As part of his efforts to preserve and perpetuate the “precious legacy” left by his great-grandparents, Dr. Paul Kurzman returned to Elberon, where they had a summer home, to tell the story of their deaths aboard the Titanic, which sank 100 years ago last April.
Kurzman’s Aug. 16 talk about Ida and Isidor Straus was a fund-raiser for the Church of the Presidents, a deconsecrated landmark that is now part of the Long Branch Historical Museum.
Kurzman told the gathering of about 100 people about the life of Isidor Straus, who was co-owner of Macy’s department store and onetime member of Congress from New York, and the public outpouring that followed their deaths aboard the ship.
Kurzman said his grandmother, Sara, the eldest daughter among the Strauses’ seven children, often spoke of her parents. Kurzman recalled going as a child to “Sunnyside,” the Straus home located in Elberon, and listening to his grandmother talk of the love affair between her parents. Kurzman said Sara told him that “they often wrote letters to each other expressing their devotion.”
That devotion was put to the final test April 15, 2012, on board the “unsinkable” ocean liner making its maiden voyage from Southampton to New York. According to The Autobiography of Isidor Straus, published posthumously by the Straus Historical Society, John A. Badenoch, the grocery buyer for Macy’s who was among those rescued by the ship the Carpathia, gave testimony about the Strauses. He recounted hearing that Ida was asked by an officer in charge and urged by her husband to get into one of the lifeboats. She refused to do so and insisted that her maid, Ellen Bird, take her place.
When a second lifeboat was launched, Mrs. Straus began to get in, expecting that her husband would come with her. Kurzman recalled as a child hearing that his great-grandfather had said, “I will stay on board until all women and children are in lifeboats.” When she realized he was refusing to join her, she stepped out, saying, ‘If my husband stays aboard, I stay aboard. Married 40 years, we have lived together for many years. Where you go, I go.’”
Other Titanic survivors remembered the couple putting their arms around each other and walking calmly to the other side of the ship, where they sat together on deck chairs.
The story of the Strauses’ love and dedication became the subject of rabbis’ sermons and articles in Yiddish-language newspapers; “The Titanic’s Disaster,” a popular Yiddish song about Ida Straus, was published in 1912.
One day, Kurzman said, he received a phone call from a woman named Lee Moore. She identified herself as the granddaughter of a boy who had gone into the lifeboat after Ida refused to board. Moore went on to tell Kurzman that “she had converted to Judaism and is now a rabbi.” He said, “It was a special moment.”
Memorial services for the Strauses were held around the world with a reported total of 40,000 in attendance. Six thousand people attended a service at Carnegie Hall in New York City on May 12, 1912. Many thousands stood outside in the rain, unable to gain admittance.
Isidor and his brother Nathan acquired Macy’s in 1895. “Their younger brother Oscar,” Kurzman said, “was the first Jew to become a United States ambassador and went on to be named secretary of commerce and labor by President Theodore Roosevelt.”
Kurzman, who serves as board chair of the Straus Historical Society in Smithtown, NY, said his grandmother was proud of the family heritage. She remembered her father saying, “As a Straus, I can pass a good name onto this family with honesty and integrity.”
Kurzman is a professor at the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College in New York.
As he ended his speech, Kurzman brought out a locket that was found on Isidor’s body (Ida’s body was never recovered). It contained pictures of two of his children, son Jesse and Kurzman’s grandmother, Sara. Kurzman said, “It is my hope that in some small way, I can be true to their precious legacy.”