On April 14, 1912, HMS Titanic struck an iceberg. Soon after midnight, as the boat started sinking, the first lifeboats set off. By 2:20 am on April 15, the unsinkable ship had done the unthinkable and was lost under the waves. Of the 2,224 people on board, only 710 survived.
Among those who went down with the ship was Benjamin Guggenheim, the Jewish millionaire who helped rescue as many as he could, then put on his top hat and put a rose in his buttonhole, saying, “We’ve dressed up in our best and are prepared to go down like gentlemen.”
The Jewish co-owners of Macy’s Department Store, Isidor and Ida Straus, were on the ship. When Isador was offered a place in the lifeboats, he replied that women and children should be saved first. His wife refused to leave her husband’s side. A cenotaph dedicated to the couple bears the inscription, “Many waters cannot quench love – neither can the floods drown it,” (Song of Songs 8:7).
But this story is not about those who died, but about two people who survived.
Violet Jessop was working for the White Star Line as a stewardess on the ship. She was 24 at the time the boat sank. She stood on board directing non-English speakers to the lifeboats, and was ordered onto lifeboat 61 as it was being lowered into the water.
As she got into the lifeboat, one of the ship’s officers handed her a baby. The next morning, after they had been rescued by the RMS Carpathia, someone took the baby from her arms and disappeared, without saying a word.
Arthur John Priest was a fireman and a stoker on the ship. Little is known about his escape, but he also survived the sinking.
The thing that made these two people unusual was that this was not the first ship they had been rescued from, and it would not be the last sinking they survived.
On September 20, 1911, several months before the Titanic’s maiden voyage, Jessop and Priest were both onboard the Olympic, the Titanic’s sister ship, as it left Southampton docks. At the time, it was the largest ocean liner, a record she held for two years, apart from the short period of time when the Titanic held the record.
This was the ship’s fifth journey, but shortly after she left port, as she was sailing through the Solent, she collided with the British cruiser HMS Hawke. The Hawke was designed to sink ships by ramming them with its prow, so when it was sucked into the wake of the Olympic and smashed into the side of the boat, it caused massive damage to the boat. Fortunately, the Olympic managed to limp back to port, and nobody was seriously injured.
HMHS Britanic was the third of the White Star Line’s Olympic class ships. She was billed as the safest of the three because the builders made design changes to the ship based on lessons they learned after the sinking of the Titanic. The ship was launched just before World War I, and was soon converted for military use, to serve as a hospital ship, sailing between Britain and the Dardanelles.
On the morning of November 21, 1916, the Britanic hit a naval mine off the coast of Greece, and within an hour, the ship had completely sunk under the surface of the water. There were 1,065 people on board at the time, and all but 30 of them were saved.
Jessop described the last moments of the vessel:
She dipped her head a little, then a little lower and still lower. All the deck machinery fell into the sea like a child’s toys. Then she took a fearful plunge, her stern rearing hundreds of feet into the air until with a final roar, she disappeared into the depths, the noise of her going resounding through the water with undreamt-of violence….
The Britanic was the largest ship lost during World War I and is still the largest passenger boat on the ocean floor.
Despite surviving two sinkings and a major collision, Jessop went back to working for the White Star Line in 1920; she then worked for the Red Star Line and eventually returned to her first employer, the Royal Mail Line. She became known as “Miss Unsinkable” and passed away in 1971 at the age of 83.
Priest earned a similar moniker — “The Unsinkable Stoker” — but he had even more reason than Jessop to be called unsinkable.
After the sinking of the Britanic, Priest served on the HMHS Asturias, which had also been converted by the admiralty into a hospital ship. JRR Tolkein was perhaps the most famous wounded soldier to be transported back to Britain on the Asturias. On March 20, 1917, the ship was torpedoed by a German U-Boat off the coast of Devon. Between 31 and 35 people on board were killed.
Next, Priest transferred to the RMS Alcantara, a boat originally built for the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company, though by this time converted by the Navy into an armed cruiser. On February 29, 1916, she encountered the German boat SMS Greif off the coast of the Shetland Islands. In the ensuing battle, both boats were sunk, resulting in the deaths of 230 men from the Greif and 68 from Alcantra.
Priest then switched to the SS Donegal, a passenger ferry that had been converted to an ambulance ship. She was sunk by enemy fire on April 17, 1917, resulting in the deaths of 29 wounded soldiers and 12 of the crew. One of the crew members who died was Archie Jewel, who had been a lookout on the Titanic (though not on duty the night she hit the iceberg). But Priest survived, and in 1917 was awarded the Mercantile Marine Ribbon for his war service.
By this point, nobody wanted to be on the same boat as Priest, who had now survived five sinkings. He was forced to retire and lived the rest of his life in Southampton. He died in 1937, aged only 49, with his wife Annie at his side
Were Priest and Jessop two of the luckiest people in the world to have survived so many major maritime disasters? Or were they among the most unlucky people in the world, having been aboard so many sinking ships.
I have the same question about Noah. In this week’s Torah reading, God instructs Noah to build an ark and house all the animal species to ensure the survival of life on earth. Noah is described as “finding favor in the eyes of God,” (Genesis 6:8). He is also described as “a completely righteous man in his generation,” (Genesis 6:9).
So, he was chosen to be saved. But he had to work very hard. Firstly, according to Midrashim cited by Rashi (on Genesis 6:14), he spent 120 years building the ark. That is a very long time to be involved in a single project. Rashi explains that the construction took so long in order to give the people of that generation a chance to repent. They would ask Noah why he was building a boat, and he would tell him that the world was about to be destroyed, in the hope that they would change their ways and avert the flood. But that didn’t happen.
Then, Noah had to spend a year in the ark along with his wife, sons and daughters-in-law tending to the animals. This was not easy. Rashi (Genesis 7:23) cites a Midrash that says not only was Noah so ill that he was vomiting blood by the end of the year, but that he was once attacked by a lion when he brought its food too late.
If Noah was such a righteous man, why did God make him work so hard and for so long? There were certainly other options for saving Noah and his family and all the animals.
For example, in the Talmud (Zevachim 113a) Rabbi Yochanan and Rabbi Oshaya argue as to whether the flood affected the land of Israel. If Israel was unaffected by the rain waters, why couldn’t Noah and his animals simply have gone there for the year?
So why did Noah have to tend all the animals for the year at great personal cost, and spend a lifetime building the ark? If the purpose of building the ark for 120 years was to encourage others to repent, Noah failed miserably. He didn’t convince a single person in all that time. And what was the message he was supposed to learn from dealing with the animals? It seems he couldn’t even keep them happy.
Was Noah the luckiest man in the world because he was saved, or the unluckiest, because his entire life was spent building a pointless boat that was only necessary because God chose not to save him miraculously?
This is why the rabbis contrast Noah unfavorably with Abraham (who was already 58 years old when Noah died, so it is conceivable that they may have even met). Abraham reached out to others and dedicated his life to saving people. He even tried to save the people of Sodom and Gemorrah, who practiced the antithesis of his kindness. Yet there is no evidence that Noah ever prayed for anyone else, let alone tried to reach out to them or save them.
So Noah’s punishment, like that of the Ancient Mariner, was to be the only survivor. And to have nothing left except his story of the rain. As soon as the flood was over, he became redundant. He got drunk and fell asleep. He had done the only thing he could do — survive. But he failed to save anyone outside his immediate family.
Who is the bigger hero — the person who survives or the one who saves others? The last person left standing alone in his ark, or the one who reaches out through the murky waters and connects with others?
And who is luckier? The person who narrowly cheats death over and over again? Or the person who lives his or her life without needing an overt miracle?