The quake, the fire and the Jews

As night strained toward dawn, Rebecca Dulberg lay on her bed, soaked in sweat. Her labor had gone on all night long, and the contractions were coming on with cruel frequency. In the candlelight, a midwife hovered nearby. Rebecca’s husband, Bernard, a Jewish immigrant from Romania, paced about the family’s tiny South of Market apartment.

It was early Wednesday, April 18, 1906, and just as Rebecca began pushing her baby into the world, deep underground, nature was about to wreak unimaginable havoc on the city above.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, at 5:12 a.m. an earthquake estimated between 7.7 and 8.3 on the Richter scale ruptured 296 miles of the San Andreas fault, from northwest of Hollister up to Cape Mendocino. All told, more than 3,000 people died, at least 225,000 were left homeless out of a population of about 400,000, and 25,000 buildings came tumbling down. The final bill: more than a billion dollars.

The aftershocks of that event are still felt today as the Bay Area prepares to mark the centennial of the 1906 quake and fire.

The destruction of San Francisco affected all its citizens, including the nearly 30,000 Jews who lived in the city. From the humble Dulberg family south of Market to Mayor Eugene Schmitz, the Jewish community would endure great suffering, face embarrassing scandal, yet also play a major role in the region’s rebirth.

Jewish heroes from 1906 abound: the tireless medical staff of Mount Zion hospital. Temple Emanu-El Rabbi Jacob Voorsanger, who rallied world Jewry to come to the aid of San Francisco. Rep. Julius Kahn, who spearheaded the federal quake relief effort. And the Jewish bankers and businessmen who envisioned a new San Francisco and went on to build it.

There were villains, too. Within a year or so of the quake, Schmitz, his adviser Abraham Ruef and others stood trial in a corruption scandal that stank to high heaven.

But overall, the earthquake’s Jewish story parallels that of most San Franciscans then, all of whom loved the city and saw to it that she would rise again.

Immediately after the 45-second temblor, her home demolished, Dulberg panicked. She was literally giving birth as the earth shook, but the terrified midwife quickly fled the apartment. Dulberg’s husband and older daughter assisted in the delivery as best they could, while smoke and dust filled the building.

Two young men checking for survivors peered in the window and pulled the Dulbergs to safety, carrying Rebecca and her baby out on a mattress. They left the family on the sidewalk as throngs of frightened residents ran for their lives.

All over San Francisco, the devastation was beyond comprehension. Claire Brownstone, writing in the May 26, 1906 edition of Emanu-El (the precursor to j.), recalled that soon after the earthquake “a fire started at the wharf and its flames, seemingly more angry every minute, raged north and south tearing down buildings as quickly as they swept over their roofs. To think that the toil of more than 50 years should result in a sudden crash, destroying every iota of beauty which helped make San Francisco one of the most renowned places of the world!”

That included the city’s Jewish neighborhoods.

“The quake and fire profoundly changed the face of Jewish San Francisco,” says Lehrhaus Judaica founder and local historian Fred Rosenbaum. “About 5,000 Jewish immigrants were south of Market. They lived in flimsy shacks and were wiped out.”

So were many of the synagogues, most notably Emanu-El at 450 Sutter St., its twin spires among the most beautiful structures in the skyline. Emanu-El’s Voorsanger, widely known as “the bishop of the Jews,” was later seen slumped on the curb, head in hands, while behind him his once-majestic synagogue smoldered in dust, ash and rubble.

Also destroyed were the Russ Street synagogue, the New Geary Street synagogue, the Concordia Club, B’nai Brith, the plants of San Francisco’s three Jewish newspapers and most of the city’s other Jewish institutions. The home of Adolph Sutro (the city’s first Jewish mayor) burned, as did his priceless library of Jewish literature.

Three days of raging firestorms created a mass of refugees. Residents recalled the steady grinding sound of thousands of suitcases and trunks dragged up city streets as people fled westward to safety. Some recalled the unexpected aroma of roasted coffee mingled with smoke as the Jewish-owned MJB Coffee factory burned to the ground.

British journalist Charles Sedgwick, writing in his memoirs, described the scene from atop Russian Hill: “It was weirdly beautiful. A thousand banners of flame were streaming in the cloudless sky from spires and domes and lofty roofs, the under-scene being a sea of glowing gold, angry and tumultuous, but brilliant beyond anything I had ever seen or conceived of; and magnificent in irresistible power, its great flaming waves leaping upon or dashing against the strongest creations of man and obliterating them.”

With the flames raging westward, police and firefighters tried to create a fire line by dynamiting the elegant mansions along Van Ness Avenue, including the homes of prominent Jews such as Supreme Court Justice Marcus Sloss. It was there on Van Ness that the city made its last stand. It was there that the fire was stopped.

Meanwhile, in those early hours Dulberg and her baby lay on the street. Her husband had left in search of transportation, and soon returned with a horse-drawn wagon, taking the family to the only local hospital that withstood the quake and fire: the Jewish-run Mount Zion Hospital.

