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Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Titanic History Preserved Through Letter Writing

This week commemorates 100 years since the sinking of the Titanic on April 15, 1912. The story of the tragic voyage has continued to capture people’s imaginations all around the world.

“I spent the rest of the summer writing to them and trying to find out how they came to be on the ship, how they got off the ship, and what’s happened to them after that.”
– Edward Kamuda, founder of the Titanic Historical Society

This spotlight on the Titanic brings back memories for history buff Edward Kamuda, who runs the Titanic Historical Society out of the back of a stationery store in a quiet neighborhood in Springfield, Massachusetts.

Book Ignites Boyhood Interest

Kamuda’s interest was sparked decades ago when as a boy, he read a short story called “A Great Ship Goes Down.”

Then he saw the 1952 film, “Titanic,” at the movie theater his family ran. Two years later, his father booked the film “A Night To Remember,” and the then-teenaged Edward Kamuda got his hands on a press packet for it. Kamuda told Here & Now‘s Lynn Menegon that inside the folder were the names and addresses of Titanic survivors who were still alive.

“I spent the rest of the summer writing to them and trying to find out how they came to be on the ship, how they got off the ship, and what’s happened to them after that,” he said. “Just about all of them replied to me.”

Kamuda says he started the Titanic Historical Society in 1963 after learning that one survivor’s personal effects were thrown in the city dump after his death, because he had no immediate family.

“I was aghast at that,” Kamuda said. “I said, my gosh, they’re throwing away history.”

So he wrote to the Titanic survivors telling them that he was going to form an organization to preserve their stories and history.

The last letter to Edward Kamuda, from Titanic lookout crewman Frederick Fleet. (Titanic Historical Society)

Frederick Fleet

One of the many letters Kamuda has kept is one from Frederick Fleet, the crew member on the Titanic who spotted the iceberg.

Fleet, who survived the sinking and later went on to work aboard Titanic’s sister ship, sent Kamuda a sketch of what the iceberg first looked like, illustrating how it towered above the ship.

Frank Goldsmith

Kamuda says it was difficult for many Titanic survivors to speak about the event.

“A lot of them kept it very quiet, they didn’t want to talk about it – it was a horrible, horrible experience,” he said.

Frank Goldsmith was seven or eight years old at the time of the sinking, and told Kamuda that baseball games were hard for him to take.

“He said every time he’d go to a ball game and somebody would hit a home run,” Kamuda said. “That roar from the crowd reminded him so vividly of that night and the people screaming in the water.” Goldsmith lost his father on board the ship.

Gurshon Cohen

Gus "The Cat" Cohen's letters from on board the Titanic rescue ship the Carpathia. (Titanic Historical Society)

Kamuda says his favorite survivor is Gurshon Cohen, called “Gus the Cat” for his uncanny track record of survival.

“Gus certainly had nine lives,” Kamuda says. Cohen, according to Kamuda, was 17 years old when he left England to find work in America. He had originally booked passage on a different ship, but was transferred to the Titanic.

Cohen survived the sinking of the Titanic by sliding down the ropes that were lowering the lifeboats. He was wearing a pair of gloves his mother had given him before he left England, which saved his hands from being torn apart by rope burn.

Cohen got into a life boat and was saved. He eventually went back to England to fight during World War I.

“He was on sentry duty one night, and he was shot through the head by the enemy, and he lost the sight of his left eye, but he says, “I survived”,” said Kamuda. Years later Cohen went off the wrong end of a train and hit his head on the rails below, and he survived that. He also opened up a haberdashery shop in London, and dodged a bomb one day.

“One customer was so grateful at the deal he got him, he said ‘I’m going to treat you to lunch, Gus,’ and Gus never passed up a free lunch, so he locked his shop, they were walking down the street, and then he heard a familiar sound of a buzz bomb coming overhead,” said Kamuda. “Guess whose store was blown to bits? Gus Cohen, the cat lived on.”

When Cohen eventually passed away, it was due to old age.

James Cameron’s ‘Titanic’

Director James Cameron hired Kamuda as a consultant on his 1997 blockbuster film “Titanic,” and in return he was given a cameo role in the film.

“It’s just after Jack teaches Rose how to spit like a man,” said Kamuda. “And they meet up with Molly Brown, and she invites him to her cabin to get him some proper clothes to wear for the big dinner, and we come walking by.”

Kamuda says it was quite thrilling to see himself on the big screen.

“We did the scene eight times,” he said. “Because Kathy Bates kept on cracking jokes and breaking everybody up.”

Guest:

  • Edward Kamuda, founder and president of the Titanic Historical Society

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