After touring Europe for several months, New York retail merchant Isidor Straus and his wife, Ida, set sail for home from Southampton, England, after Passover in 1912.
Usually, the wealthy German-born couple traveled on German ships, but this time they booked passage on the maiden voyage of the Titanic. It collided with an iceberg on the fourth night, April 15th, and sank the following morning. Roughly two-thirds of the 2,220 passengers and crew drowned in the freezing waters of the Atlantic mainly because of an insufficient number of lifeboats.
As the 100th anniversary of that terrible tragedy approaches, I’ve been thinking a lot about the Strauses because when the time came for Ida to evacuate the ship and step into a lifeboat, she chose to remain on board with Isidor. Crew members had urged him to leave, too, because of his poor health, advanced age and first-class status, but Isidor refused to accept a life-saving seat ahead of women and children.
“We have been living together for many years, and where you go, I go,” Ida told him, according to survivors who overheard her words. After 41 years of marriage, she would not be parted from her husband. How many spouses would make that choice?
The Strauses had married at New York City’s Temple Emanu-El in 1871, when he was 26 and she was 22. Already, Isidor and his older brother, Nathan, had left Georgia, where their immigrant family had settled shortly before the Civil War, and where their father had a dry goods store. They already knew a great deal about selling crockery and glassware, and rented space in a Manhattan department store owned by former whaling captain Rowland H. Macy.
By 1896, they owned the entire store, including the red star logo that matched the one tattooed on Macy’s hand during his seafaring years. Isidor was a friend of President Grover Cleveland, and served as a U.S. congressman from New York City during the mid-1890s. Ida was a traditional homemaker, caring for their large household, seven children and Isidor. They were generous contributors to Jewish and secular causes, and they wrote to each other daily, whenever they were apart.
On April 15, in the darkness of those ice-cold early morning hours, amid frenzied turmoil, cries of pain, grief and maybe even anger, screams and prayers in a cacophony of languages, Ida confronted the existential reality that there was no more future, only now, and she made her decision. As the lifeboats pulled away from the doomed ship, witnesses recalled seeing the Strauses on deck, clinging to each other in a warm embrace.
As it is written in “The Song of Songs,” “Many waters cannot quench love, and no flood can sweep it away.” The profundity of these words have echoed through millennia, and Isidor and Ida were at peace in each other’s arms.
We hear about parents who die to save their children, and, occasionally, parents who choose to die with their children, but it’s not often that spouses make this kind of decision — even back in 1912. And yet, isn’t it what most of us wish for … to have the kind of marriage or relationship with someone with whom we would rather die than live without?
Isidor’s body was retrieved from the ocean, but Ida’s never was found. Rabbis, civic leaders and leaders of other religions praised her bravery and devotion. On the third anniversary of their deaths, the Strauses were memorialized in a bronze and granite monument erected on a tiny island at Broadway and 106th Street, not far from their home. In a well-maintained and beautiful little park, the graceful figure of a reclining woman symbolizing memory rests beside water splashing gently from a fountain. Engraved in gold lettering are these words: “In Memory of Isidor and Ida Straus, lost at sea in the Titanic Disaster … Lovely and pleasant were they in their lives, and in their death they were not divided.”
Dying together was a very small part of their long-married life, but a final confirmation of their love. How fortunate they were.
Susan J. Gordon, a regular contributor to The Jewish Week, writes about genealogy and history. She is the author of “Wedding Days: When & How Great Marriages Began.”