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Many waters cannot drench love: Isidor and Ida Straus

August 8, 2019

Everyone knows the terrible story of Titanic: the unsinkable ship that sank catastrophically in the north Atlantic in 1912, killing 1,500 people.  Most of these were the working class who sailed third class, in a world run on strictly class-divided lines.  Titanic also put people on the insanely underfilled lifeboats by the rule 'women and children first' - note that this was not normal at the time, and nobody is sure why on earth they did this, but what this does mean is that as a first class woman, your chances of escaping that hellish death were almost guaranteed.

 

Ida Straus, however, refused to go.

 

Ida Straus was born in 1849 in Germany, and at 22 married Isidor Straus, a German Jewish businessman who emigrated to the United States and set up a crockery department in Macy's.  By 1896, his family owned the whole store, and by all accounts, he and Ida were the most devoted couple, having seven children.  Every day they wrote to each other if apart, Isidor writing when on the road, and they were considered unusually close by those who knew them.  Where Ida could go with her husband, she went.  In 1911, when he spent the winter in Europe, she was by his side and they booked a ship to sail back from England.  However, England was in the middle of a coal strike just as the enormous new ship Titanic was preparing to sail; other ships' coal was diverted to her to make her maiden voyage, so the Strauses swapped to a first-class cabin on the huge new liner. 

 

You know what happened next.  On 10th April 1912, Titanic left Southampton for New York.  On 11th, after sailing to Cherbourg, she went up to Ireland and picked up her last passengers at Queenstown before heading into the Atlantic, where her captain Edward Smith was under considerable pressure to go as fast as possible, and took her through an ice field.  

 

At 11.40pm on 14th April, Titanic hit an iceberg that ripped her hull open, making it impossible for her to stay afloat, and the lifeboats began to be lowered, most launched not even half-full by a crew not trained for emergency procedures.  Even had they been so, the ship only had space on them for half the people on board - more than legally required at the time.

 

(Aside: this really annoys me in the film Titanic.  Remember First Officer Murdoch, who shoots the working class man who tries to get on a boat, then shoots himself?  Disgraceful.  Completely made up, in a film that sold itself on authenticity.  Murdoch helped dozens to safety and gave up his own place to go down with the ship.  He was a hero.  His family threatened to sue Cameron for that one and I don't blame them)

 

Back to Isidor and Ida Straus.  As first class passengers, they were some of the first on deck and both offered places in the lifeboats, but Isidor refused: he could not, he said, take a seat when women and children were still waiting, so he would not go.  His wife, however, would get to safety.

 

But Ida refused to leave her beloved husband.  He urged her several times to board the lifeboat, but she took his arm, and many people heard her tell him, "We have been together many years.  Where you go, I go."

 

Isidor and Ida Straus were last seen standing on the deck arm in arm.  His body was recovered afterwards; hers was not.  The family built a cenotaph to both of them at the Straus Mausoleum, quoting from the Song of Solomon: Many waters cannot quench love - nor can the flood drown it.

 

Remember that she was a wealthy, privileged woman in her sixties, out in the north Atlantic with the ship already starting to list.  This wasn't a woman used to tight spots, or a woman thinking she'd hang about a bit longer for another boat.  This was a woman who knew where this could end and meant what she said.

 

Ida Straus adored her husband.  In the end, she would rather have died than left him.

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