UT Associate Professor Shelley Binder will reach into her family’s history—and draw upon her own research—to teach freshmen about one of the world’s most famous disasters: the 1912 sinking of the Titanic.
Binder’s great-grandmother, Leah Aks, and her great uncle, F. Phillip “Filly” Aks, were Titantic survivors. Binder, who teaches flute in the School of Music, has become an avid researcher of the Titanic as she’s sought to learn more about her ancestors’ experience aboard the ill-fated ship.
This fall she is teaching a First–Year Studies 129 course on the topic.
“My class will be an investigation into why the story of the world’s largest and most luxurious ocean steamship—sunk on her maiden journey after hitting an iceberg—still resonates with us 105 years later,” Binder said. “The class will look at how story of the Titanic touches on the themes of class structure, immigration, globalization, the power of the press, hubris, and pride.”
Binder will share the story of how her great–grandmother, a Polish immigrant, was traveling aboard the Titantic with her 10-month-old son to join her young husband in America where they hoped to have a better life. She’ll explain how their trip turned into a survival odyssey that left emotional scars on her family members and on society.
“The oceanliner’s sinking ripped the thin veil of invincibility and hopeful innocence of this period and shook society’s unbridled enthusiasm for new technology,” Binder said.
A Family Affair
Binder grew up in Norfolk, Virginia, surrounded by extended family. Her great-grandmother Leah Aks died when Binder was 7. Her great-grandmother’s son—Binder’s great uncle Phil—died in 1991. She knew their Titanic survival story well.
“It was always a big deal to us,” she said.
When the Titantic wreckage was found in 1985, it became a big deal to the world.
She recalls how her great uncle—and, after his death, her mother and other relatives—were interviewed countless times by the media.
“For a while, I tried to keep the clippings,” Binder said. “I stopped after a while because there were so many.”
Binder admits she grew tired of the story and wasn’t too interested in learning more until several years ago when her husband, who had always been fascinated by her Titanic connection, bought her a small replica of the ship as a gift.
That sparked a desire to sort through the myriad of accounts of her family’s ordeal and to get to the truth.
For the last few years, Binder has made Titanic research her avocation. She’s read books and joined online forums for those interested in Titanic history.
Along the way, she’s had people tell her she’s lucky to have a family connection to the disaster—a comment that gives her pause.
“The Titanic experience almost made my great–grandmother have a break from reality. It jolted her mind,” Binder said. “I feel the repercussions all the way down to me. While it is interesting to have this history, when you do more than scratch the surface, it’s devastating.”
What really happened?
Through her own research and work with experts, she has come to believe the following account:
Binder’s great-grandmother Leah had emigrated from her native Poland to England, where she met and married her husband, Sam Aks, also a Polish immigrant. They married very young, probably when Leah was only 16 or 17. Their son, Phil, was born in England in June 1911.
In January 1912, Sam left for America to join relatives and build a life. He sailed on the Cymric, but Leah stayed behind because her family insisted she wait for the Titanic.
“They would only let her come over on the Titanic, which was billed as ‘the safest ship ever built.’”
Sam sent money and Leah booked third-class passage on the Titanic for herself and baby Phil. They sailed on April 10, 1912.
She imagines her great–grandmother on an emotional high—traveling on a beautiful ship to a land of opportunity. Though they were the ship’s least luxurious accommodations, Leah was probably amazed by the Titanic’s opulence, Binder said.
But four days into the trip, everything changed. The Titanic hit an iceberg and began to sink.
Leah was trapped on a lower level of the ship with no clear access to the top decks.
Binder believes the scene was chaotic, with some of the ship’s coal stokers and firemen fighting to get in front of the passengers to save themselves. Conscientious crew members likely formed a human ladder to help Leah climb to the boat deck where she had the chance to board a lifeboat.
Along the way, Madelaine Astor—wife of millionaire John Jacob Astor—gave Leah a scarf to use as a blanket to keep the baby warm. (Binder’s family has donated the scarf that Astor gave Leah to the Mariners’ Museum and Park in Newport News, Virginia.)
Somehow, mother and baby ended up on different lifeboats until they were plucked from the ocean by the crew of the Carpathia, another oceanliner.
Leah was reunited with baby Phil in the Carpathia’s hospital ward. Accounts say another woman was holding the baby and refused to surrender him until authorities intervened.
When he learned that his wife and son were alive, Sam Aks went to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society in New York to reunite with his family.
Binder said Leah suffered a mental breakdown in the aftermath of the disaster and was hospitalized for 10 months. She was compelled to leave the hospital when her second child, Sara, was born.
Sara Aks is Binder’s grandmother.
It’s been widely reported that Leah gave Sara the middle name Carpathia, in honor of the rescue ship.
Binder said her grandmother was very proud of her name. But in her later years, she was taken aback when she finally got a copy of her birth certificate and learned her legal name was “Sarah Titanic Aks.”
Binder believes nuns at the hospital made the naming error because of her great grandmother’s incoherent description of her Titanic experience due to her diminished mental state.
“I remember my grandmother getting angry about the birth certificate and saying she’d haunt us if we put Titanic on her tombstone,” Binder said.
Back to the present
Today, Binder remains fascinated her family’s story and the entire saga — the hype over the “unsinkable” ship, the rich and famous who sailed, the moral and ethical chaos that ensued during the evacuation, the recovery of the wreckage, and the history that’s been uncovered.
Binder said she plans to continue her research and, given her career in music, expand her study to learn more about the musicians who were aboard the Titanic.
“I’ve become a Titaniac,” she said. “It’s still an outrageous story. It was the 9-11 of that century.”