The story of Titanic survivors Leah and ‘Filly’ Aks


When Titanic departed on its first and last voyage from Southampton, England on Wednesday, April 10, 1912, 18-year-old Jewish immigrant Leah Aks and her 10-month-old son, Philip were on board.

Passover had concluded the day before. On sailing day, Leah was pleased to find that the third class was not completely booked; she and Philip had a cabin all to themselves.

Leah was born in Warsaw, Poland. In London, she had met Sam Aks, a tailor who was also from Warsaw. They were married there.

“In London he was barely making a living,” wrote Valery Bazarov, historian for the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, in a piece about the family for HIAS. “A cousin who lived in America visited him in London and told him that if he came to America he’d make money very quickly. So he came over, got a job and soon saved enough money to bring Mrs. Aks and the baby over.”

Sam settled in Norfolk, Va. and entered the scrap metal business. In Titanic: Women and Children First, author Judith B. Geller indicates that all the money Sam earned was used for Leah and “Filly’s” trip to join him. Their arrival in Norfolk would mark the first time Sam would meet his son.

Though Leah and Filly were booked onto an earlier ship, Bazarov explained that Leah’s mother convinced her to wait a week and travel on Titanic, considered the world’s safest liner.

Four days into their journey, after the ship struck an iceberg, Leah and Filly followed other third-class passengers to the bottom of the third-class staircase at the rear of the ship.

At 12:30 p.m., the crew permitted women and children in this group to make their way to the boat deck. When crew members saw that Leah and Filly couldn’t get through the crowd up the stairs, they carried the two. Leah and Filly made it to the boat deck, part of the first-class area of the ship. Madeline Astor, the young wife of millionaire John Jacob Astor, covered Filly’s head with her silk scarf.

According to Bazarov, a distraught man—who had been rebuffed by the crew when he attempted to get into a lifeboat—ran up to Leah and said, “I’ll show you women and children first!”

The man grabbed Filly and threw him overboard.

Leah searched the deck until someone urged or pushed her into lifeboat 13. She sat in the middle of the Atlantic with 63 others in number 13, a broken woman. Hours after Titanic went down and the cries for help from those dying in the water faded away, the liner Carpathia arrived at daybreak.

Leah searched the deck of Carpathia in vain for her baby. Despondent, she took to a mattress for two days. Titanic survivor Selena Cook urged Leah to come up on deck for air. When she did, she heard Filly’s cry.

Unknown to Leah, Filly had fallen into lifeboat number 11, right into another woman’s arms. In Geller’s account, the woman is presumed to have been Italian immigrant Argene del Carlo. Her husband was not permitted to follow the pregnant Argene into the lifeboat.

“Argene shared her warmth with Filly through the long night,” Geller writes. “Toward morning she began to believe that God had sent this child to her as a replacement for Sebastino (her husband) and a brother for the child she carried in her womb.”

On the deck of Carpathia, the woman who had cared for Filly since Titanic sank refused to give Leah the child.

Leah appealed to the Carpathia’s captain, Arthur Roston, now put in the role of King Solomon.

In an e-mail interview with The Observer, Gilbert Binder, the husband of Leah’s late granddaughter, Rebecca, described what happened next.

Binder said that Filly was returned to Leah because “she identified him as a Jewish baby and he was circumcised. The (other) woman was Catholic and Italian and her male child would not have been circumcised.”

After their arrival in New York, Leah and Filly were taken to HIAS’ shelter and remained there until Frank could come for them.

“Leah Aks gave birth to a baby girl nine months after arriving in this country and intended to name her Sara Carpathia,” in honor of the rescue ship, Binder explained. “The nuns at the hospital in Norfolk, Va. got confused and named the baby Sara Titanic Aks. I have a copy of her birth certificate.” Sara was Binder’s mother-in-law.

Leah lived until 1967; her son, Filly, until 1991.


Marshall Weiss is the editor and publisher of The Dayton Jewish Observer.

Listen, will you?


You are driving, looking for an address, when your wife tells you to ask someone. You refuse, but you finally make it to your destination — two hours late. Are you familiar with this scenario?

When it happened to me, we were going to our first Shabbaton in Pennsylvania, got lost somewhere in Cherry Hill, N.J., and barely made it to the hotel before Shabbat.

It seems like an international rule. Men don’t ask for directions. Now we have been saved by the all-knowing GPS. The only problem is, when it starts giving you directions, for God’s sake, you realize it’s a woman’s voice.

In “You Just Don’t Understand” (William Morrow, 1990), Georgetown linguistics professor Deborah Tannen’s essential guide to the different ways men and women communicate, she analyzes the case of a woman who was recovering from surgery at a hospital. She kept complaining and asked to be moved to her home. But after a while she told her husband that she was not comfortable there either and was still suffering. Her husband suggested she should return to the hospital, and to his great shock, she burst into tears, accusing him of not loving her and wanting her out of the house.

What happened here?

The ailing woman wanted her husband to empathize with her, not offer solutions. Tannen explains that when women are faced with a problem, they first seek understanding and compassion, to know that the other side commiserates with them and listens to them. But men equate the inability to solve a problem with weakness, so when men are in the same situation they feel that they must solve the problem.

This communication gap is demonstrated very sharply in this week’s parsha. When Rachel, Jacob’s beloved wife, sees that her adversary Leah keeps delivering one child after another, she turns to him with an impossible request: “Grant me children or I will die.” The enraged and perplexed Jacob answers: “Can I replace God? He is the one who prevented you from having children.”

Rachel then goes on to offer him her maidservant as a surrogate mother and the issue seems to have been settled, but the sages of the Midrash don’t let Jacob off the hook that easily. They read into that conversation much more than meets the eye. Jacob, they say, was punished for his behavior by the sibling rivalry that tore his family apart and eventually humbled his children from Leah, as they had to bow down to Rachel’s own son, Joseph.

Let us reconstruct the full exchange.

Before Rachel comes to speak to her husband, she is engulfed in feelings of sadness and frustration. She has no children, whereas Leah, the once rejected wife, now has a seat of honor as the mother of Jacob’s growing family. She feels estranged and alienated. She doesn’t see in her husband’s eyes the same sparkle that was there before. She then tries to convey her emotional turmoil to him. If I have no children, she says, I am dead. She either threatens to commit suicide or she is saying that she is as good as dead, without her husband’s love and outdone by Leah.

What Jacob should have said was something like, “I know how you feel.” Sure, she would retaliate with: “No you don’t. You have your children, and you’re not a woman so you will never know what it means to be barren.” But to that he could have answered: “You are right, but I remember how my mother’s eyes would fill with tears when she spoke about her sterility.”

Then he could have segued into her thoughts on what should be done, and she would probably say that he should pray for her, spend more time with her, or (as she eventually did) consider adoption or a surrogacy.

Instead, Jacob got angry.

Angry? With your beloved wife? A woman in distress?

Yes, because he felt threatened.

Here is a problem he cannot solve; a baby he cannot deliver. And he answers accordingly: “This is not my role; it is God’s role.” And as if this was not enough, he adds: “He has not granted you children.”

Now, Jacob might have emphasized the word He to indicate that it is God’s responsibility and not his. But Rachel hears the emphasis on you, and understands that he is not concerned because he has his own kids, it is you — Rachel — who has a problem.

What a terrible misunderstanding and miscommunication. And what an important lesson to all of us, especially men, to be better listeners and to try first to understand our conversational partner and only then offer, if applicable, a solution.

Haim Ovadia is the rabbi of Congregation Magen David of Beverly Hills (magendavid.org), a Sephardic Orthodox synagogue. You can reach him via e-mail at hovadia@gmail.com.

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