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Kashrut Aboard the 'Titanic' Sheds Light on Immigration

April 12, 2012 By:
Marshall Weiss, The Dayton Jewish Observer
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An illustration taken from a White Star Line publicity brochure shows a portion of the third-class dining saloon on the "Olympic" and the "Titanic" ocean liners.

Of the 2,225 people aboard the Titanic on its maiden voyage from England to America, 1,512 perished in the frigid waters of the North Atlantic when the ship went down in the early hours of April 15, 1912.

Charles Kennell was among the nearly 700 crew members to die that night. Born in Cape Town, South Africa, the 30-year-old Kennell signed on to the White Star Line's Titanic on April 4, 1912. He listed his address as 6 Park View, Southampton, the port city in southeast England from which the Titanicwould embark.

Kennell had already served on the Titanic's sister ship, the Olympic, which took its maiden voyage in 1911. Now he came aboard the larger, more luxurious Titanic for wages of four pounds a month. Kennell was the "Hebrew cook" for the Titanic, which had kosher food service.

Midway through the great wave of Eastern European Jewish immigration to America -- which brought two million Jews to the United States between 1881 and 1924 -- major passenger lines crossing the Atlantic began instituting kosher food service for its Jewish passengers, mainly immigrants in third-class steerage.

But historians and authors who explore and preserve the body of knowledge about Titanic know little else about kosher food and Jewish life aboard the ill-fated liner.
"It's been a very tough subject to get much on," said Charles Haas, president of the Titanic International Society. "My research has generated more questions than answers. It's been, in a way, frustrating because I haven't been able to find anybody who knows for sure almost anything."

Haas and John Eaton are authors of five books on the Titanic including the meticulous Titanic: Triumph and Tragedy, which has just been released in a newly expanded third edition. They are also guest lecturers in this month's memorial cruise.

Over the years, they've cultivated friendships with Titanic survivors and their descendants, conducted Titanic research in England and Northern Ireland, and have plunged to the ocean floor to see the Titanic's wreckage.

The White Star and Cunard lines, as well as the German lines, all had kosher facilities by the time the Titanic sailed, Haas said.

Based on information Haas has found about kosher kitchens on other ocean liners of the time -- particularly on Titanic's sister ship Olympic -- he believes, "we have some probably reasonable assumptions in terms of Titanic."

Valery Bazarov, director of family history and location services for HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, also confirmed the first decade of the 20th century as the beginning of kosher food service on liners crossing the Atlantic.

Jewish steerage passengers on the Titanic -- as was the case on other liners departing from England for America -- were primarily refugees from Eastern Europe. But why would they stop over in England first?

"To get out of immediate danger, and more than that," Bazarov explained. "It was not only immediate danger like a pogrom; it was also immediate danger if someone was drafted to the Russian army."

A century ago, the term of conscription to the Russian army was three mandatory years.

The Jews of Eastern Europe, he added, were limited in their successes because of pervasive anti-Semitism. "It was not just immediate danger but just the quality of life as a whole" that also led them to flee.

Some Jews fled to England because they couldn't afford the ocean passage; some tried to make lives for themselves there. Others were required by law to keep moving. England's National Archives has estimated that between 1881 and 1905, up to 100,000 Eastern European Jews settled in England. Parliament curtailed this immigration in 1905 with the Aliens Act. Most Eastern European Jews could then only stop over in England as "transmigrants," on their way to other destinations.

Before liners offered kosher food, Jews who kept kosher had to fend for themselves, bringing their own food. Some didn't survive. Despite the Jewish value of pikuach nefesh -- that saving a life takes precedence even over keeping kosher -- Haas cited a Washington Post article from Nov. 2, 1909, about Gisella Greiner, a "young Hebrew immigrant," who died of starvation in Ellis Island's hospital. Kosher food was not available during her nine-day voyage across the Atlantic; she chose to fast.

Even for those passengers who didn't keep kosher, food service and conditions in general in the old steerage system could be a vile experience.

In December 1909, a U.S. Immigration Commission report to the U.S. Congress described the "disgusting and demoralizing conditions of the old steerage," in which 300 or more people would sleep in large compartments. An immigration agent described the sleeping compartment of one of these liners as subdivided into three sections: one for the German women, one for "Hebrews," and one for "all other creeds and nationalities together."

Haas, who is not Jewish, has attempted to track down details of the Titanic's kosher facilities while conducting research in Belfast, where the Titanic was built. He's never seen a kosher-only menu card specific to the Titanic. But Karen Kamuda, vice president of the Titanic Historical Society Inc. and the Titanic Museum in Indian Orchard, Mass., said in an email that aboard the Titanic kosher "china, stoneware and silver-plate or other serving utensils were marked in Hebrew and English either 'meat' or 'milk.' " Eaton, Haas' writing partner, puzzles at the scarce documentation of kosher service aboard the Titanic.

"There are fundamental questions of when and who decided to hire a 'Hebrew Cook' for Titanic's kitchen," he explained in an email. The 1909 U.S. Immigration Commission report on steerage conditions may give an indication of the role of Charles Kennell, the Titanic's Hebrew cook.

An immigration agent who reported on "new steerage conditions" wrote of the unnamed line she investigated: "The Hebrew steerage passengers were looked after by a Hebrew who is employed by the company as a cook, and is at the same time appointed by Rabbi as guardian of such passengers." Yet all of these upgraded accommodations for steerage passengers in general and Jewish immigrants in particular couldn't substitute for the absence of common-sense safety measures at every level on the Titanic.

Speeding through a North Atlantic ice field, its crew ignoring warnings from nearby ships, lifeboats for only half of those on board, poor communications among crew members, and an off-duty wireless operator on the nearest ship, the Titanic struck an iceberg at 11:40 p.m. on April 14 and sank at 2:20 a.m. on April 15.

Of the 710 third-class passengers on board, only 174 -- one fourth -- escaped death. Most died of hypothermia in the 28-degree ocean after the ship sank.

A day after their arrival at New York's Pier 54 at 9:30 p.m. on April 18 aboard their rescue ship, the Cunard liner Carpathia, The New York Times reported that "a score of the Titanic's steerage were taken to the Hebrew Sheltering Home and Immigrant Aid Society, 229 East Broadway, for the night." According to HIAS records, the agency assisted 27 Titanic survivors.

If the body of Titanic's Hebrew cook, Charles Kennell, was ever retrieved, his remains were never identified.

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