April 15, 1912, was the day that the S.S. Titanic sank in the north Atlantic, after hitting an iceberg. Of the 2,225 passengers and crew on board the “unsinkable” British passenger liner on its maiden voyage, only 713 survived.
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It is not known how many of the Titanic’s passengers were Jewish, but as a ship sailing from Europe to New York during the height of the period of great emigration from Eastern Europe to North America, it is safe to assume that many of those sailing in steerage were immigrants. (It has been estimated that one million of the Jewish migrants who made their way from Eastern Europe to the U.S. between 1880 and 1914 had stop-overs in the United Kingdom.) Additional proof is the fact that the Titanic, like a number of other trans-Atlantic vessels at the time, had a kosher kitchen to serve passengers who observed Jewish dietary laws.
Among the most well-known Jewish passengers to go down that night were Isidor and Ida Straus. Isidor was one of four children of Lazarus Straus, who had emigrated from Bavaria to Georgia, in the United States, in 1852. After the Civil War, Isidor and his younger brother Nathan moved north to New York. They began selling glassware and china at the department store R.H. Macy’s in the 1870s, and together bought the store in 1896. Three years earlier, they had also bought the Abraham and Wechsler dry-goods store in Brooklyn, which they renamed Abraham & Straus. Both stores became highly successful department-store chains.
Isidor Straus (born 1845) was active in public life in New York, and even served for a year in the U.S. Congress, in 1894-1895. He and his wife, the former Rosalie Ida Blun, spent the winter of 1912 in Europe, visiting family in Germany, but spending most of the time in Cap Martin, France, as Isidor was recovering from illness.
In the meantime, Nathan Straus (born 1848) traveled to Palestine that winter. Whereas Isidor was a committed secularist and was strongly opposed to Zionism, Nathan was extremely interested in the Jewish national movement. In 1912, he traveled to Palestine together with Judah Magnes, who later became the founding president of the Hebrew University.
Legend has it that the two brothers were planning to return to New York together that spring, and that Isidor booked tickets for them and their wives aboard the Titanic. But when the ship left Brighton on April 10, Isidor and Ida were aboard, and Nathan was still in Palestine. As the ship began to sink, and Isidor understood that there were not enough lifeboats for all the women and children, he declined an offer of rescue. Ida, in turn, was unwilling to part from her husband, and so the couple died together. Their death was a major news event in the United States. Tens of thousands attended a memorial service at the Educational Alliance in New York, and the 5,000 employees of Macy’s contributed money to a plaque that hung for many years inside the store, reading “Their lives were beautiful and their deaths glorious.”
Nathan Straus was deeply moved by his brother’s death. Feeling he had been spared, he intensified his involvement in the Zionist movement, and devoted much of the last two decades of his life to philanthropic activity. Already deeply involved in the movement to provide clean, pasteurized milk to children in New York, Straus set up a pasteurization plant, child-welfare stations, a medical infirmary, a girls' school, and a number of other institutions in Palestine.
When he died, in 1931, Nathan Straus left two-thirds of his estate to causes in Mandatory Palestine. Four years earlier, when it was founded, the city of Netanya had been named in his honor.