“Titans of the Titanic”: The Jewish Lower East Side's Mourning For Ida and Isidor Straus

By Jeanne-Marie Musto, Librarian II
April 3, 2023
lifeboat with 4 long oars and perhaps 25 people, most wearing life vests

Photograph of a lifeboat carrying Titanic shipwreck survivors, taken "on or about 15 April 1912." Mrs. A. A. Dick reported that from her lifeboat she could "plainly see Ida and Isidor standing near the rail with their arms around each other." The Sun (New York), April 20, 1912, 4.

Record Group 21, Records of District Courts of the United States, 1685 – 2009; Series: Admiralty Case Files, 1790 – 1966; NAID: 278338.

On the moonlit deck of the Titanic on the night of April 15, 1912, Isidor Straus, a New York businessman and philanthropist, desperately urged his wife, Ida, to climb into a lifeboat with the other women and children. She refused, choosing instead to stand by her husband’s side and face death with him in the frigid waters.[1]

a crowded hall of girls and boys, all saluting, seen from a stage platform on which a girl holds a U.S. flag before them

Americanization Day at the Educational Alliance, ca. 1910. Photograph by Progress Photo Co.

YIVO Archives, Educational Alliance Collection (RG 312), Digital ID yea019.

So went the story that reached New York City with news of the demise of the great ship: a tale of devotion that chilled and inspired millions. But for immigrants to New York at this time of mass immigration—for whom the terrors of the transatlantic voyage were recent and real—the sinking of the Titanic hit home particularly hard. This was especially true for Jewish immigrants, who often knew the couple’s philanthropy first-hand, for instance through their work on behalf of the Lower East Side’s Educational Alliance, a leading social and educational institution that Isidor co-founded.[2] In the eyes of the immigrant Jewish community, with the Straus's tragic deaths, the esteemed couple achieved a status akin to sainthood.

In the collections of the Dorot Jewish Division a wide range of Yiddish materials, from newspapers to song sheets to the most popular Jewish women’s prayer book, attests to the extraordinary reaction to the sinking of the Titanic among Jews recently arrived from Eastern Europe, and to the evolution of Ida and Isidor’s special status.

separately framed photos of the faces of 9 men and 2 women, flanked by news articles in Yiddish

Forverts, April 16, 1912, 1 (detail).

National Library of Israel, Historical Jewish Press.

The tale of Ida and Isidor was not picked up by the media immediately. The socialist Forverts, the largest and most influential Yiddish newspaper, published tentative reports on the disaster on the 15th when the scope was not yet clear. Its front page spread on the 16th leads with an article on how few were saved, illustrated with the faces of notables onboard; these include survivors, such as socialite Madeleine Astor (top center).[3] The faces also include Isidor's but not Ida's, though beside his image is an article that opens with her decision to stay with him. The article otherwise reads like an obituary of Isidor and does not mention Ida again. Rather, it concludes with a nod to Isidor’s philanthropic projects on the Lower East Side. This is where the Forverts’ primary readership lived and where ground was just being broken for the 10-story Forward Building (as it is named over the entrance) that still dominates the neighborhood.[4]

Top half of front page of Forverts newspaper for 19 April 1912; below the title of the newspaper, a headline across the page; below the headline, at center, between articles to either side, a woman's face stares out of a large oval

Forverts, April 19, 1912, 1 (detail).

National Library of Israel, Historical Jewish Press

Come Friday, April 19, the disaster still took up the full front page but the story had evolved.[5] A large photo of Ida, alone, meets the eyes of the reader. Rather than an illustration of her own story, not told until page five, her stoic and stern face appears intended to personify not merely herself but all of the hundreds who had died. She was becoming a legend.

Front page of magazine, with large nameplate at top, flanked by cartoonish devils; the rest of the page is dominated by a large illustration of a bat-winged devil at the back of a large watery cave, with tiny images of despairing or dead people arrayed about the cave.

Der Groyser Kundes, no. 16 (April 19, 1912): 1. The awkward juxtaposition of the two devilish caricatures flanking the nameplate, which call attention to the satirical nature of the journal, and the somber devil in the illustration below (copied from an engraving after Gustave Doré), calls attention to the journal's difficulty addressing the Titanic disaster.

photo Jeanne-Marie Musto

Der groyser kundes, a satirical weekly published just down the street (in less impressive quarters) “tried to be everything the Forverts wasn’t.”[6] Likewise popular, it was known for original cartoons and caricatures, literary sophistication, and poking fun at the ideologically driven socialist and anarchist dailies. The cover of its first issue following the Titanic’s demise, April 19, suggests, however, that it found itself ill-prepared to throw together a somber response to the Titanic tragedy. Breaking from the usual originality and levity, the cover features a frank reproduction of a famous image of Dante’s Inferno with the headline (in Yiddish): “‘Titanic’s’ Sinking.”[7] The great prankster paper had not yet found its footing in the face of this tragedy. 

first page of weekly magazine, with large nameplate flanked by caricatures of devils; lower part of page shows busts of a man and a woman with a figure of a woman between them, placing laurel wreaths on their heads.

