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100 years later, memories from the Titanic

Friday, April 13, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT

SEDALIA — Pearl Leemhuis, 81, of Sedalia, said she couldn't be more proud of her mother, Bertha Lehmann.

Lehmann was one of the 705 passengers who survived the sinking of the Titanic on April 15, 1912.

She was raised in Bern, Switzerland, and worked as a waitress. Though she was only 17 years old, she wanted to come to America to live with her sister in Iowa.

Lehmann's account of her travels and recollections of the ship's sinking have been preserved in journals and other writings.

Recalling her fateful journey, she wrote: "When my sister and brother-in-law left for America, I had to find where that country was. To me, the ocean was only a big lake and nothing to be afraid of. I made up my mind as soon as I was able to go where they were, I would go, too."

She was supposed to go in May 1912, but she decided to surprise her sister with an earlier trip.

According to George Behe's book "On Board RMS Titanic: Memories of the Maiden Voyage," Lehmann's father, Johann Lehmann-Kupferschmied, walked her to the train station on April 8, 1912. He said, "Bertha, every time you come along with me, I have some sort of bad luck, and I feel now like something is going to happen to you."

She reassured her father that she would be OK. He kissed her and said, "I suppose I will never see you again." He didn't.

She took multiple trains to Cherbourgh, France. She had no idea she had been selected to board the Titanic.

"It was not long when people looked north pointing to a boat, a giant," Lehmann wrote. "I saw a lot of hotels in Switzerland, but that had them all beat. All fear was gone and I could live five to six days like a princess. I was just happy, even if I was all by myself."

She was a second-class passenger and had a starboard cabin on D, E or F deck. She didn't speak any English, only German and French.

From the moment she got on board, she became seasick. She spent the first few days in her cabin. When she began to feel better, she decided to eat in the dining saloon. That's where she met Michel Navratil and his two young sons, Edmond and Michel, ages 2 and 3.

"He talked French to them and I could understand them, but did not let on I could," she wrote.

When he later discovered she spoke French, he asked if she'd watch his sons, so he could play a quick game of cards. She agreed to do so. She had no idea he had kidnapped the boys from his estranged wife just days earlier.

The day the ship met its fate, Lehmann recalled eating fish for dinner and going to the library to write letters to family and friends on Titanic stationary.

"After all, that was the biggest, most beautiful and best of all unsinkable boat made, and I was on that boat," she wrote.

That night, April 14, Lehmann read until she fell asleep.

"It seemed all at once that I was on a train and it was grinding to a very sudden stop. The first thing that entered into my mind was that we were in New York. I sat up first and then got out of bed and walked over to the lounge that was right under the porthole and looked out. It seemed that there were lights outside. I think now it must have been either the stars or else the reflection of the lights of the Titanic on the iceberg we hit.

"I heard the two ladies come into their room that was right next to me. Their voices sounded as though they were very excited. Although I couldn't understand a word they were saying I knew something had happened. They left their cabin and then I thought that I really should get dressed and find out the reason for stopping in the middle of the night because I knew then we were no longer moving," Lehmann wrote.

She got dressed and went outside to the deck. She met Roger Bricoux, a French cellist in the Titanic orchestra. He told her to get her coat and to come right back. When she returned, he helped put a life belt on her and led her to another deck.

"As I was standing there waiting for my turn to get into the lifeboat, I could see and hear women crying and hanging on the arms of their loved ones. There were some ladies there that did not want to go because their husbands could not go. Then came my turn.

"The lifeboats had been lowered to the deck level. I was taken out there and then, as I stepped into the lifeboat ... I fell. I thought for a moment that I was going to fall right into the water, but I hit the bottom of the boat. I don't remember if I was hurt or not. I guess I forgot about it in the excitement. I was not frightened or excited at first at all. I suppose the only reason I wasn't was that I did not realize what had happened."

Getting the lifeboat lowered into the water was a challenge in itself. The passengers had to scramble to the higher sides of the boat to keep it from tipping over. The few men aboard were in charge of rowing the boat away.

Lehmann wrote, "We were not very far from the boat and could still hear people crying and yelling to one another. All at once there were three loud reports. They sounded something like a very loud crash of thunder when it strikes very close to you. We all looked at the Titanic. It had broken apart. The front part of the boat went under first. The helm of the front half sank and then the middle.

"The last part of the boat was still above water. The broken part of the last half sank slowly into the water and then the stern. That was the last of the ship that could not sink. The work of many men destroyed along with the lives of 1,600 men, women and children."

"All was silent for a while and then the people that went under from the suction of the boat came up again. And of course those that had life belts stayed up. We could hear them yelling and screaming for help. As we rowed farther and farther away, the cries were lost in the distance between us and the boat."

Lehmann said it was the longest night of her life. As they were rowing, they caught up to a capsized lifeboat with three men hanging on to it. They picked them up in their crowded boat. The people aboard lifeboat No. 12 were the last to arrive to the Carpathia, a passenger liner that was sent to pick up survivors. It was 8:30 a.m. April 15. This ship arrived in New York on April 18.

"That is my story and I can assure you that I never want to experience anything like it again," Lehmann wrote.

She finally made it to Central City, Iowa, with only the clothes on her back. In 1913, she married John Zimmermann, who was killed in World War I. In 1917, she married Carl Luhrs. They were farmers who lived in North Dakota and Minnesota. Lehmann had six children, Leemhuis being the youngest.

Leemhuis said her mother never really talked about being on the Titanic. She did tell her children the hardest part was hearing the people in the water scream and yell.

"She was real easygoing, easy to know, busy all the time," Leemhuis said.

Leemhuis surprised her mother in September 1959 with a plane ticket to Bern so she could visit her sister, Ida. That was the first and only time she returned to Switzerland after coming to the United States.

"She was happy, very happy," Leemhuis said.

Lehmann died Dec. 5, 1967, at the age of 72.

On the 100th anniversary of the ship's sinking, Leemhuis, her son, Jim Leemhuis, of Smithton, and his family will be guests of honor at Titanic Museum Attractions event "A Night to Remember: An Original Musical Tribute to Titanic" in Branson. The program will include musical performances, historic ceremonies and appearances by descendants of Titanic passengers and crew.

"There's a lot of stuff going on about the Titanic. For people to know that there still is someone around that had a relative on it, I think it should be interesting," Leemhuis said. "She would've loved it. I just wish she was here to see it."

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