The Story of Shaanineh Abi-Saab
When 38-year-old Shaanineh, my great grandfather’s cousin, boarded the RMS Titanic in Cherbourg on April 10, 1912, the dusk was just settling in and the lights of the great ship were blazing under the fading sun. Was she, a poor immigrant from Lebanon traveling as a third class passenger, awe-stricken at the first sight of the mammoth vessel? Or was she merely relieved after a strenuous journey to have finally reached the famed liner, which would transport her to her final destination in Youngstown, Ohio? Perhaps both.
After leaving her native village in Northern Lebanon a month earlier, traveling on a donkey for a few days before reaching the port of Beirut, then sailing from Beirut to Marseille, followed by a train ride to Gare St. Lazare in Paris before taking another six hour train ride to Cherbourg, Shaanineh was undoubtedly worn out. The rigor of the trip to reach the Titanic, paled in comparison with the unspeakable loss she had faced in Lebanon: the death of her beloved 17-year-old son Tannus (Thomas). And, as if her pain and loss were not cruel enough, Shaanineh’s fortitude would soon be tested in an unimaginable way on the maiden voyage of the unsinkable ship, the RMS Titanic. Little did she know when she embarked on that fateful journey, accompanied by her four male cousins, including Gerios Youssef Abi-Saab, my great grandfather, that she would never see them again.
Shaanineh Abi-Saab was born on Sunday March 29, 1872 in Thoum, a small village in Northern Lebanon, dotted with almond and fig trees and overlooking the Mediterranean. She was the youngest of seven children, her distinctive Arabic name denoting the fact that she was born on a widely celebrated and holy day in Lebanon: Palm Sunday. At the tender age of 15, Shaanineh married Jirjis Yusuf Wehbeh, a man twice her age from the neighboring village of Fghal, who was an olive and fig farmer. The couple shared a modest house with Shaanineh’s older sister Duna who was conveniently married to Jirjis’ brother.
Together they had five children: Yusuf (Joseph) born when Shaanineh was 17 years old, Tannus (Thomas) born four years later, followed by Wehbeh (Albert), Rose and Mary. As the household of both families living under the same roof grew, so did the space constraints. Shaanineh and her husband longed to build their own house but resources were scarce. Born in the unfortunate position, dowry-wise, of being the youngest, there was no money left for Shaanineh. Always resourceful, she convinced her reluctant spouse that their dream to own land and build a house could become a reality if she traveled to America, a country where she had heard “the streets were paved in gold”.
Shaanineh left Lebanon in 1906, bound for Youngstown, Ohio where her brother Joseph Thomas Abi-Saab and relatives already lived. She was accompanied by her two children: Tannus and Rose. Upon her arrival in Youngstown, this hard-working woman wasted no time and promptly started peddling goods from door to door, similarly to what many of her compatriots did at the time. Back home, Jirjis Yusuf Wehbeh, grappled with the loneliness engendered by his wife and children‘s departure, compounded perhaps by feelings of inadequacy classically felt by a man unable to sufficiently provide for his family. He became depressed and suffered from an asthma exacerbation, leading to his untimely death in 1907.
Shaanineh, now a widow, undoubtedly found solace knowing that Mary and Joseph, respectively the youngest and oldest of her children would soon join her in Youngstown, Ohio. Albert would eventually reunite with his mother and siblings a few years later. In 1910, Shaanineh’ strength would be tested again when her son Tannus became quite ill. Heeding the advice of a local doctor, she decided to send him with his brother Joseph back to Lebanon, where he could benefit from the more clement weather. Back in the old country and perhaps basking in the glory of the Levantine sun and gentle Mediterranean breeze, Tannus’ health began to improve. Clearly feeling better and energized by the joyful atmosphere of a Lebanese wedding, Tannus danced the night away, celebrating his youth and newfound vitality. Alas, Shaanineh would soon learn that her 17-year-old son’s condition deteriorated and that he developed pneumonia.
