcher in Liverpool. Galkoff’s sold kosher meat from 1912 until it closed in 1979, but the building’s historic façade will be maintained in accordance with a recent ruling by the English Heritage designating it as a structure of national historic importance.
Both known Jewish crewmen on the Titanic, Herbert Klein (second-class barber) and Charles Kennel, died and their bodies were never found. Kennel, age 30 when the ship sank, was born in Cape Town, South Africa and lived in Southampton. He sailed previously on the Olympic, the Titanic’s “sister ship,” for nine months before signing on to the Titanic on April 4, 1912 as the ship’s “Hebrew cook” for monthly wages of £4. (The Titanic Wall Chart cataloging the ship’s crew lists him as the “Herb cook,” clearly a misprint.)
There is a dispute amongst authorities as to whether Kennel was even Jewish. However, were he a non-Jew, the religiously observant passengers could not have halachically relied upon him; there would have had to have been some other rabbinic supervisor on board, but there wasn’t. Moreover, given the scope of his responsibilities, it is nearly certain that he spoke Yiddish, the language of most of the Jewish passengers on the Titanic.
Some commentators suggest that the kosher meat may have been precooked, or that only smoked meat was served, but this would have been highly unlikely and, in any case, it would not resolve the “chain of custody” halachic requirement that meat must generally be watched from its preparation until it is served.
Initially, the kosher dishes and utensils were old tableware salvaged specifically for White Star kosher service but, after WWI, kosher tableware was specially made to cater to the growing numbers of Jewish passengers. However, no kosher dishes or cutlery have ever been recovered from the sinking of the Titanic, though a few pieces from the Olympic do exist. In addition, the Olympic’s kosher kitchen, including its cupboard cooking range with rack and hood, was sold at auction with all the other contents of the ship before it was scrapped in 1935.
To date, no kosher-only menu specific to the Titanic has ever been found, though the experts on the subject argue that they must surely have existed because there do exist exceedingly rare copies of standard 1913 White Star third-class menus that declare “Kosher Meat supplied and Cooked for Jewish Passengers as desired.”
In 1906, a White Star surgeon noted, “In certain companies carrying third-class passengers across the Atlantic – the White Star, for example – special kosher cooks are provided for the Hebrew element among the passengers. Kosher-killed meat, too, is supplied.” However, there is no evidence of kosher food being served to first- and second-class passengers on the Titanic, though presumably it could have been supplied to them on request.
In 2018, an April 2, 1912 menu of the first meal ever served aboard the Titanic – during sea trials with 78 officers and crew members and no passengers – sold at auction for £100,000, or about $140,000. It belonged to Second Officer Charles Lightoller, the most senior crew member to survive the sinking of the Titanic.
The final Titanic lunch menu, from April 14, 1912, was sold at auction in 2015 for $88,000. The salvaged menu once belonged Abraham Lincoln Salomon (1868-1959), a Jewish passenger and stationery dealer who traveled to Europe on a business trip accompanied by his daughter, though he alone booked first-class passage to return to New York on the doomed vessel.
He ultimately escaped death by boarding the infamous Lifeboat No. 1 which, though it had a 40-person capacity, nonetheless took off from the sinking ship carrying only 12 people, including seven crewmen, who assuredly did not “go down with the ship.”
In 2012, an original White Star kosher plate marked “milchik” (dairy) sold at auction for £226,000 (or about $275,000). A complete set of White Star kosher dishes (not from the Titanic, as explained) is on exhibit at the Meyerside Maritime Museum in Liverpool.
On August 23, 2018, a pocket watch that belonged to Sinai Kantor, a Jewish Russian immigrant who died aboard the Titanic, and featured Hebrew letters on its face and Moses holding the Ten Commandments on its back, sold at auction for $57,500. His wife Miriam was one of the few Jewish survivors.