It’s 1912, and Sinai and Miriam Kantor step aboard a brand new ocean liner at the port of Southampton in England. The Russian Jewish couple are bound for America, where Sinai hopes to start a career as a doctor, and Miriam plans to work as a dentist. The ship they board is the height of modern engineering and luxury. Unfortunately, it’s called the Titanic, so an extremely uncertain future lies ahead of them.
Sinai and Miriam had originally come from Vitebsk, a town in what is now Belarus. They had big hopes of the journey as they boarded the Titanic to head for New York’s Bronx borough. The two young university graduates had big plans of dedicating their lives to the caring professions.
The couple’s tickets cost them £26, which is a bit shy of $4,000 in today’s money; this bought them a berth in second class. Despite the name, second class was still quite opulent compared to other liners of the day. The interior of the ship was styled after London’s Ritz Hotel, with plenty of features, such as a pool and a gym, a squash court and a Turkish bath. The luxury could be enjoyed by more than 2,400 passengers.
At the time that the pair took their fateful trip, Sinai worked on a commission basis in selling furs. That brought in about $2,500 a year. He had a few cases packed full of furs, and his plan was to sell them in the United States so that he’d have money to further both his and Miriam’s education.
Sinai was really keen to learn medicine. His idea was to sign up for some courses at night in New York once he had gotten things going with the furs business. Meanwhile, Miriam would carry on with her study of dentistry. They were both still young: Sinai was 34 years of age and Miriam ten years younger.
But of course the couple’s dreams would not come to fruition. Four days after leaving Southampton, early in the morning of April 15, 1912, the Titanic struck an iceberg. In less than three hours, she would sink beneath the waves. When the crew realized what had happened, they started a scramble for the lifeboats.
Just past midnight, the ship’s captain called for the passengers to muster. But many weren’t all that keen, and confusion reigned. One passenger even suggested that it was safer on the ship than in a tiny lifeboat. The crew had little idea what to do, having only drilled with the lifeboats once.
However, women and kids started to pile into the lifeboats. Miriam was among them, shown onto lifeboat 12, but Sinai had to stay aboard the ship as he, and most of the other men, allowed “women and children first.” Sixty people ended up in Miriam’s lifeboat, and it would be the last to reach the ship that rescued them: the Carpathia.
One lady, J. J. Brown, whose husband owned a mine in Denver, Colorado, told The New York Times newspaper a few days later what it had been like. She said, “The whole thing was so formal that it was difficult for anyone to realize that it was a tragedy. Men and women stood in little groups and talked. Some laughed as the first boats went over the side. All the time the band was playing.”
Brown explained that two men had followed her as she’d gone from group to group of women. They had bundled her into one of the lifeboats, saying, “You are going too.” She continued, “I owe my life to them, for there were no more boats, and I would be now with these who are at the bottom, for I had gone back upstairs, you see.”
As Brown described the courtesy and formality of the men, she noted, “It was a strange sight. It all seemed like a play, like a drama that was being enacted for entertainment. It did not seem real. Men would say, ‘After you,’ as they made some woman comfortable and stepped back.” Then the men calmly went to await their fate.
Brown continued, “It was just midnight as we dropped down to the water, perhaps a minute or so after. It did not seem long before there was a great sweep of water which went over us all. A great wave rose once and then fell, and we knew that the steamer was gone. We could see as plainly as if it had been day.”
As Brown told The New York Times of her survival, the reporter saw a young woman crying. She had lost everything, including her money and, more importantly, her husband. The woman was being tended to by a Russian diplomat, summoned to the hotel by Brown, who had wanted to help her out.
Brown comforted the stricken Russian woman, who it seemed could understand words of solace in German. The two had spent seven hours together in the lifeboat, and for days afterwards, Brown had stoically cared for the other woman who had been with her. It’s not certain that this Russian woman was Miriam, but it must be likely.
In any case, Miriam would have been in exactly this position. The woman was unable to speak a single word of English and had no money at all. So she welcomed Brown’s help – and as we’ll see, there were others standing ready to help Miriam on her return to the world after the sinking.
But for Sinai, there was no help. At least 1,500 people would perish in the sinking, and Sinai was one of them. More than a week after the disaster, a cable repair ship, the Mackay-Bennett steamed into the area. Its grim task was to gather in as many of the unfortunate victims as it could.
It would take seven days for the Mackay-Bennett to complete that mission. One of those whose bodies it hauled from the freezing waters of the Atlantic was Sinai. The ship’s crew labeled him as “Body No. 283” and embalmed him. His body was returned to New York and interred at Queens’ Mount Zion cemetery.
The Mackay-Bennett’s crew had written out a docket for Sinai, which still exists. It notes that he had “very fair hair and moustache.” They found him still clothed in a suit of gray and green covering a blue shirt with a check and a singlet, a green overcoat and black boots.
The crew noted that about his person, Sinai had a couple of British pounds in currency in a purse, alongside a wallet with some foreign bills. He also had a pocket telescope and another empty purse. And also listed among his effects was a silver watch, which will prove to be important for our story.
Sinai’s widow decided that she didn’t want to go back to Russia. In the old country she wouldn’t be able to make a living. So she would stay with cousins who lived in New York City. Eventually, she moved out to live with her uncle, a Mr. Berman, who resided in Boston, Massachusetts.