After entrusting the care of her two daughters, 9-year-old Rose and 6-year-old Mary to the Youngstown’s Christ Mission, Shaanineh left on a 30-day journey back to Lebanon. As fate would have it, her cherished son Tannus, died ten days before her arrival.
The loss of a child is not part of the natural order of life. How did this inconceivable tragedy impact the 38-year-old mother and single parent? In a testament to her resilience, Shaanineh remained in Lebanon for another year to get the family affairs in order while working to save enough money for her return voyage to Youngstown.
And so began the story of her journey on the RMS Titanic.
In April 1912, after an arduous trip via Beirut, Marseille and Paris, Shaanineh finally arrived in Cherbourg and boarded the Titanic with her four male cousins: Gerios Youssef Abi-Saab, Tannous Daher, Hanna Tannous Mouawad and his son Tannous and a 12 year old relative of one of her cousins, Banoura Ayoub.
Shaanineh occupied a cabin in steerage along with approximately 165 other Lebanese immigrants bound for America. She would later comment that the Titanic’s third class accommodations were far more luxurious than anything she had experienced before. The sky was blue, the winds light and the ocean calm. Fooled by the seeming tranquility of Mother Nature, the RMS Titanic glided across the North Atlantic, oblivious to the treacherous presence of icebergs. Just before midnight on Sunday April 14, 1912, Shawneene was asleep when suddenly, the mighty Titanic crashed into a mountain-sized iceberg. She jumped and ran out of bed wearing only her nightgown.
In her own words, when interviewed 25 years later by The Sharon Herald, in Sharon, Pennsylvania, Shaanineh recalls:
“ Men, women and children were storming the hallways. I remembered my three cousins who were on the boat too. I ran to their room. They were gone. In the hallway was a 14-year-old girl, Banoura Ayoub, a relative of one of my cousins. I grabbed her and pulled her with me.
“We were all ordered to put on life preservers. The sailors and men passengers pushed and pulled us up to the deck. Lifeboats were being lowered when we arrived there. I saw George Joseph, one of my cousins. He pushed me toward one of the lifeboats. Sailors armed with revolvers, drove the men away from the boats shouting “Women and children first”. They shot into the air to frighten the men. Banoura and I were placed in the next to the last lifeboat to be lowered from the ship. When it was being lowered, frightened women, fearing it would capsize jumped from it.”
In a twist of fate, Shaanineh was being lowered into Collapsible C along with 32 other frightened passengers, including Bruce Ismay, the Chairman of White Star Line, who reportedly jumped in at the last minute and was maligned for the rest of his life.
After the sailors pulled the lifeboat about half a mile away from the Titanic, they stopped rowing. ” The oarsmen laid on their oars and all in the lifeboat were motionless as we watched her in absolute silence. Save some who would not look and buried their heads in each other’s shoulders” recounted Lawrence Beesley, a Titanic survivor. Clad only in a light nightgown and suffering from the bone-chilling cold, Shaanineh watched with great horror the ship disappear under the swirling waters.
Shortly after dawn, six hours after being exposed to the harsh elements in the midst of the vast ocean, the RMS Carpathia, finally rescued the passengers drifting in the lifeboats. Too weak to climb onto the ladders, each was pulled aboard the ship by rope and the children were drawn up in baskets. Many of the female survivors were convinced that their husbands, fathers and male relatives had been rescued by other vessels or could be aboard Carpathia. When Shaanineh finally realized that her male cousins including Gerios, my great grandfather, were not on the rescue ship, she reportedly cried: “I lost four of my men folks”.
Shaanineh also recalled the hysterical sobbing of a Lebanese woman holding her infant daughter in her arms sitting next to her on the lifeboat. The woman had lost her five-year-old son. She was wailing: “Wynak Tuma, ya Habibi?” (Where are you Tommy, my beloved?). Several hours after being hauled on board and given clothing, Shaanineh saw a nurse carrying a child wrapped in a blanket. She recognized little Tuma and brought him to his grief-stricken mother. Shaanineh told the Sharon Herald: “The reunion was a sight I will never forget.”
