Oceans of Time: The Journey of the Hebrew Pocketwatch

titanicbowOver 1,500 people perished in the early-morning hours of April 15th, 1912, when the R.M.S. Titanic struck an iceberg and sank in just over two hours. There are many great tales to be told from that night, from the courage of Molly Brown to the tragic tale of how ship violinist Wallace Hartley and the other musicians played until the very end, each of them losing their lives after deciding to remain on deck and play rather than try to escape. However, for every popular story, there are hundreds that were never told and names that never made it into the history books. One such name is Sinai Kantor, and this is the tale of how a pocket-watch he owned is bringing the history of dozens of people like him up from the depths of the North Atlantic and into the light. 

1.  A Couple Filled With Hope

While there were many famous British and American passengers onboard Titanic, there were also many immigrants who bought second and third-class tickets in hopes of reaching New York and all the opportunities that awaited them.  There were many more immigrants on board than most people might be aware of, with Irish and Swedes being the greatest in number. There were also eight Chinese men aboard, and 27 Russian men and women. Among these 27 were Sinai Kantor and his wife, Miriam. They had been living in Vitebsk, Russia, but hoped to make a new life together in New York, a life that included children who would be born there.

watchSKKantor was a furrier in his native Russia but planned on studying medicine once he reached New York. His wife was interested in dentistry, and the couple carried several valuable furs with them on Titanic, which they hoped the sale of which would fund their housing and schooling once they reached their new home. The immigrant couple boarded at Hampstead and were bound for the Bronx as second-class passengers on the beautiful new ocean liner. As college-educated young adults, with Kantor at 34 and his wife at 24, they had much to look forward to. Along with several other small items, Kantor carried a beautiful pocketwatch with him. It featured Hebrew letters, not numbers, on the face and an image of Moses carrying the Ten Commandments on the back. The silver-plated watch was one of the few possessions the young man carried as Titanic carried them out into the North Atlantic.

2.  Forever Separated

When Titanic struck an iceberg at 11:40 p.m. on the night of April 14th, 1912, it is likely that the Kantors were awoken by stewards who told them to put on lifebelts and join the other passengers on the upper deck. It is also likely that unlike many immigrants on board, Kantor and his wife both spoke English, as they had been well-educated in their homeland. Not much is known about how Kantor and his wife spent their last moments together, but Miriam was put onto a lifeboat as the cry for women and children went up, leaving her husband behind. It could be that Kantor glanced at his watch at some point up on deck, wondering, like the other passengers, when help would arrive. Sadly, the rescue would come too late, and Kantor died when Titanic sank at 2:20 a.m.

3.  A Timely Legacy

MacKay-Bennett_in_Dry_Dock,_Halifax,_Nova_Scotia,_Canada,_between_1885_and_1922Once Miriam reached New York and learned of her husband’s passing, she refused to return to Russia and stayed with cousins in the Bronx so she could study dentistry like she had planned. Eight days after the sinking, Kantor’s frozen corpse was recovered by the MacKay Bennett, one of the ships assisting with body pickup in the area where Titanic had sunk. He had the silver watch on him when the body was recovered, along with several other items, but when his body arrived in New York, it was clad only in underwear. Once Miriam interred Kantor in Mt. Zion Cemetery, she went on a mission to find her husband’s belongings and have them returned to her. Finally, five weeks after the sinking, the watch and his other possessions were returned to his widow.

4.  An Auction To Remember

Sinai Kantor’s silver pocketwatch, which shows signs of age and the effects of being submerged in salt water, recently went up for auction. Documents show that descendants of the Kantor family put the watch up, and there was considerable buzz about its sale. When the auction ended, the watch’s new owner, John Miottel, said he would put it in his private museum along with other watches owned by Titanic victims, including John Jacob Astor IV, financier, and young Oscar Woody, the ship’s postal clerk.

Miottel paid $57,500 for the watch, and one can’t help but wonder what Sinai Kantor would have thought about that amount when he paid £26, which is just over $3,000 today, for he and his wife to board Titanic.

Siani and Miriam Kantor’s story are now shedding new light on the Russian Jewish immigrants who boarded Titanic. While the story is a sad one, it may open new doors for important genealogical and social research, reaffirming the importance of Titanic’s place in history.