Leah Aks and Celiney Yasbeck shared many things in common. They both came to America as young immigrants and settled in the Norfolk area. They both were married in their mid-teens. And they both survived the sinking of the Titanic.
When the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the RMS Titanic was remembered in April, it was an international event.
“The Titanic is one of those stories that the public seems to latch onto. I think part of our fascination with it is because of all of the hype about the launch and it being unsinkable. Then on the maiden voyage to have it end as tragically as it did,” said Armalita Holley with the Mariner’s Museum. She organized the museum’s Titanic Day in April.
While the last survivor of the disaster died in 1997, survivors’ families are still alive to remember their relatives and what they went through on the night April 14, 1912. Members of Aks’ and Yasbeck’s families also still live in the area near the ocean that nearly ended their lives before they began.
“When people find out that my great-grandmother was on the Titanic, they sometimes ask, ‘Did she survive?’ I just look at them and say, ‘If she didn’t, I wouldn’t be here,” said Lisa Barr of Norfolk. She is also the great-granddaughter of Leah Aks.
For Barr and her siblings, the Titanic was more than just a film that made Leonardo diCaprio a star or a dramatic story, it is part of their family history.
Leah and Phillip Aks
Leah Aks wasn’t supposed to be on the Titanic. Leah and her 10-month-old son, Phillip, whom everyone called “Filly,” had planned to sail for the U.S. on an earlier ship to be reunited with Sam Aks, Leah’s husband.
“Her mother convinced her to wait and travel on the Titanic because she believed it would be safer,” said Gilbert Binder who married Aks’ granddaughter, Roberta Binder.
Aks, who was 18 at the time, and Filly shared a cabin with another third-class for the journey. She went to bed on April 14, but was awakened by an unusual noise. Though she didn’t know what it was, she trusted her intuition that something wasn’t right, according to Barr, grabbed up her son and headed for the deck.
She and Filly had only their nightclothes on as they stepped out of the cabin and into the passageway. The confusion was just beginning. The hall was dark with few lights on but Aks could feel cold water around her feet.
The water told her that there was a huge problem and she headed for the upper decks where the lifeboats were located. The closer she got to the stairs, though, the more crowded things the narrow hall got. The crew had closed and locked gates across the stairwells because there weren’t enough lifeboats for everyone and first- and second-class passengers had priority.
People began to yell and jostle each other. Some fights broke out. At some point, some of the men in the hall realized that a young mother was also trapped among them.
“She was literally lifted hand over head by the men who passed her forward and up and over the gate since she was small enough to fit through,” Barr said.
On deck, things were just as confusing as below decks. People were pushing each other trying to get into life boats, music was playing, orders were being shouted and shots were fired. As one version of events goes, Aks found herself next to Madeline Astor, wife of multi-millionaire John Jacob Astor.
Astor, who was pregnant herself, saw Aks and Filly. The wealthy woman removed her shawl and wrapped it around Filly.
“Your baby looks cold,” Astor said. “He needs this more than me.”
A short time later, a man who was upset because he wasn’t allowed onto a lifeboat, ran up to Aks, and said, “I’ll show you women and children first!” He then grabbed Filly and threw him overboard, according to historian Valery Bazarov in an article she wrote for the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.
Binder said Aks fainted when she saw her son apparently die. When she regained consciousness, she found herself pushed into a lifeboat that was about to be lowered.
Barely more than 700 people survived to be rescued. The other 1,514 people on board the Titanic went down with the ship. That Aks had beaten the odds didn’t matter to her because she believed Filly dead.
Once her lifeboat was rescued by the Carpathia, Aks lay down on a mattress in a state of shock. She remained this way for a couple days, rising only to use the bathroom or eat a little. Finally, a companion persuaded her to walk on deck for some fresh air. Aks did so and walked around in a daze until she heard a baby cry. She recognized the baby’s voice as Filly’s. Aks searched around frantically until she saw he son, still in Mrs. Astor’s shawl, being held by another woman.
Aks rushed forward, thanking the woman and telling her that the baby was her son. The woman, whose name was Argene del Carlo, wouldn’t give up the baby, though, and to make matters worse, she couldn’t speak English.
Aks sought out the help of Captain Arthur Roston of the Carpathia. Aks told him that she could prove that she was Filly’s mother. She showed the captain that she was still lactating while the other woman was not. Then she told Roston that she and Filly were Jewish and if he looked, he would see that Filly had been circumcised. The Italian woman was obviously Catholic since she wore a large gold cross around her neck and would not have had her son circumcised.