Upon arrival in New York City, Shaanineh and Banoura were cared for by a benevolent Jewish society. The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) provided the two shaken women with food, clothing and shelter. Shaanineh was also given 50$ to purchase her train ticket to Youngstown. She arrived at the Erie Street railroad station at 4pm on April 23, 1912. Crowds of people were gathered to catch a glimpse of the first Titanic survivor to reach Youngstown. Barely waiting for the train to come to a halt, Shaanineh leaped onto the platform as soon as she saw her daughter Rose. She rushed towards her with a wailing cry, her arms flung upwards and threw herself at her young child.
Leila Salloum Elias writes in her meticulous and exhaustive book “The Dream and Then the Nightmare”:
“Strong men wept as they saw the mother clasp her little daughter to her breast. The cries and lamentations of the Syrian women who had come to meet her were intermingled with the joy that she had survived. They began to moan, all of them, crying and beating their breasts, as only women who have suffered can.”
The White Star Line paid Shaanineh 150$ for her lost belongings. In addition, she received 200$ from the American Red Cross. She went by the name of Jennie George, taking her husband’s first name as her last name. She tirelessly continued to labor by peddling and doing domestic work in order to support her family. She later moved to Sharon, Pennsylvania where her family opened a grocery store. Her children Rose and Albert launched the Thomas Ice Cream Cone Company, which later became renowned as the Joy Cone Company of Hermitage, Pennsylvania. Today, the Joy Cone Company is the largest ice cream cone company in the world, baking over 1.5 billion cones/year.
Shaanineh never forgot that tragic night on the Titanic. Her family tells the story that her hair, which was jet-black, turned completely white one year after the disaster. She often spoke of her cousins who perished and in an effort to honor their memory, she wrote a letter to the Arabic newspaper Al-Huda on April 27, 1912, confirming their deaths and correcting their names, which helped clarify the reigning confusion. Shaanineh never imagined she would take another trip across the ocean after her harrowing experience but she did. She returned to her native village of Thoum in January 1923.
After all she endured, I cannot help but wonder how she felt when she first caught sight of her old house. As she walked past the ancient olive trees, did she reminisce about the golden summer days, when she would sit with her husband sipping bitter Turkish coffee under the overgrown vines, watching the kids boisterously playing in the garden and picking figs from the orchard? As she stepped into her home, she was surely overcome with a flood of emotions conjuring vivid images. Did she feel sheltered within the stone walls of her home in Lebanon, a reminder of the sweet distant past colliding with the dreadful events of the night of April 15, 1912?
Shaanineh faced countless hardships in her life. She lost her husband, her son, her cousins aboard the Titanic and later on her sisters, her two brothers during World War I and her brother Joseph Abi-Saab Thomas who lived in Pennsylvania. She showed great courage, strength and dignity when faced with such inconceivable adversities. Hers is the story of a remarkable Lebanese woman who endured life with great fortitude by virtue of her unabated faith and unwavering devotion to her family.
Shaanineh Abi-Saab, also known as Jennie George, died on April 20, 1947 in Sharon, Pennsylvania at the age of 73. She lived her life as she intended when she first left her native village in Lebanon. Through her self-sacrifice and hard work, she fulfilled her dream of providing a better life for her children. Her descendants can be proud.
As a woman, mother and sharer of a common ancestry, Shaanineh embodies in my mind the unsung heroes and the plight of all the Lebanese immigrants since the dawn of time.
And for that, she is a lot more than just “A Titanic Survivor”.
1- The Dream and Then the Nightmare-The Syrians who boarded the Titanic, by Leila Salloum Elias
2- Ohio Tales of the Titanic, by Janet A. White and Mary Ann Whitley
3- From Mt. Lebanon to the Sea of Darkness, by John G. Moses