Isidor and his wife, Ida Straus, were a Jewish family who tragically lost their lives on Apr. 15, 1912, while on the Titanic, which sank in the North Atlantic Ocean after hitting an iceberg. The Titanic departed on that day from Southampton, England, for the first and only time. The ship had nine decks with separate areas for first-class, second-class and third-class passengers. There were close to 2,200 people aboard for the ship’s maiden voyage.
Isidor, who was offered a lifeboat seat with his wife, would not get in the lifeboat until every woman and child were safely in the lifeboats. His wife, Ida, climbed back on the ship to be with her husband and they both perished at sea.
The AJT spoke with the Straus’s great-grandson, Paul Kurzman, the former chairman of the Straus Historical Society, a social worker and professor with a dual appointment at Hunter College and at the Graduate Center at the City University of New York.
Tell us how you are related to Isidor and Ida Straus.
I am the great-grandson of Isidor and Ida Straus. The lineage starts with Isidor and Ida who had seven children. One named Clarence died in childhood and surviving were six children – three boys and three girls: Jesse, Percy, Herbert, Sara, Minnie and Vivian. I am descended from the eldest daughter of Sara Straus, by marriage, who became Sara Straus Hess. I knew my grandmother well. She did not die until I was 22 years old.
How did you learn the story of what happened to your grandparents?
I heard about my great-grandparents, Isidor and Ida’s story from my grandmother, Sara Straus Hess. I was about 11 or 12 years old, and that was the first time I recall learning about the Titanic. We went to my grandmother’s 12-room apartment on Park Avenue in Manhattan every Sunday for lunch. If there was no guest of honor at these regular Sunday meals when she’d entertain diplomats and important people.
I would sit with her afterwards in her library and ask her questions about the family and my great-grandparents, in particular. My grandmother was widowed quite young as her husband Dr. Hess (who was nominated for a Nobel Prize in Medicine) died in his late fifties. She lived in a large apartment with a lot of staff for only one person.
I was captivated about the idea of a ship sinking and I’d ask question after question. The wealthy and well-known members aboard were all expected to get in the lifeboat. However, Ida got in and Isidor said, “I will not get in until I see every woman and child a board lifeboat, and then I will board the lifeboat and then only.”
Ida did something surprising. The third mate who was helping people board that lifeboat said, “Mr. Straus we know who you are, the owner of the largest department store, you are an elderly person, (he was in his ’60’s and back then in 1912 that was a long life) and of course, you can get in the lifeboat with your wife.”
He replied, “No I will not do so.” Ida then exited the lifeboat and she said she would stay with him and said the words from the Book of Ruth in the Bible, “Where you go, I will go, and where you lodge, I will lodge.” She said, “We’ve had a wonderful life together with our children and grandchildren and we will not be separated. If you stay on board, I will stay on board.” The witnesses saw them go to the starboard side of the ship, where they embraced, arm in arm, and then a big wave came and swept them into sea where they drowned.”
Was anything of your great-grandparents’ saved?
As Ida exited the lifeboat, she took off her full-length mink coat and gave it to her personal maid Miss Ellen Bird and said, “I will no longer have a need for the coat. I want you to have it to keep you warm.” When Miss Bird was rescued, she felt that she couldn’t keep the coat and went to New York to give it to Ida’s eldest daughter, my grandmother Sara. She said, “Miss Bird my mother gave this coat to you and she wanted you to have this coat, so you are to keep this coat through yo life in my mother’s memory.”
Did you inherit anything that belonged to your great-grandparents?
Recovery ships had found Isidor’s body floating, and they brought him back but never found Ida’s body as she perished at sea. They found a locket in Isidor’s vest under his jacket, a gold locket with an onyx inlay and inside the locket were two small photographs.
One was of their eldest son Jesse Isidor, who by then was the president of Macy’s and later became the Ambassador to France and a great supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt. And on the other side of the locket was a photo of my grandmother Sara, his eldest daughter. That locket was turned over to Isidor and Ida’s eldest daughter, my grandmother, who deemed that it would go to her daughter, my mother Eleanor, and upon her death it went to me, since I had the most interest. The locket is my greatest treasure. I can’t even put into words what it means to me. It’s my connection to my grandparents and my great-grandparents and my legacy.
Will this family heirloom and personal treasure ever be on display?
Many exhibitors have asked me to put the locket on exhibit including when we met the 100th year in 2012. I’ve never been willing to put it on display. I gave many presentations in 2012 all over the United States, as chairman of the board of the historical society.
I would hold the locket in the palm of my hand and show it. It was too emotional to be away from it. For the first time on the behalf of the Straus Historical Society, however, I plan to lend it to the Titanic Museum in Tennessee, which later this year will have its first exhibition honoring the Jewish passengers of the Titanic. Those who lived, and those who died like Isidor and Ida. When I heard that, I was persuaded. My son will represent me and do a presentation of significance about the Jewish passengers.
Were family members consulted when the award-winning movie was being made?
I recognized the movie as wonderful, and James Cameron, the director, had me and the descendants of two other survivors, of Molly Brown and John Jacob Astor, come out to California for the honoring of the 100th anniversary. He was very gracious and made an anniversary film with National Geographic. I recognize it as a Hollywood film, well-deserving of best picture of the year.
Cameron is a genius filmmaker, and he has taken a dozen divers down to the Titanic. I have great respect for him, but he takes certain license with the facts. When I mentioned that to him, he said, “This is a filmmaker’s privilege and I don’t claim to be an American historian, but that’s the liberty I had license to take.” He’s very honest and that movie made the careers of the leading actors and some of the highest paid actors in Hollywood. There was actually more about my great-grandparents that was cut, and I was able to see it. He showed me a documentation of everything that was true, but some of it didn’t make the movie.
What’s the most important part of your family legacy and the real Titanic story?
A couple gave their lives to save others. They had six children at home, all healthy, married, grandchildren and they were in good health with so much to live for. They surrendered everything they could live for so they could die by principle, not just Isidor’s principles, but also Ida’s. They would die as they had lived.
What message do you want to say to our readers about the importance of family?
For the individual reader and their family, think about what it is they can do during their lives that will leave something that’s better than what they found when they came here. Let it be in the spirit that is consistent with the principles of Judaism, and the incredibly rich history of the Jewish people. That they figure a way they can leave behind a contribution that their family can be proud of. That is an expression of Jewishness that is enormously precious. It is the ultimate religious expression and devotion to leave behind something they have not found when they arrived as their gift when they leave.
For more information about The Straus Family Historical Society, visit: www.straushistoricalsociety.org. Currently, at The Breman Museum’s History with Chutzpah exhibition, you can see a beautiful oil painting of Isidor Straus from 1912, the year the Titanic sank. www.thebreman.org
Visit the exhibit at Titanic Museum Attraction at Pigeon Forge, which is paying tribute to Jewish passengers and crew. There were 69 known Jewish people aboard the ship, 39 of whom perished. www.titanicpigeonforge.com