Convinced, Roston told del Carlo that she would have to give the baby up because he was Aks’ son.
“The Italian woman was really very nice,” Binder said. “Her husband hadn’t been allowed to get onto the lifeboats and she had been praying to God while the boat had been lowered. Then she looked up and saw this white thing falling toward her. She caught it and it turned out to be a baby. She took it as a sign from God that the baby was hers.”
In 1912, Celiney Decker was known as Selini Yasbeck, a 15-year-old Lebanese newlywed. She and her husband boarded the Titanic in France. They had been married less than two months. The Yasbecks were traveling with a group of friends to America where her husband, Antoni, had a business in Pennsylvania.
When the Titanic struck the iceberg during the night of April 14, impact woke Yasbeck. She and her husband dressed and went up on deck to see what was going on.
“Everyone seemed to shout and dance and the band played music,” Yasbeck said in an interview in the Virginian-Pilot in 1951. “People seemed to sing and laugh at first.”
People weren’t frightened that the ship had hit an iceberg because the Titanic was unsinkable. That festive atmosphere changed soon enough as the ship took on more water and the deck began flooding.
Yasbeck got into a boat. Her husband also tried to get on the boat, but he was forced away at gunpoint, according to Bob Decker, Yasbeck’s son who lives in Purcellville. This is because women and children were only being allowed on the life boats given how few spaces there were. As the life boat was lowered into the Atlantic Ocean, Yasbeck lost sight of her husband and would never regain it.
Even as her lifeboat floated away from the sinking ship, Yasbeck said she could still hear music playing mixed with the screams of people who knew they were going to die.
“She lost everything except the clothes on her back,” Decker said.
Life Goes On
Sam Aks drove to New York to be reunited with his family when he learned they were among the survivors. This must have been a tough time, knowing the Titanic had sunk with hundreds of people on board without knowing who the survivors were.
“With the Marconi radio on board, people in the United States heard the distress signal before the Titanic even sank,” Holley said.
Sam Aks was one of the lucky few who were able to reunite with family who had survived the sinking. According to Binder, “Sam must have been very happy to see her (Leah) because my mother in law was born nine months later.”
Sara Carpathia Aks was born in St. Vincent de Paul Hospital in Norfolk on March 12, 1913. Leah had made herself a promise that she would name her next child after the ship that rescued her and Filly. Because she was a Titanic survivor, Aks was a local celebrity and the Catholic sisters were excited to have her as a patient, but they misunderstood what Aks told them Sara’s full name was. Instead of Carpathia, they wrote Sara Titanic Aks.
Sara went through life not knowing she was named after the doomed ship. She thought her middle name was Carpathia because that is what her mother had told her. It wasn’t until Sara applied for a passport in her fifties that she discovered her real middle name.
When she found out the truth, she was fit to be tied.
“If you put Titanic on my tombstone, I’ll haunt you for the rest of your life,” Sara warned Binder.
He didn’t want to chance it. When his mother-in-law died in 2001, the family made sure to put “Sara C. Weinraub” on the grave marker.
While Aks didn’t talk about her experience on the Titanic much, her grandchildren made use of it.
“Her grandchildren all worked their way through high school writing about it,” said Binder. “Anything with Titanic on it got a good grade.”
As Filly Aks grew up, he seemed to enjoy his celebrity associated with the Titanic, according to Barr, although he had no memories of the events. This is probably why he could enjoy it.
Relatives drove to New York to get Yasbeck once they realized she had survived the sinking of the Titanic. She married Elias Decker, another Lebanese immigrant who had known her in Lebanon, in 1915, and they moved to Norfolk. The Deckers had 12 children together, nine of whom lived to adulthood.
“We heard about the Titanic, but we never thought much about it and she didn’t want to talk about it anyway,” said Decker. “The thing we all regretted was that we never asked more about it.”
One of the ways that Decker said his mother’s experience affected her was that she never went back on the water although they lived in Norfolk.
“We would go out fishing on a boat and she would worry to death until we came home,” Decker said.
Though their cabins had been close to each other on the Titanic and they both lived in Norfolk only a few blocks from each other, Yasbeck and Aks didn’t meet until 1951.
Yasbeck died in 1966 at age 69. Aks passed away in 1967 at age 72. Filly died in 1991 at age 80. The Aks were buried in the family plot in the Forest Lawn Cemetery in Norfolk and the Yasbeck was buried in St. Mary’s Cemetery in Norfolk.
“From my point of view, we grew up knowing we were survivors. That’s what we learned my great-grandmother’s story,” Barr said.