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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

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Headstone now marks Titanic victim’s grave

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A monument was recently erected by the Baron de Hirsch Cemetery on the grave of Leopold Weisz, a victim of the Titanic sinking. 

MONTREAL — The Baron de Hirsch Cemetery is the final resting place for one of the 1,517 victims of the sinking of the Titanic 100 years ago this month.

Leopold Weisz, a Hungarian-born stone carver from England, has gone down in history as the 293rd body recovered from the wreck of the luxury passenger liner off the coast of Newfoundland.

A few years before, Weisz had found work in Montreal carving the friezes over the entrance of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, which was to open on Sherbrooke Street in 1912. They can still be seen on what is now the museum’s main Hornstein Pavilion.

He also was commissioned to carve the stone shields of Canada’s nine provinces on the new high-rise Dominion Express Building on St. Jacques Street West, then in the heart of the financial district. Weisz’s work still adorns the edifice.

Weisz, who was either 28 or 32 at the time of his death, depending on the source, left Hungary for England when he was 19 to study at the Bromsgrove Guild of Art in Worcestershire, according to the Encyclopedia Titanica, an online reference work with constantly updated information on the ship and its fate.

He planned to immigrate to Canada and set up a business with an Edward Wren in Montreal. Weisz returned to England to get his wife and bring her over.

Weisz bought two second-class tickets for 26 pounds for himself and his wife, the Belgian-born Mathilde Françoise Pëde, who would survive the disaster. They sailed from Southampton on April 10, 1912, the day after the end of Passover.

Montreal was in the midst of a building boom and offered the prospect of a good living for a man with his skills.

According to Encyclopedia Titanica, the couple were to have travelled earlier on another ship – first class – but because of a coal strike, they were re-directed to the Titanic, which was making its maiden voyage.

The same source also recounts that Weisz sewed his life savings, much of it in gold, into the lining of his black coat with its Astrakhan fur collar.

“On the night of the sinking, he went for a walk on deck while his wife [a Catholic] took part in the impromptu hymn sing in the second-class dining room…

“After the recital she joined her husband on deck, but the temperature had dropped to minus-one degree Celsius. They shivered, and as they headed inside, Mrs. Weisz told her husband she felt vaguely uneasy.

“‘I guess we’re in the ice,’ he replied” – which will go down as one of history’s great understatements.

They were in their cabin when they felt the first tremor at 11:40 p.m.

She managed to get onto a lifeboat to safety aboard the ship the Carpathia, which arrived in New York on April 18.

Weisz’s body was recovered by the Mackay-Bennett, one of the four ships White Star Line, owner of the Titanic, sent out. His body was transported to Montreal and buried at the Baron de Hirsch, on what is now de la Savane Street, on May 12, according to its records. He is one of six Titanic victims buried in Montreal.

His wife faced deportation back to England as an indigent in the days following the sinking until her husband’s body was found and identified, and the 56 pounds in gold and about an equal amount in notes in his coat, was returned to her.

They had no children.

The story of the Titanic casualty, who lay in obscurity at the Baron de Hirsch for decades, is also told in the 2008 book Sacred Ground on de la Savane by Danny Kucharsky, which was commissioned by the cemetery for its centenary.

For the past couple of years, the cemetery has offered walking tours of its 40 acres, and Weisz’s burial site is a point of interest.

The Baron de Hirsch’s records from the time offered little indication of the circumstances of Weisz’s demise. Kucharsky wrote that he was listed as “Leopold Weis,” a “married sculptor” who died at sea.

His burial site was recorded as the Baron de Hirsch’s Section #1 (A-5), but, as Kucharsky wrote, it was unmarked and “the exact location of his grave has not been determined.”

That has since been rectified, said the cemetery’s executive director Jay Aaron.

“When this came to our attention, it was felt that the marking of the grave was long overdue, and a headstone and footstone were purchased by the Baron de Hirsch,” he said.

“We also want people to know where Leopold Weisz lies.”

His wife, by the way, in 1914, married her late husband’s would-be business partner, Wren, and they lived in Westmount. She attained a degree of fame, not only as a Titanic survivor, but also as an amateur singer.

Kucharsky notes that a street was named for her in her native city of Ghent for her help in raising funds for Belgian charities during World War I.

She died in 1953 in Montreal at age 79 and is interred at Notre-Dame-des-Neiges Cemetery.

Mathilde’s resting place also went unmarked, until 2003, when a monument was donated by a local manufacturer and the Titanic International Society paid for the engraving.

Although the exact number of Jews who were aboard the Titanic has not been determined, Jewish Public Library archivist emeritus Eiran Harris figures there would have been many more if the ship had not been sailing so close to the end of Passover.

Otherwise, at a time of large-scale Jewish emigration, the Titanic’s third-class section would likely have carried many who would have left eastern Europe earlier to transfer in England for the voyage to America. (The Titanic’s final port was to have been New York.)

Certainly, Orthodox rabbis in the city picked up on this theme in their sermons lauding “the miracle of faith,” Harris said, which they claimed saved observant Jews from making the fatal error of travelling on the holiday.

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