Der Groyser Kundes, no. 17 (April 26, 1912): 1. The illustration showing busts of Ida and Isidor Straus being crowned with laurel wreaths is signed by Lola (pen name of Leon Israel).

Photograph by Jeanne-Marie Musto

By the next issue, however, one of Der groyser kundes’s most prominent illustrators, Leon Israel, who published under the pen name “Lola,” had reached beyond journalism, beyond satire, and beyond the photo of Ida in the prior Friday’s Forverts.[8] His full front-page image: Ida and Isidor on pedestals, under the headline “The Titans of the Titanic,” with a Biblical caption below (in Hebrew): “Beloved and cherished, never parted in life or in death!”[9] The pedestals, too, are inscribed: Ida’s, “A noble example of the self-sacrificing love of the Jewish woman,” above a quotation of her decision to stay with Isidor. Isidor’s states: “A noble example of the courage of a Jewish man,” above a quotation of his determination that women and children must be saved first. In short, Lola had reached the moral of the story, and the Strauses were its exemplars.

illustrated title page; below title, a large ship sinks into the waves while a lightly sketched man and woman, hugging one another, rise up from the ship; an angel places a wreath over their heads.

Cover, sheet music for "Churbon Titanic, oder Der naser keiver" (“The Titanic’s Disaster, or The Watery Grave”) (New York: Hebrew Publishing Co., 1912). In the illustration, signed by J. Keller, an angel places a double-sized laurel wreath on the heads of Ida and Isidor Straus.

Meanwhile, the Hebrew Publishing Company, near Forverts and Der groyser kundes on the Lower East Side, saw in the tragedy a perfect subject for song.[10] The cover of one of the most popular Yiddish Titanic songs, “The Titanic’s Disaster, or The Watery Grave” (1912), drawn by Jacob Keller, depicts Ida and Isidor rising towards heaven above the sinking ship as an angel holds a large halo-like laurel wreath over both of their heads: the apotheosis of the Strauses.[11] The song, with lyrics by Solomon Small and music by Henry A. Russotto concludes, “Let young and old honor the name Ida Straus!”[12]

book cover with blind embossing and gold-stamped title at center

Shas Teḥinah Rav Peninim (New York: Hebrew Publishing Company, 1916), cover.

Photograph by Jeanne-Marie Musto

For unknown reasons, when “The Titanic’s Disaster” was reprinted the following year, Ida’s refrain was left out.[13] Her memory was nevertheless remembered in a more lasting venue: in the first Yiddish women’s prayer book to be published in the United States, the Shas Teḥinah Rav Peninim (which loosely translates as “Six orders of supplications; a multitude of pearls”), published by the Hebrew Publishing Company in 1916.[14] This became the primary prayer book of a generation of American Jewish women (and is still reprinted).[15]

detail of a page of Yiddish text

First part of "A remembrance for Isidor and Ida Straus," Shas Teḥinah Rav Peninim (New York: Hebrew Publishing Company, 1916), 257.

Photograph by Jeanne-Marie Musto

Because the First World War was raging, Yiddish prayer books could not be imported from Europe. But the market for prayer books was as strong as ever.[16] To satisfy this market, the anonymous authors of this prayer book included new prayers for recent immigrants, including two prayers for those lost at sea. The first, “A new remembrance-of-souls-prayer for those drowned at sea” recalls all who have drowned, but also specifically “the holy ones lost on the Titanic.”[17] The second, “A remembrance for Isidor and Ida Straus,” tells the whole now mythical story: “the noble woman said to her husband, she did not wish to be saved knowing that her husband was drowning . . . the two united souls fell one after the other off the deck, and sank together with ‘Hear, Oh Israel’ on their lips . . . and both holy souls went up together into heaven to their Creator.”[18] 

Bronze sculpture of a woman lying on rocks, with her head propped up on an arm, and feet dangling down. The sculpture is on a granite wall; there's a reflecting pool below her feet and an inscribed granite bench behind the wall.

Monument dedicated to Ida and Isidor Straus in Straus Park, at Broadway and 106th Street, New York City. Dedicated in 1915. Sculptor: Augustus Lukeman; architect: Evarts Tracy; dedicated 1915. Photograph taken March 2023.

Photograph by Jeanne-Marie Musto

Today, a variety of monuments still memorialize Ida and Isidor Straus. Among the most beautiful, especially in the spring, is the Straus Memorial Fountain in tiny Straus Park, near the site of the Upper West Side home of the Strauses.[19] Yet the true resting place for Ida and Isidor was in the hearts of people who knew the dangers of the transatlantic voyage best, as captured in the print and images of the Yiddish presses of the Lower East Side. The evolution of the Straus's story attests to a profound moment of loss and memory in American immigrant history. 

[1] Based on the fuller account in “These Went to Death Bravely,” Sun (New York), April 20, 1912, p. 4, which draws on the accounts of eyewitnesses. The Sun, published from 1833-1950, is available both onsite via microfilm and online via database.

