When the mighty Titanic ocean liner sank 100 years ago this week, 18-year-old Jewish immigrant Leah Aks and her 10-month-old son, Philip, were on board.
Passover had concluded the day before. On sailing day, Leah was pleased to find that the third class was not completely booked; she and Philip had a cabin to themselves.
Leah was born in Warsaw, Poland. In London, she had met Sam Aks, a tailor who was also from Warsaw. They were married there.
"In London, he was barely making a living," Valery Bazarov, historian for the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, wrote in a piece about the family for HIAS. A cousin who lived in America told him that if he came to America he'd make money quickly. So he came over and got a job.
Sam settled in Norfolk, Va., and entered the scrap metal business. In Titanic: Women and Children First, author Judith B. Geller indicates that all the money Sam earned was used for Leah and "Filly's" trip to join him. This would mark the first time Sam would meet his son.
Though Leah and Filly were booked on an earlier ship, Bazarov explained that Leah's mother convinced her to wait a week and travel on the Titanic, considered the world's safest liner.
Four days into their journey, after the ship struck an iceberg, Leah and Filly followed other third-class passengers to the bottom of the third-class staircase at the rear of the ship. At 12:30 p.m., the crew permitted women and children in this group to make their way to the boat deck. When crew members saw that Leah and Filly couldn't get through the crowd up the stairs, they carried the two. Leah and Filly made it to the boat deck, part of the first-class area of the ship. Madeline Astor, the young wife of millionaire John Jacob Astor, covered Filly's head with her silk scarf.
According to Bazarov, a distraught man — who wasn't permitted in a lifeboat — ran up to Leah and said, "I'll show you women and children first!" The man grabbed Filly and threw him overboard.
Leah searched the deck until someone urged or pushed her into lifeboat 13. She sat in the middle of the Atlantic with 63 others, a broken woman. Hours after the Titanic sank, the liner Carpathia rescued them and others in lifeboats.
Leah searched the deck of Carpathia in vain for her baby. Despondent, she took to a mattress for two days. Titanic survivor Selena Cook urged Leah to come up on deck for air. When she did, she heard Filly's cry.
Unknown to Leah, Filly had fallen into lifeboat number 11, right into another woman's arms. In Geller's account, the woman is presumed to have been Italian immigrant Argene del Carlo. Her husband was not permitted to follow the pregnant Argene into the lifeboat.
"Toward morning," Geller wrote, "she began to believe that God had sent this child to her as a replacement for Sebastino," her husband.
On the Carpathia, Argene refused to give Leah the child. Leah appealed to the Carpathia's captain, Arthur Roston, now put in the role of King Solomon.
In an email interview with The Observer, Gilbert Binder, the husband of Leah's late granddaughter, Rebecca, described what happened. Filly was returned to Leah because "she identified him as a Jewish baby and he was circumcised. The woman was Catholic and her male child would not have been circumcised."
After their arrival in New York, Leah and Filly were taken to HIAS' shelter and remained there until Sam could come for them.
"Leah Aks gave birth to a baby girl nine months after arriving in this country and intended to name her Sara Carpathia," in honor of the rescue ship, Binder explained. "The nuns at the hospital in Norfolk, Va., got confused and named the baby Sara Titanic Aks. I have a copy of her birth certificate." Sara was Binder's mother-in-law.
Leah lived until 1967; her son, Filly, until 1991.