Story of Titanics kosher food service lost with the ship

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

One of them was 30-year-old Charles Kennell, among the nearly 700 crew members to die that night. He was the ship’s “Hebrew cook,” in charge of Titanic’s kosher food service.

Midway through the great wave of Eastern European Jewish immigration to America that brought 2 million Jews to the United States between 1881 and 1924, major passenger lines crossing the Atlantic began instituting kosher food service for their Jewish passengers, mainly immigrants in third-class steerage.

The White Star and Cunard lines, as well as the German lines, all had kosher facilities by the time Titanic sailed. But historians who explore and preserve the body of knowledge about Titanic know little about kosher food and Jewish life aboard the ill-fated liner.

Some of the 27 Jewish Titanic survivors who received HIAS assistance in New York photo/hias photo collection at yivo

“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.”

Haas and colleague John Eaton are the authors of five books on Titanic, including the meticulous “Titanic: Triumph and Tragedy,” just released in an expanded third edition.

The two will be among the guest lecturers on an 11-day Titanic memorial cruise that departs Sunday, April 8 from Southampton, the English port city from which Titanic embarked, and ends in New York.

The earliest reference Haas has found about kosher service on an ocean liner dates to June 1904, when the Trenton Times reported that “American Line officials arranged another innovation in the form of special kosher cooks for the Jews. The English will have their meals served separately and their cabins will also be separate from those of the Jews.” The ship was the S.S. Philadelphia.

One of the big names in shipbuilding at that time, Haas said, was Albert Ballin, chairman of the Hamburg-American Line. In 1905, Ballin, who was Jewish, decided to place separate kosher facilities on all of his steamships between New York and Bremen.

According to a contemporary news article about the Hamburg-American line, the addition of kosher service was “in accordance with a request from a number of representative Jewish organizations.”

Valery Bazarov, director of family history and location services for the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, said that HIAS, which continues to help resettle Jewish refugees to the United States, established a kosher kitchen at Ellis Island in 1911.

Jewish steerage passengers on Titanic were primarily refugees from Eastern Europe. Why would they stop over in England first? Many couldn’t afford nonstop passage to New York. “Even at that time, two stopovers cost less than a ‘direct flight,’ like now,” Bazarov said.

The British National Archives estimates that between 1880 and 1914, approximately 1 million Jewish transmigrants arrived at England’s eastern ports, crossed the country “quickly” and departed via England’s western ports.

Before liners offered kosher meals, Jews who kept kosher had to fend for themselves, bringing their own food. Some didn’t survive. Haas cites 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 passengers who didn’t keep kosher, food service in the old steerage system could be a vile experience.

In December 1909, the U.S. Immigration Commission reported on steerage conditions to Congress. The report described the “disgusting and demoralizing conditions of the old steerage,” in which 300 or more people would sleep in large compartments.

It was competition for steerage passengers, the 1909 report continued, that led the major lines to develop improved steerage conditions.

The “new steerage” arrangements of the White Star Line, particularly those of Olympic and Titanic, provided third-class passengers with foods they had neither seen nor could ever afford before, such as oranges, Haas said. “The White Star Line, although we tend to think of them as the steamship line of luxury, they really catered to the third class, because they made more per head on the third class tickets than they did on a first-class.”

An illustration of a portion of the third-class dining saloon on Olympic and Titanic, from a White Star Line publicity brochure. titanic international society archives

Karen Kamuda, vice president of Titanic Historical Society Inc. and Titanic Museum in Indian Orchard, Mass., explained that on Titanic, all kosher “china, stoneware and silver-plate or other serving utensils were marked in Hebrew and English either ‘meat’ or ‘milk.’ ” The same standards, she indicated, “applied for all classes, and even first-class silver-plate was marked ‘milk’ or ‘meat.’ … Rabbis regularly inspected the liners’ catering departments in both Southampton and New York.”

Eaton, Haas’ writing partner, puzzles at the scarce documentation of kosher service aboard Titanic.

“There are fundamental questions of when and who decided to hire a ‘Hebrew Cook’ for Titanic’s kitchen,” he explained in an email. “Who and when were [which] Jewish authorities called in for consultation?”

But Eaton did remember that about 20 or 25 years ago, likely at the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum in Northern Ireland, he caught a brief glimpse of a Titanic deck plan that included a space indicated by an arrow for kosher service.

“It was a small space as I recall,” he said, “scarcely large enough for a single sink or workspace. It was not the size of a full installation of ranges and sinks, by any means.”

The 1909 Immigration Commission report on steerage conditions may give an indication of the role of Titanic’s Hebrew cook.

Born in Cape Town, South Africa, Charles Kennell had already served on Titanic’s sister ship, Olympic, which took its maiden voyage in 1911. Now he came aboard the larger, more luxurious Titanic for wages of four pounds a month.

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. This particular man told me that he is a pioneer in this work. He was the first to receive such an appointment. It is his duty to see that all the Jewish passengers are assigned to sleeping quarters that are as comfortable and as good as any; to see that kosher food is provided and to prepare it. He has done duty on most of the ships of the ___ Line. On each he has instituted this system of caring for the Hebrews and then has left it to be looked after by some successor.”

This immigration agent also reported that friends and acquaintances and “various nationalities” were quartered together as much as possible, and that “the few Jewish passengers were assigned staterooms distantly removed from all others.”

Yet all of these upgraded accommodations for steerage passengers in general and Jewish immigrants in particular couldn’t substitute for the absence of commonsense safety measures on Titanic.

Speeding through a North Atlantic ice field, 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 escaped death. Most died of hypothermia in the 28-degree ocean.

The survivors arrived 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 the following day 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 Charles Kennell was ever retrieved, his remains were never identified.