People's Stories

Everyone on the Lusitania's last voyage, including passengers and crew.

Judka Blankman

Judka Blankman

About Judka

Judka Blankman was born in Tsarist Russia in 1878.

At some time after that, he had emigrated to the United States of America, probably in pursuit of employment and settled in New York City, New York.  In the spring of 1915, however, he decided to return home - perhaps for patriotic reasons because of the poor showing of the Russian Imperial forces against the forces of The Central Powers in late 1914 and early 1915!  As a result, he booked third class passage on the Lusitania from New York to Liverpool, on the first stage of his journey home.

He boarded the liner on the morning of 1st May 1915 at the Cunard berth at Pier 54 in New York but had to wait until the early afternoon for the liner to set sail.  This was because she had to embark passengers, crew and cargo from the Anchor Liner Cameronia, which had been requisitioned by the British Admiralty for war service as a troop ship, at the end of April.  Then just six out of New York, on the afternoon of 7th May, the Lusitania was torpedoed and sunk by the German submarine U-20, within sight of the coast of southern Ireland and only hours away from her Liverpool destination.

Judka Blankman was one of 29 out of 69 Russian nationals on board to survive the sinking and having been rescued from the sea, he was landed at Queenstown.  Judka Blankman spent a week in hospital, receiving treatment for injuries to his back and hand, before making his way to London, where he received a passport and money from the Russian consul to enable him to continue on his journey home.

Judka Blankman eventually reached Petrograd, now renamed St. Petersburg, where he gave an interview to a local newspaper.  An English translation from the original Russian makes his statement difficult to read, but despite this, it is still a very comprehensive and graphic account, and gives an eyewitness account of the brave actions of the American billionaire, Alfred Vanderbilt, who lost his life in the sinking.

He stated that he had been asleep in his cabin when he felt the explosion from the torpedo: -

“… It was dark in the cabin.  I rushed to the electric button, but the bulb did not light.  Hundreds of people could be heard whistling, screaming, tramping on me. Crying of women and children mixed with the roar of sirens.  I realized that something terrible had happened.  I rushed headlong to the deck.  With difficulty I managed to open the door, which was littered with some debris.

“I felt the ship was heeling.  On deck, at this time, something indescribable was happening.  The bright sun lit up the steamer and about a thousand crazy people, flinging from one side to the other.  The crew, apparently, was lost, despite the fact that the captain stood on the bridge and until the last minute gave his commands in an imperious voice.  The confusion of the public and some confusion of the crew, it seems to me, played a fatal role in the vain death of hundreds of people.  The passengers rushed to the lifeboats.  But the boats were not lowered in two blocks, but only one was untied, and the boats along with the people went down in the water vertically.  People fell into the sea, and the boats, stumbling on them, broke the unfortunate heads.

“Holding four belts in my hand, and stood at the stern and did not know what to decide.  I remembered at that moment how, after the death of the Titanic, the newspapers pointed out that in the case of a shipwreck it is necessary to keep the presence of the spirit to the end and to rush from the steamer into the water possibly further from the side.  I remembered this instruction very well.

“I swim perfectly.  And so, putting on a rescue belt, I offered three others to some family.  Around me stood a young American from 1 class.

“He comforted many, calmed, trying to encourage everyone.  And then later in the hospital, when I saw the portrait of the billionaire, Vanderbilt, I recognized this young man.  The figure and his face are still standing before my eyes.  Vanderbilt gave his life-belt.  I remember how he threw himself into the water, but what I did not know about him afterwards.

“At this time, everyone thought only of themselves.

“Meanwhile, the “Lusitania” sank more and more.  Suddenly, the second terrible explosion of steam boilers was heard.  Pipe, pieces of iron flew into the air, everything was covered in smoke.  At that moment, closing my eyes, I threw my head down into the water.  I had a life belt on me.  I understood everything perfectly and remember everything to the smallest detail.

“I will never forget the sensation that I experienced when I could not get out of the abyss.  All my attempts to raise my head from the water were in vain.  Each time my head struck against the sharp ends of iron, logs and boats.  Apparently, I fell into the wreckage of the deceased “Lusitania” and for a long time could not get out from under them.

“How much time I was under the water I cannot say.  It seemed to me that it had been an eternity.  When I found myself on the surface of the water, the Lusitania disappeared, and around me hundreds of people swam in vast expanses, and the sea shook the souls with tearing cries.

“In the upper pocket of my waistcoat I found the watch.  It did not stop and continued to tick.  The belt held me on the water perfectly, so that my body was almost half above the water level.  I noticed a stick and, holding on to it, swam, clearing my way among the wreckage.  In the distance, about thirty versts, the vague outlines of the coasts of England (sic.) were visible.

A “verst” is a Russian unit of distance equal to a little over a kilometre, or about two thirds of a mile.  Obviously it was the southern coast of Ireland he could see, and not England!

Continuing, Judka Blankman describes his time immersed in the ocean: -.

“The sun was warming with might and main, and in the water it was terribly cold.  Ahead of me, I noticed a group of people at 15, who struggled out of the force near a boat, covered with a tarpaulin.  When they finally managed to climb onto the boat, it turned over and the unhappy people fell into the water again.  There were women who held children against their breasts.

“I will not forget one picture.  Some gentleman sailed next to me, holding a son in his arms.  The boy was stiff with cold, his father was exhausted.  For several minutes he managed to arrange his son on the wreckage of the ship, but as soon as he breathed, the boy again fell down from the wreckage.  I saw bloody foam appear from the mouth of the unfortunate child.  The boy was all wounded.  Soon he fainted and turned blue.  The father was mad.  Having climbed to some great piece of wood with difficulty, he took his son in his arms, held him for several seconds and then, with wild laughter, tossed him away into the sea and, bared his teeth at me, he began to laugh with an insane laugh.

… “A woman with swirly hair, all naked, was standing in a boat and hitting everyone who tried to climb into her hideout.  From this boat wild curses rushed.  What a huge difference in the attitude of passengers between themselves at the time of the disaster and subsequently in the water!  I tried to be on the side-lines of these groups of crazy people who clung to each other, fought, grabbed one another, got out of the way and eventually died.  Little by little I felt I was coming to an end.  My strength is exhausted.

“I could not swim anymore.  Somehow, the stick I picked up was in my teeth.  I tried to get rid of it, but I could not open my jaw, it was definitely frozen.  Then hallucinations began.  It seemed to me that before me I saw a sailing schooner, and people waving at it.  Then another picture appeared before my eyes.  Some gardens glimmered, some people, then everything disappeared and I do not remember anything else.

“I woke up, but not for long in the fishing boat.  I remember that I was given a cigarette and that I was covered with some kind of lady’s jacket.  Then I forgot myself again and came to my senses at the hospital.

He was aged 37 years at the time of the sinking and it is likely that his surname was an anglicised version of his original name.

Cunard Records, Liverpool Record Office, Graham Maddocks, Geoff Whitfield, Michael Poirier, Jim Kalafus, Cliff Barry, Paul Latimer, Norman Gray.

Copyright © Peter Kelly

Judka Blankman



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