Warm friendship, a brilliant mind, breadth of interests, remarkable energy, and a sense of humor even in the heart of Africa: this is how one close friend described Sarah Lavanburg Straus.
Sarah Straus was born in 1861 in New York City to Hannah (Seller) Lavanburg and Louis Lavanburg, an investment banker. She had one brother, Frederick, a merchant and philanthropist interested in housing issues. She was educated in private schools and married Oscar Solomon Straus on April 19, 1882, in New York City. Oscar Straus, born in Otterburg, Bavaria, was a jurist, diplomat, cabinet member, philanthropist, and member of the merchandising family that operated R.H. Macy & Company. They had three children: Mildred (b. 1883), Aline (b. 1889), and Roger Williams (b. 1891), who became an industrialist, communal leader, and philanthropist.
Oscar Straus was involved in his family’s business when the couple married. In 1887, he was appointed United States ambassador to Turkey, and Sarah Straus accompanied him on this overseas assignment, which lasted until 1889. Upon their return, they built a home in Manhattan, in which each of the major rooms was furnished in the style of a different Near Eastern country.
During the sojourn in Turkey, the Strauses met Baron Maurice de Hirsch, a German industrialist and philanthropist. Oscar Straus was instrumental in persuading the baron to establish the Baron de Hirsch Fund (1891), which aided Jewish immigrants relocating from Russia. Baroness Clara de Hirsch continued to support the fund after her husband’s death in 1896.
Early that year, when the baroness decided to establish a home for immigrant girls in the United States, she sought the advice of the Strauses. The baroness and the Strauses corresponded and spoke in Paris about the home. Sarah Straus investigated the existing institutions for women in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. With this report and previous correspondence in mind, in 1897 the baroness established the Clara De Hirsch Home for Working Girls. Sarah Straus was the first president, and, with the exception of the years from 1898 to 1900, when she again accompanied her husband to Turkey, she served as president until she died.
Sarah Straus took an active interest in all aspects of the home, located at 225 East 63rd Street. By 1906, the home also had a downtown facility, the Clara de Hirsch Home for Immigrant Girls. In 1915, the Immigrant Home’s operation was taken over by Sarah Straus and her brother, and incorporated as the Hannah Lavanburg Home in honor of their deceased mother.
After her husband’s death on May 3, 1926, in New York City, Sarah Straus continued a busy life of philanthropy, recreation, and travel. In 1929, she financed and accompanied a four-month expedition to central Africa for the American Museum of Natural History to obtain birds in Uganda, Kenya, and Nyasaland, from which region the museum previously had no collections. In 1934, she financed and participated in an eight-month expedition to West Africa for the Field Museum of Chicago to collect bird specimens in Senegal, French Sudan, and the Niger territory. With her musical background, she was enthusiastic about recording tribal music on these expeditions.
She served on the board of the Fred L. Lavanburg Foundation and was a member of Temple Emanu-El. Sarah Lavanburg Straus died on November 9, 1945, at her home in New York City.
AJYB 48: 500; American Hebrew (June 7, 1929): 106; American Jewess (June 1895): 148; “Mrs. Oscar Straus African Expedition.” (1929) Photograph Collection, American Museum of Natural History; Obituary. NYTimes, November 10, 1945, 15:3; Straus, Oscar S. Papers. Library of Congress; UJE.
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Siegel, Steven. "Sarah Lavanburg Straus." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 27 February 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on April 21, 2021) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/straus-sarah-lavanburg>.