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At Halifax’s Jewish cemetery, a Titanic section

At the completed Titanic section in Baron de Hirsch Cemetery in Halifax, Nova Scotia, November 1912 (L to R): Frank Fitzgerald, a man believed to be Rabbi Jacob Walter, and Fred Bishop, who was responsible for ordering, cutting, and engraving stone, per a contract with the White Star Line. (Russ Lownds via the John P. Eaton/Charles A. Haas Titanic Photograph Archive)

By Marshall Weiss, The Dayton Jewish Observer

No one knows for certain how many Jewish passengers were on board Titanic, let alone how many of them died. Of the more than 1,500 people who went down with Titanic, ships later recovered only 340 bodies. A review of the list of passengers and crew indicates 89 common Jewish surnames.

The White Star Line chartered three ships from Halifax, Nova Scotia and contracted almost every available embalmer in Nova Scotia to recover and embalm the remaining bodies.

At a makeshift morgue set up in the Mayflower Curling Rink in Halifax, family members or representatives on their behalf came to collect the remains that could be identified. Bodies that were neither identified nor claimed would be buried in Halifax.

Ultimately, 10 bodies were buried in a special Titanic plot at Halifax’s Jewish cemetery, the Baron de Hirsch Cemetery. All were male; only three were identified.

The story of how these bodies came to be buried there began on the evening of May 2, 1912. By then, the makeshift morgue had the first 59 bodies ready for burial at Fairview Cemetery, a nonsectarian cemetery. The funeral was to take place the following morning.

As John Eaton and Charles Haas document in Titanic: Triumph and Tragedy, late on the night of May 2, Rabbi Jacob Walter went to the curling rink, inspected as many coffins as he was able, and decided that eight victims had been Jewish. He had their coffins separated for interment at de Hirsch.

The rabbi continued his work the next day, bringing his tally of Jewish bodies to 18. “During the memorial service in town, (Walter) had gone to Fairview Cemetery, where the caskets were arriving from the Mayflower Rink for interment, opened the caskets, satisfied himself that 10 contained victims of the Jewish faith, and directed the undertaker’s team and several leading citizens of Halifax’s Jewish community to take them to the adjacent Baron de Hirsch cemetery.”

Eighteen bodies, presumed to be Jewish, were then at Baron de Hirsch; members of the Nova Scotia Jewish community hastily prepared to dig graves and inter the remains properly before the Sabbath would begin that evening.

When the funeral service began at Fairview, those present realized 10 coffins were missing.

Authorities then prohibited the Jewish community from burying the second set of remains Walter had identified but did allow the burial of the first eight at de Hirsch. Authorities also granted two more burial permits for “Hebrew” victims on May 4.

Walter was allowed to inspect all other bodies at the morgue. He declared there were 44 Jewish bodies in all. But his skills at determining who was Jewish weren’t always reliable.

One victim buried at de Hirsch was a Catholic, Michel Navratil, who traveled under the name “Hoffman.” The White Star Line determined that four of the deceased Walter had identified as Jews were also Catholics; others bodies had been claimed by family members.

In the end, the 10 bodies in question — which had been in the de Hirsch receiving vault since the day they were almost buried — were returned to the curling rink.

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