Rambling ...

I'm an Irish Girl, A Dubliner, with the 'Gift of the Gab' ... I like to talk & to tell you things. In Celtic times news, views and comment were carried from place to place by wandering Seanachaí ~ Storytellers ~ who relied on their host's hospitality and appreciation. I will need that from you too, as I venture to share Politics, Poetry, Laughter, Love, Life & everything in-between ... from Bog to Blog!!

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Triumph to Tragedy .... Titanic's Jews!!

Today,  Sunday 15th April 2012,  the world will mark a Century ~ 100 years  ~ since the sinking of the Infamous Cruise Liner, Titanic.   Of the 2,225 people aboard Titanic on its only voyage, 1,512 perished in the frigid waters of the North Atlantic when the ship went down in the early hours of April 15th, 1912, (about 2.40am to be precise).    But what of Jewish interest on Titanic??    What do we know of Jews who were aboard that fateful ship?  Today I shall explore the heretofore largely unexplored question.  How many Jews were aboard?  How many survived??  How do we know that Jews were aboard??  

Well, we know there were Jews on board because some important 'society' Jews were documented as passangers & amongst  the dead and also because Titanic had kosher food service for the voyage.   Titanic also had a
“Hebrew cook” named Charles Kennell.    Born in Cape Town, South Africa,  the 30-year-old Kennell signed on to the White Star Line’s Titanic on April 4th, 1912. He listed his address as 6,  Park View, Southampton, the port city in southeast England from which the Titanic would embark. Kennell had already served on the Titanic’s sister ship, the Olympic, which took its maiden voyage in 1911. Now he came aboard the larger, more luxurious Titanic for wages of four pounds a month. Kennell was the ship’s “Hebrew cook.”   Charles Kennell was among the nearly 700 crew members to die that night.
Midway through the great wave of Eastern European Jewish immigration to America that brought 2 million Jews to the United States between 1881 and 1924, major passenger lines crossing the Atlantic began instituting kosher food service for their Jewish passengers,  mainly immigrants in third-class steerage.  Although Titanic had Jews among its First class passangers too.  The White Star and Cunard lines, as well as the German lines, all had kosher facilities by the time Titanic sailed. But historians who explore and preserve the body of knowledge about Titanic know little about kosher food and Jewish life aboard the ill-fated liner.  We just don't know how many dined "Kosher" or adhered to Jewish life on board for example, especially amongst the Jewish steerage passengers on Titanic.

One of the earliest printed references to 'kosher' service on an ocean liner dates to June 1904, when the Trenton Times reported that “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.”  That ship was the S.S. Philadelphia.

One of the big names in shipbuilding at that time was Albert Ballin, chairman of the Hamburg-American Line. In 1905, Ballin, who was Jewish, decided to place separate kosher facilities on all of his steamships between New York and Bremen.  According to a contemporary news article about the Hamburg-American line, the addition of kosher service was “in accordance with a request from a number of representative Jewish organizations.”   Valery Bazarov, director of family history and location services for the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, said that HIAS, which continues to help resettle Jewish refugees to the United States, established a kosher kitchen at Ellis Island in 1911.  

Jewish steerage passengers on Titanic were primarily refugees from Eastern Europe. Why would they stop over in England first?   Many couldn’t afford nonstop passage to New York. “Even at that time, two stopovers cost less than a ‘direct flight,’ like now,” Bazarov said.  
England’s National Archives estimate that between 1881 and 1905, up to 100,000 Eastern European Jews settled in England.  Parliament curtailed this immigration in 1905 with the Aliens act.  Most Eastern European Jews could then only stop over in England as “transmigrants,” on their way to other destinations.  The British National Archives estimate that between 1880 and 1914,  approximately 1 million Jewish transmigrants arrived at England’s eastern ports, crossed the country “quickly” and departed via England’s western ports.   But that wasn't the only reason .... Oft times (as with my own family) it  was to get out of immediate danger ....  It was not only immediate danger like a pogrom, and they were plentiful.  It was also immediate danger if someone was drafted to the Russian army, another habitation of hate for Jews.  A century ago, the term of conscription to the Russian army was three mandatory years. betimes referred to as “the underground pogrom, only much longer and much more painful.”  

