Jonas L. Brandeis (J.L. Brandeis) and his wife arrived in Omaha in 1881 to find better opportunities, embracing what was then Omaha’s official slogan: “Grow With Growing Omaha.” When he first came to the United States, he settled in Manitowoc, Wisconsin where he got married and had three sons. J. L. Brandeis opened his first store in Omaha at 506 South Thirteenth Street called The Fair. He brought innovations like lighted display windows, pictures in newspaper ads, and released a dozen balloons with a coupon for a free suit inside on Saturday nights while giving his time and money to many Omaha charities.
When he retired, his three sons took over the business splitting up duties. Hugo Brandeis was in charge of merchandising. Personally trained by J.L. Brandeis, he had a reputation for employee welfare regardless of what title they held. Emil Brandeis watched over store expansion and often represented the family at civic events. Arthur Brandeis, the oldest son, served as company president. When J. L. Brandeis died in 1903, the continued success of the company seemed guaranteed.
It was. The brothers bought property on the south side of Douglas Street for their store and had four stories constructed. It became one of the most successful department stores in the Midwest. Then, tragedy struck the three brothers. Emil Brandeis (Brandeis) drowned when the Titanic sunk in 1912 at age 48. On July 22, 1912, Hugo Brandeis died of complications from bowel obstruction surgery performed at Wise Memorial Hospital. Arthur died on June 10, 1916, a week after having appendicitis surgery. Emil Brandeis’ death was Omaha’s most recognizable connection to the Titanic tragedy.
Brandeis was born to J.L. Brandeis in Manitowoc, Wisconsin on March 15, 1864. He graduated from grammar school at twelve years old and joined his father’s store. He never married, and lived at the Kennard Apartments on 18th and Dodge Street.
Every year, Brandeis traveled to Europe. He left Omaha late on January 17, 1912, to visit his niece, Mrs. Ruth Stern, in Italy. Along with Stern’s husband, they travelled to Spain, Egypt, and Rome. Brandeis altered his plans to return to the United States early so that he could sail on the Titanic. It was the world’s largest ship at 882 1/2 feet long, oozing luxury with chandeliers, palm trees, a miniature golf, and swimming pools. He boarded the Titanic at Cherbourg, France, as a first class passenger who occupied cabin B10 that cost $4,350.
He met two of his friends, Henry B. Harris and his wife Irene Harris, who occupied cabin C83. They enjoyed dinner together that fateful Sunday night, playing a card game. Everything seemed right with the world.
It was not. On Sunday, April 14, 1912, at 11:40 pm, the Titanic smashed into an iceberg. The Harris’ and Brandeis rushed to the top deck. Officers told them that the accident was not serious and to go back to their rooms. When it became apparent that the unsinkable ship was going to sink to the bottom of the ocean, they tried to escape on the last lifeboat. The ship had enough lifeboats for 1,178 people, while there were 2,207 on the ship.
Brandeis insisted that Harris accompany his wife because she had a broken arm. The crew informed them that the women first rule prevailed and sailed away. As the boat sailed away at 2:05 a.m., the remaining 1,500 valiantly stood on deck awaiting their fate. Brandeis said, “It is the end of us.” After the ship sunk, a witness saw Brandeis remerge at the water’s surface four times before succumbing to the ocean. The Californian, a boat with the capacity to hold all the boats occupants, stood 10 miles unsure of the full extent of the Titanic’s damage.
The Brandeises Give Time, to Community-Boosting Projects” (14 October 1951), Omaha World-Herald, pg. 95.
Frank Santiago, “The Brandeis Story” (10 April 1974), Omaha World-Herald, pg. 17.
“Hugo Brandeis Ends Battle for Life at Hospital” (22 July 1912) Omaha World-Herald, pg. 3.
“In Civic Affairs Today” (14 October 1951), Omaha World-Herald, pg. 95.
“Hugo Brandeis is Dead” (25 July 1912), Alliance Herald (Alliance, Nebraska), pg. 4.
“Mr. Emil Franklin Brandeis” (6 September 2019), Encyclopedia Titanica,
“Out of the Past” (25 April 1933), Omaha World-Herald, pg. 9.
Steve Greskowiak, “Manitowoc Citizens Survived Sinking of Liner ‘Titanic’” (17 July 1976), Manitowoc Herald-Times (Manitowoc, Wisconsin), pg. 16.
“Mr. Henry Burkhardt Haris” (2019), Encyclopedia Titanica,
“Emil Brandeis Dies Bravely; Last Seen on Titanic’s Deck” (20 April 1912), Omaha Daily Bee, pg. 2.
“Mr. Emil Franklin Brandeis.”
“Describes Brandeis Death in Atlantic” (31 January 1927), Daily Nonpareil (Council Bluffs, IA), pg. 7
“Titanic Facts” (6 September 2019), Titanic Facts, http://www.titanic-facts.com/, accessed on 9 September 2019.