Cycle of Life: Natural Disasters (Part 3)

Posted by Ann Rabinowitz
Often, it is helpful to research natural disasters in our ancestors' shtetls or countries they originated in. These things put the cycle of life in perspective and explain why families may have left a shtetl or why certain stories may have been passed down the generations regarding these matters. I have chosen to extract a number of various disasters which are taken from The Jewish Chronicle, published in London, England. Dates of the issues of the paper are found in parentheses. The names of shtetls are given as they were in the article and not as they appear today.

This is the third part of a series.

Part 1 is available by clicking here. Part 2 is available by clicking here.

Earthquakes are covered, sometimes in great detail, along with subscriptions for funds to help the hapless victims of this disaster. Due to the inability to predict the occurrences of earthquakes and the lack of architecturally designed structures built to withstand such incidents, these incidents very often were tragic in the extreme.

Several mentions of earthquakes in various locales are as follows:

Cap Haitien, Haiti (December 9, 1842). It was reported that the earthquake of May 7, 1842 in Cap Haitien, Haiti, had caused much damage. The French consul, Monsieur Frederic Theodore Cerfbeer, an Israelite, born October 27, 1786 in Strasbourg, died on October 22, 1842 on the ship taking him from New York to Le Harve. He died of injuries sustained during the earthquake and of grief over the death of his only daughter who was killed in the earthquake and buried in the ruins. Cerfbeer was descended from an ancient and prominent Alsatian Jewish family, who had participated in the Grand Sanhedrin of Napoleon in 1807.

Earthquake at Cap Haitien, Haiti, 1842
(Courtesy Amis et Passionnes du Pere-Lachais)

Lisbon, Portugal, November 1, 1755 (May 30, 1856). During the great Lisbon earthquake, said to be of an 8.5 magnitude, a story was sent about regarding a pregnant Jewish woman fled to what she thought was safety from the earthquake. She ended up being buried in the ruins. Help came and although, at first, she was thought to be dead, she was rescued and her son was born soon afterwards (Note, it does not state that he was actually born in Lisbon). He was named M. Furtado and later became the Mayor of Bordeaux, France, and made great contributions to his community.

Lisbon During the 1755 Earthquake
(The Jan T. Kozak Collection)

As an aside, the following site which contains information on the Grand Sanhedrin of Napoleon to which Abraham Furtado belonged. It states that Abraham Furtado was born July 30, 1756, in London, which is a while after the earthquake. He was the son of marranos, Elie and Hana Pinto Vega. He served as assistant to the Mayor of Bordeaux not as Mayor of Bordeaux.

Further, the Jewish Encyclopedia states that his father was killed in the earthquake and that his mother escaped to London and then went onto Bayonne and thence to Bordeaux where her son was educated.

Abraham Furtado

In an additional mention of the earthquake (April 7, 1882), it was stated that a number of Jews fled from the Lisbon earthquake where they became some of the early settlers in Newport, Rhode Island. Their names can be found in the records of the historic Truro Synagogue.

During this earthquake, a building which housed the Inquisition was destroyed. It was later replaced. Of further interest, it was mentioned that in May, 1768, King Jose of Portugal "ordered all former registers of taxes and copies thereof, in which the names of the New Christians were recorded to be destroyed." Further, on May 25, 1768, all distinctions between Old and New Christians ceased.

Broussa, Turkey
, February 28, 1855/April 11, 1855 (June 8, 1855). The town which sat at the foot of Mt. Olympus and was famous for its silks, was the recipient of two major shocks which killed 54 Jews of that community who numbered approximately 2,000 souls. The total population was 73,000, and most of their homes and businesses were destroyed.

Safet, Israel
, 1837 (October 14, 1859). It was noted that Nissim Serachja Asulai (the son of Chaim Josef David Asulai of Hebron, who died in Livorno in 1807) was killed in the earthquake of 1837 in Safet.

In addition, Safet had a long history of earthquakes which was related by a Mordechai Segal of Poland. He said that 100 years previous, during an earthquake, 200 died and 12 synagogues were destroyed. In the 1837 earthquake, 1,500 Jews were buried alive.

Despite this loss, by 1859, there were 2,100 Jews (800 Sephardim and 1,300 Ashkenazim) in Safet. Of these, there were 400 from Galicia and Hungary and 900 from Russia. In the village of Perkyin, nearby to Safet, there was a community of 50 Sephardim who worked the land and raised cattle quite successfully.

This information was actually originally taken from a book entitled “The Jews of the East, Volume 2” by Ludwig August Frankl (1810-1894), Austrian poet and writer, and Patrick Beaton, published in 1859.

Beyrout, Syria
, 1859 (June 10, 1859). Along the course of the Jordan River in the neighborhood of the Dead Sea, there were frequent and regular tremblings.

San Francisco, California
, October 8, 1865 (December 22, 1865). Mentioned was an earthquake (6.3 magnitude) that caused considerable damage, but no loss of life. The Jewish community lost two of its four synagogues, Emanu-El and Sherith Israel. The house of the Cemetery of Giboth Olam was damaged.

Many places were found in the Chronicle to have repeated earthquakes over time such as Safet and Smyrna. I did not mention the earthquakes of the islands in the Caribbean as they were quite frequent during the 1700's and 1800's and have been covered in many other resources.


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