The Jews of Eastern Europe were limited in their lives & successes because of pervasive antisemitism. It was not just immediate danger but just the quality of life as a whole that also led them to flee.  “To travel abroad, all Russians, not only Jews, needed foreign passports,” Bazarov said. “And to get it, they wrote a petition to the local authorities. They needed to bring the certificate about their relationship to the military service. Without that, they wouldn’t be allowed.”   That’s why so many Eastern European Jews forged or purchased forged passports, he said. Some Jews fled to England because they couldn’t afford the ocean passage, some tried to make lives for themselves there or in Ireland, like my family.

Before liners offered kosher meals,  Jews who kept to the laws of Kashrut had to fend for themselves, bringing their own food.  Some didn’t survive.  A Washington Post article from Nov. 2nd, 1909,  details Gisella Greiner, a “young Hebrew immigrant,” who died of starvation in Ellis Island’s hospital.  Kosher food was not available during her nine-day voyage across the Atlantic, she chose to fast rather than eat 'goy' food.  Even for passengers who didn’t keep kosher, food service in the old steerage system could be a vile experience.  There were no regular dining rooms for steerage class.  A minimum number of tables and seats were set in common areas.  In December 1909, the U.S. Immigration Commission reported on steerage conditions to Congress.  The report described the “disgusting and demoralizing conditions of the old steerage,” in which 300 or more people would sleep in large compartments. Many 'famine' or 'coffin' ships left Ireland and the UK for American ports during the previous century to this and about one third of travellers died.  It was competition for steerage passengers, the 1909 report continued, that led the major lines to develop improved steerage conditions, including the provison of meals for third class passangers.

The “new steerage” arrangements of the White Star Line,  particularly those of Olympic and Titanic, provided third-class passengers with foods they had neither seen nor could ever afford before,  such as Oranges.  “ The White Star Line, although we tend to think of them as the steamship line of luxury, they really catered to the third class, because they made more per head on the third class tickets than they did on a first-class.”   On Titanic, all china, stoneware and silver-plate or other serving utensils were marked in both Hebrew and English as either ‘meat’ or ‘milk.’  The same standards applied for all classes ....  and even first-class silver-plate was marked ‘milk’ or ‘meat.’  Rabbis regularly inspected the liners’ catering departments in both Southampton and New York it seems.   In terms of artifacts that have been retrieved from the ocean floor,  there has not been  any kosher service dinnerware,  but at the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum in Northern Ireland,  there is on display a Titanic deck plan that includes a space indicated by an arrow for kosher service.  It was a small space as I recall.  It was not the size of a full installation of ranges and sinks,  but is significant as it corroborates at least the nominal observance of kosher dietry catering aboard. 

Kosher Kitchen on Olympic

 The 1909 Immigration Commission report on steerage conditions may give an indication of the role of Titanic’s Hebrew cook .....   “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.”   It was also noted that  “the few Jewish passengers were assigned staterooms distantly removed from all others" to allow them to be properly Torah observant. 

Yet all of these upgraded accommodations for steerage passengers in general and Jewish immigrants in particular couldn’t substitute for the absence of commonsense safety measures on Titanic.  Speeding through a North Atlantic ice field, Titanic struck an iceberg at 11:40p.m. on April 14th and sank at 2:20a.m. on April 15th.  Of the 710 third-class passengers on board, only 174 escaped death.  Most died of hypothermia in the freezing ocean.  The survivors arrived at New York’s Pier 54 at 9:30p.m. on April 18th aboard their rescue ship, the Cunard liner Carpathia.   The New York Times reported the following day that “a score of the Titanic’s steerage were taken to the Hebrew Sheltering Home and Immigrant Aid Society, 229 East Broadway for the night.” According to HIAS records, the agency assisted 27 Titanic survivors.  If the body of Charles Kennell was ever retrieved, his remains were never identified.