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Remembering the Pikesville girl who survived a German torpedoing

Joan Hecht was 9 years old when she was among the survivors of the German torpedoing of the British liner Athenia on Sept. 4, 1939, off the coast of Scotland.
Joan Hecht was 9 years old when she was among the survivors of the German torpedoing of the British liner Athenia on Sept. 4, 1939, off the coast of Scotland. (Baltimore Sun)

As the world careened toward a second world war, the SS Athenia, of the Donaldson Atlantic Line, an affiliate of Cunard-White Star, sailed from Liverpool two days after the German Army invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939.

On Sept. 3, the Athenia was bound for Montreal with 1,100 passengers, including 500 Jewish refugees and 311 Americans, among which were six from Baltimore and Maryland. At 7:30 p.m, the passenger ship was torpedoed, 200 miles off the Hebrides by a German U-boat that mistook the liner for an armed merchant cruiser.

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It was the first British vessel to be sunk in World War II.

Traveling with her governess Jean McVittie of Govans was 9-year-old Joan Hecht, a fifth-grade Park School student and Pikesville resident who was the great-great-granddaughter of Samuel Hecht, founder of the department store that bore his name. She was the daughter of Julien Hecht, president of the Triangle Sign Co., and his wife, Ruth Gerstley Hecht.

British merchant steamship Athenia, with 1,400 passengers aboard, was sunk off the Hebrides on Sept. 4, 1939. The vessel, bound for Montreal from Glasgow, was 526 feet long and was built in 1923 in Glasgow. (AP file photo)
British merchant steamship Athenia, with 1,400 passengers aboard, was sunk off the Hebrides on Sept. 4, 1939. The vessel, bound for Montreal from Glasgow, was 526 feet long and was built in 1923 in Glasgow. (AP file photo) (Baltimore Sun)

She climbed down a rope ladder from the sinking liner, and when she was near the bottom, it broke, skinning her knees and spraining an ankle as she plunged into the cold Atlantic waters. A sailor pulled her and her doll, Pedro, which she had not lost in her fall, into the lifeboat.

The castoffs, including McVittie, drifted for 11 hours before being picked up at dawn by the HMS Escort, a destroyer, which landed them at Greenock, Scotland. Some 118 souls had perished in the incident.

The SS City of Flint, a Baltimore freighter, had heard the Athenia’s desperate cries for help and rushed to its side, rescuing more than 200, whom it landed in Nova Scotia.

Arriving in New York on Sept. 27 aboard the Ward Line’s SS Orizaba, the young Hecht was reunited with her anxious parents.

Joan Hecht, 9, of Pikesville is shown here with her father, Julien. She was among the survivors of the sinking of the liner Athenia by a German torpedo on Sept. 4, 1939. (Sun file photo)
Joan Hecht, 9, of Pikesville is shown here with her father, Julien. She was among the survivors of the sinking of the liner Athenia by a German torpedo on Sept. 4, 1939. (Sun file photo) (Baltimore Sun)

“I was in my stateroom when I heard the explosion; I knew the damn Huns — but Daddy mustn’t know that I said that — had gotten us,” she told an Associated Press reporter.

She married M. Philip Lorber, a lawyer, and lived in Germany and Westport, Connecticut. She died in 2009.

In 2017, what was thought to be the Athenia was discovered 650 feet down, resting on the seabed off the coast of Ireland by David Mearns, an experienced shipwreck hunter.

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