Miriam’s first task was to learn to speak English. Then she would keep alive her dream of studying dentistry, so that she could in due course work as a dentist. While she was studying, she’d need $50 each month to keep her body and soul together. Luckily, there was help available.
The Red Cross came up with the money for her tuition and for fees for school and her day-to-day costs. A total of $2,600 was given to the Council of Jewish Women, which was tasked with making sure that she pursued her plan. That would cover her for four years, after which she intended to support herself.
So at least Miriam had some financial support, but New York City did not offer emotional help to get over the loss of her husband. Her stay with her uncle may have been short because it seems that she settled in the vicinity of family in Connecticut. She would marry again, but she never forgot Sinai. She made sure that fresh flowers were placed on his grave upon each anniversary of the Titanic’s sinking.
That might have been all we know about the Kantors, were it not for Sinai’s watch. It was nothing really special. It was a pocket watch that had been made in Switzerland, measuring three inches across. Made out of brass, it had silver plating, which didn’t quite survive the Atlantic unscathed.
Indeed, the silver has worn away so that the brass is now visible. The hands have fared badly for their time in the ocean. They’ve now turned mostly to dust. And the dial shows a stain that betrays the watch’s days in the water. So overall the watch is not in top shape.
Nevertheless, the designs that decorated it can still be seen. On its back, a picture of Moses getting the Ten Commandments was stamped into the metal. And on the front, there are no numerals as there would be normally on a watch. Instead, there are Hebrew letters, perhaps unsurprising given that Sinai was Jewish.
At first, Miriam had not been able to acquire the watch, or any other of Sinai’s things. She had to use the law strenuously to pursue the effects that had belonged to him. Eventually, she did succeed, though, and among a few other things, such as his passport and some currency, she gained the watch. Eventually, one of her descendants would offer it for auction in 2018.
Heritage Auctions historical consignment director Don Ackerman told U.K. newspaper Jewish News in 2018, “The sinking of the Titanic is one of the greatest tragedies of the 20th century. The family passed the watch down through generations for 106 years.”
Ackerman explained to U.K. newspaper the Daily Mail in 2018 that the watch was rather modest. He said, “It’s not an expensive watch; it’s a silver-plated brass watch. The guy probably didn’t have a whole lot of money, so it was something he could afford that cherished his Jewish identity and appealed to him.”
So the watch went up for auction in August 2018 at Heritage Auctions in Dallas. And it fetched a quite astonishing price. The small, rusty timepiece brought a top bid of $57,500. But Ackerman was unsurprised that what seemed a modest offering had brought its owner such a good return.
The auctioneer explained, “The background story to something like this adds to the value. It would be a little nicer if the hands hadn’t rusted off and you could see what time they stopped working. But sometimes the imperfections add to the value; if it was in perfect condition people would question it.”
So Ackerman felt that the combination of factors went into the outcome. He said, “It’s a piece that was aboard the ship and a documented history from the family makes this a bittersweet and really rare opportunity for collectors.” And there was a little something besides the watch that sealed the deal.
Alongside the watch were several items that helped to establish its provenance. These included documentation detailing Miriam’s fight to recover the watch and the other things that had been about Sinai’s person. This came in the form of a letter that had been preserved and formed part of the lot.
This communication came from the legal aid society, directed to the provincial secretary at Halifax, Nova Scotia. It said, “When she left her husband on the steamer he was wearing certain articles. But the body, when it arrived, had on only the underwear.” The note from the Mackay-Bennett listing Sinai’s effects was also part of the lot.
The winning bid came from John Miottel; he didn’t mind about the watch’s condition. He told Forbes magazine in August 2018, “It will take one of the primary spots in our collection.” That collection is in the Miottel Museum, a gallery that features memorabilia from luxury ocean liners. And it’s not the only watch that you’ll find there.
Among the other watches that feature in the museum is one once owned by a rather better-known passenger on the doomed liner. It’s a Waltham pocket watch, a golden treasure inscribed with the letters “J.J.A.,” that belonged to John Jacob Astor IV. Astor had founded the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel before his demise on the Titanic.
Miottel also owns the watch that was once the possession of Oscar Woody, who was a mail clerk from the U.S. also on the Titanic. He also has the watch that belonged to Harold Thomas Cottam, who had been first to hear the distress call from the Titanic when operating the wireless on the Carpathia.
And Miottel did not intend to stop at Kantor’s watch. He told Forbes, “I’ll be looking for the fifth [timepiece].” Ackerman thought that he had gotten the prize, though. He told finance magazine Barron’s in 2018, “It’s very distinctive. There are probably half a dozen pocket watches, a lot of them have sold in England, but this one is special.”
Even Astor’s watch is not the most costly piece of memorabilia from the doomed liner. That distinction goes to the violin that leader of the ship’s band Wallace Hartley played as the ship went down. The violin, gifted to Hartley by his fiancée, went at auction for $1.7 million in 2013.
More expensive still was a collection of jewelry. This brought in just shy of $2 million. The standout piece in the collection was a diamond bracelet. Jewels spelled the name “Amy” on it, but no one knows for sure who “Amy” was. If she was one of the two passengers of that name, she lost her bracelet, if not her life.