By John Welshman
At the time of the collision, Hanna Touma was standing in the doorway of the family’s cabin. She was talking to one of the other migrants from her village. It was just a jolt, but it made the door slam shut, cutting her index finger. Two of the men went to find out what had happened while Hanna went to the Infirmary to get her hand bandaged. Everyone she passed wondered what had caused the jolt and why the ship had stopped. The people looked worried, but Hanna could not understand what they said. The men returned and said the ship had struck an iceberg. They were told to stay in their cabins, to remain calm, and pray. The time was 11.40pm, the day Sunday, the date 14 April 1912.
It was four days earlier, on the evening of Wednesday 10 April, that the family had joined the ship at Cherbourg. They had been waiting in a hotel in the French port for six days. While the Titanic had been undergoing its sea trials, Hanna and the children had been travelling to Beirut, in the Lebanon, thousands of miles to the East. Hanna Youssef Razi was born in the tiny village of Tibnin on 10 April 1885 and her future husband Darwis Touma in 1870. They had got married in 1899. Hanna had been 14, Darwis 29. The couple had two children: Maria (born in October 1902) and Georges (born in February 1904).
Working in the onion fields, Darwis had saved a little money to pay for a passage to America. His brother Abraham had gone with him. They settled in the small town of Dowagiac, Michigan. Their plan, like that of most migrants, was to earn enough to send for their families to join them. Darwis had little success in this and seven years passed. He couldn’t save as he had been sending Hanna a little money from time to time. Abraham, on the other hand, had saved enough since he had no dependants to support. He sent his sister-in-law enough money for the trip, along with a piece of paper which said ‘Dowagiac, Michigan’. His intention was to surprise his brother.
Hanna treasured this piece of paper. Even though she had no idea where this place was, it was where her husband lived and that was where she was going. Hanna and the children travelled from Tibnin to Beirut by camel caravan. The days were long and exhausting, the nights short, and they did not have enough sleep or rest. The caravan company supplied the tents that they slept in and the food which they ate: yoghurt, cheese, and olives stuffed in pitta bread, spiced with onions and garlic. While this was a typical Arab meal, washed down with homemade wine, Hanna was a Christian. About a dozen other families accompanied the Touma family. Since the villagers brought their own musical instruments with them, the evenings were enjoyable. They had homemade flutes made from hollow pipes, and small hand drums covered with goat skins. Everyone, children and adults, danced in a circle with the men spinning their handkerchiefs high in the air.
When Hanna and the children reached Beirut, they left the camel caravan behind and took a freighter to Marseilles. On the voyage, the food was poor and the cabin cramped. It took five days. The migrants boarded a train in France and on the three-day journey to Cherbourg the children ran through all the carriages to see if there were any other children on the train besides the ones travelling with the villagers. Maria and Georges found that the other children spoke differently and they could not understand them, but they found ways to amuse themselves.
Half an hour after the collision, Hanna took Georges by the hand and headed for the top deck. She instructed Georges to stay put. She had to return for Maria, and the precious piece of paper that stated where her husband lived. She quickly helped Maria into her coat, grabbed her money and the slip of paper, and raced down the passageway that led out of Third Class. They climbed up from deck to deck, stopping only to grab three lifejackets, and they found Georges just where Hanna had left him. He related in tears how some of the people wanted to put him in a lifeboat, but he would not go without his mother.
When the Engelhardt C collapsible boat was lowered, the rowing started at once. The rowers then stopped, and the passengers could see the ship very clearly, badly down by the bow. It was freezing cold and the view was something Hanna would never forget. The enormity of the ship looked unreal, with hundreds of portholes all lit up and slowly being extinguished one by one. The cries of the people in the water soon stopped and it became very quiet. The sky was black with millions of stars all the way into the distance where the sky and waterline became one. It was so black you couldn’t see who else was in the lifeboat. They were all in a state of shock.
Although all the lights seemed to be on, suddenly they all went out and a loud explosion was heard. The tail end of the ship aimed straight up towards the stars. It stayed that way for several minutes. Then another slight noise was heard, it very slowly began to go lower, and then completely disappeared. Hanna covered Georges and Maria with her cloak so that they could not see. She cried for her fellow villagers: Fatima Mousselmani; the farm labourers Mustafa Nasr Alma, Raihed Razi, Amin Saad, Khalil Saad, and Assad Torfa; and Yousif Ahmed Wazli, a farmer.
Hanna and the other survivors were rescued by the Carpathia. Georges Touma was placed in a sack and pulled up on deck. After arriving in New York and having lost everything other than a few documents and mementos, St Vincent’s Hospital helped Hanna and the children. Meanwhile in Dowagiac, Abraham was shocked at the news of the disaster. How was he to tell his brother that his wife and children had been on the Titanic and now were gone? When he told Darwis, the two cried in sadness and rage, both devastated. Five days later, on Saturday 20 April, they received a telegram from a priest who spoke Arabic. He had a message for someone in Dowagiac that his wife and children had been saved. The little piece of paper had enabled Hanna to find her husband.
While the Touma family were reunited, Fatima Mousselmani was the only other survivor of the Tibnin villagers. The stories of the Titanic’s Third Class passengers are some of the most poignant. Unlike the Astors, the Guggenheims, the Thayers, and the Wideners, very little is known about their lives and it is only because of the Titanic that they have gained a place in history.
John Welshman is Senior Lecturer in the Department of History at Lancaster University. He is the author or editor of six books on twentieth-century British social history, including Churchill’s Children: The Evacuee Experience in Wartime Britain. He is also the author of Titanic: The Last Night of a Small Town (Oxford University Press, 2012). Read John Welshman’s previous posts: “One Voyage, Two Thousand Stories,” “Fellowes and the Titanic,” “Everyday people aboard the Titanic,” “Images from the Titanic Disaster” and “Tales of the Titanic Disaster,” and “Titanic Street.”