Orphans Of The Titanic

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The Titanic survivors staggered down the gangplank of the Carpathia, chilled from the cold and numbed from the sinking of the “unsinkable.” Among the crowd on the New York docks were children reuniting — hopefully — with mothers and fathers. Somewhere in the crowd were these two little boys: the “Orphans of the Titanic.” They were alone. They spoke no English. At ages 4 and 2, they could hardly have known where they were or what was happening to them.

Margaret Hays, a Titanic passenger, realized they were speaking a childish French, and the story of Michel Navratil Jr. and his brother, Edmond, emerged. Their parents in France were separated. Michel Sr. had taken the boys to England and boarded the Titanic to sail to a new life in America. When the great ship struck the iceberg, Michel put his sons in collapsible lifeboat D. His last words were, “Tell your mother that I love her deeply.” He went down with the ship; his body was picked up by the rescue ship Mackay-Bennett. (Years later, Michel visited the grave of his father, who was buried with other Titanic victims in Nova Scotia.)

Hays took the boys to her New York home. They were eventually reunited with their mother, Marcelle.

Edmond, the child standing at right, died in 1953 at age 43, having become an architect. Michel Jr. became a philosophy professor and lived to 92. His daughter, Elisabeth, wrote a book, Les Enfants du Titanic (the English title is Survivors), about her father’s experiences.

To the young Michel, the Titanic “was a magnificent ship. … We played on the forward deck. … The sea was stunning. … My feeling was one of total and utter well-being.”

As for the disaster, he later said, “I don’t recall being afraid. … I remember going ‘plop’ into the lifeboat. … We ended up next to the daughter of an American banker, who managed to save her dog.”

This article originally appeared in the June 2018 issue.