[2] David Blaustein, a lecturer at the New York School of Philanthropy who had served as superintendent of the Educational Alliance, in his “Eulogy on Mr. and Mrs. Isidor Straus (Delivered at the Memorial Meeting at the Educational Alliance, New York, May 11th, 1912)” emphasized that “Mrs. Straus always shared in his [Isidor Straus’s] noble work and was in sympathy with and encouraged him in all good work.” Memoirs of David Blaustein, Educator and Communal Worker, arranged by Miriam Blaustein (1913; repr. New York: Arno Press, 1975), 239. On Ida’s charity see also June Hall McCash, A Titanic Love Story: Ida and Isidor Straus (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2012), 163-64. On Blaustein and the significance of the Educational Alliance see Judah Pilch, "Blaustein, David," in Encyclopaedia Judaica, 2nd ed., vol. 3, ed. Michael Berenbaum and Fred Skolnik (Detroit, MI: Macmillan Reference USA, 2007), 746, available at the NYPL both onsite and online.

[3] Forverts 15, no. 5065 (April 15, 1912), 1, and Forverts 15, no. 5066 (April 16, 1912), 1.

[4] Planned since at least 1910, the ten-story Forward Building at 175 East Broadway would “bestride the Lower East Side like a colossus.” Ronald Sanders, The Downtown Jews: Portraits of an Immigrant Generation (New York: Harper & Row, 1969), 390 and 405. The cornerstone was laid not long before 28 April; the newspaper’s offices were moved in by 4 September. Seth Lipsky, The Rise of Abraham Cahan (New York: Nextbook, 2013), 108 and 113.

[5] Forverts 15, no. 5069 (April 19, 1912), 1.

[6] Aaron Rubinstein, “Devils and Pranksters: Der Groyser Kundes and the Lower East Side,” Pakn Treger (Spring 2005), 18.

[7] The reproduction in Der groyser kundes retains the signature of Héliodore Pisan, original engraver of Gustave Dore’s illustrations for L'enfer de Dante Alighieri, in the original Italian with French translation by Pier Angelo Fiorentino (Paris: L. Hachette, 1861); for an English translation with Dore’s illustrations see Dante's Inferno, trans. Henry Francis Cary (Philadelphia, H. Altemus [18--?]), available at NYPL and in a digital version via Hathi Trust; for the image copied in Der groyser kundes see here.

[8] On Leon Israel see the obituary notice in the JTA Daily News Bulletin 22:9 (Jan. 13, 1955), p. 6, available on site at NYPL and online here, and Gil Ribak, “Getting Drunk, Dancing, and Beating Each Other Up: The Images of the Gentile Poor and Narratives of Jewish Difference among the Yiddish Intelligentsia, 1881–1914,” in Wealth and Poverty in Jewish Tradition, ed. Leonard J. Greenspoon (West Lafayette, Indiana: Purdue University Press, 2015), 213.

[9] 2 Sam. 1:23 (New Jewish Publication Society Version).

[10] On this sheet music, the Hebrew Publishing Company gives the address 83-87 Canal Street (at the corner with Eldridge Street), on the Lower East Side. (In 1932 it would move to Delancy Street, also in the neighborhood; see Israel Shenker, “It’s Onward and Upward for Hebrew Publishing,” The New York Times (August 1, 1976), 40.

[11] The full two-part title is given in Yiddish only, on the cover with “The Titanic’s Disaster” first, and inside with “The Watery Grave” first. Jacob Keller illustrated a great number of sheet music covers (and other items) for the Hebrew Publishing Company, as can be seen, for instance, in Brown University’s catalog, complete with illustrations of the covers.

[12] The sheet music for “The Titanic’s Disaster” can be seen in NYPL’s Digital Collections, here; the history of the song, with both a transliteration and a translation of the Yiddish, can be found in the The Yosl and Chana Mlotek Yiddish Song Collection at The Workers Circle, entry “Khurbn Titanik,” here. On Solomon Small (or Smulevitz, etc.), see the online Milken Archive entry, “Solomon Smulevitz.” On Henry A. Russotto, see Irene Heskes, “Music as Social History: American Yiddish Theater Music, 1882-1920,” American Music, 2:4 (1984): 81.

[13] See the The Yosl and Chana Mlotek Yiddish Song Collection at The Workers Circle entry for “Khurbn Titanik” here

[14] Shas Teḥinah Rav Peninim (New York: Hebrew Publishing Company, 1916); available on site at the NYPL or in digital form through the Open Siddur Project, here.

[15] See Judy Tydor Baumel-Schwartz, “My Grandmother's Tkhine: Immigrant Jewish Women's Lives, Identities and Prayers in Early Twentieth-Century America,” Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women's Studies & Gender Issues No. 31, New Historical and Socio-Legal Perspectives on Jewish Divorce (Spring–Fall 2017): 154.

[16] Baumel-Schwartz, “My Grandmother's Tkhine,” 152.

[17] Shas Teḥinah Rav Peninim, 256-57.

[18] Shas Teḥinah Rav Peninim, 257-58.

[19] Their home (since demolished) was on 105th Street between Broadway and West End Avenue; the park is where Broadway and West End Avenue meet, between 106th and 107th Streets.