“Mount Zion became the main staging area for medical relief,” says Stephen Dobbs, a San Francisco historian and professor. “Jewish doctors and nurses worked tirelessly in the days and weeks after the disaster to help injured citizens from throughout the city. Mount Zion president Louis Haas noted that ‘as many patients as could be crowded into our institution were given [free] treatment.'”

One of those fortunate patients was Dulberg who, along with her baby and family, survived.

After the fires died out, San Francisco became a confederation of tent cities. Thousands crowded into Golden Gate Park and the Presidio, where Orthodox Jews set up a kosher kitchen. Even though their headquarters burned to the ground, the Eureka Benevolent Society (forerunner to today’s Jewish Family and Children’s Services) immediately began providing aid and comfort to survivors across the city.

Emanu-El’s Voorsanger sprang into action immediately. The rabbi instituted an ad hoc ambulance system to get the injured to the hospitals, and he was active in hunger relief in the days and weeks following the fire. “He referred to himself as ‘the biggest thief in the U.S.,'” says Rosenbaum. “He commandeered all the food stores and on one day he distributed 35,000 loaves of bread.”

Maurice Brodzky, a correspondent for Emanu-El, later recalled: “One hour after the shock, in the midst of tottering buildings and belching tongues of fire, Voorsanger’s first thought was to rush to the rescue of the wounded and to provide food for the homeless … Magic-like he had in less than four hours a supply of food at the hall of the Young Men’s Hebrew Association, near the Golden Gate Park.”

Everyone pitched in. Calvary Presbyterian Church and First Unitarian Church opened their doors to Emanu-El congregants so they could hold Shabbat services. The recently built Sherith Israel on California Street survived intact, and within a month of the quake became the temporary home of the city courts.

That arrangement led to one of the stranger sideshows in post-earthquake San Francisco.

Prosperous Jewish attorney Abe Ruef stood at the center of one of the biggest municipal corruption cases in U.S. history at the time. It was said that though Ruef was not the mayor, he owned the mayor. He had persuaded Schmitz to run in 1901, and served as his chief aide.

After the quake, Ruef took bribes from people who needed permits to rebuild. Ruef, along with the mayor, was indicted in 1906 on graft and bribery charges, tried in Sherith Israel, convicted and jailed. Schmitz, too, was found guilty, but his conviction was later overturned on a technicality.

Some anti-Jewish ravings appeared in the press at the time, though what’s most notable about the Ruef scandal “is the relative lack of anti-Semitism,” says Rosenbaum. “It’s a remarkable reflection of the confidence of the Jewish community.”

While that went on, the Jews of San Francisco were on the move. As the tent cities slowly came down, many Jews migrated to Fillmore/McAllister, a neighborhood that thrived as a Jewish hub into the 1960s.

“It was on the western edge of town,” says Rosenbaum. “The Victorian houses had been unaffected, the people opened business on the ground floor, and Fillmore and Van Ness became one of the biggest commercial thoroughfares after the quake.”

Many other Jews, mostly Orthodox, settled in the “Out the Road” area of San Bruno and Silver avenues. However, that neighborhood didn’t last long. “Out the Road was too remote,” notes Rosenbaum. “It took three streetcars to get there. It just couldn’t retain its younger generation.”

While working-class Jews struggled to rebuild their lives, they got some help from San Francisco’s captains of industry, many of whom were Jewish. Those leaders helped spearhead reconstruction.

Many of the city’s most prominent companies — including Levi Strauss, Wells Fargo Bank, Livingtons and Crown Zellerbach — were founded or led by Jews.

J.B. Levison, the head of Fireman’s Fund, paid out scores of claims, keeping his hard-pressed company afloat by issuing stock for the amount the company couldn’t cover with cash.

Key retailers like Roos Brothers, Magnins and the all-important Gump’s reopened quickly, not in their original downtown locations but on Van Ness or Fillmore. “The city got back on its feet quickly,” says Rosenbaum.

San Francisco — indeed most of California — rides atop the restless tectonic plates that always pose a serious risk. One thing is certain: Someday, the Bay Area will be hit again, and hit hard.

And until that day, authorities in the region continue to prepare, building better, smarter and stronger structures, and teaching earthquake safety to succeeding generations.

For the Jewish community, the 1906 centennial presents an opportunity to look back on a time of grave crisis, and a near-miraculous recovery.

“Our community has been very blessed over 150 years,” says Rosenbaum, “more than almost any other Jewish community in the world, in terms of prosperity and integration of Bay Area life. I’m impressed with how the community prevailed.”

One hundred years is not a long time historically speaking, but for today’s San Franciscans the quake is far beyond human memory. Today, the momentous events of 1906 have taken on a sepia-colored nostalgia.

That’s why it can be instructive to relive the moment. Bertha Kramer, writing in Emanu-El nearly six months after the fire, wondered:

“The new San Francisco — what will it be like? The older generation will but see the foundation. It will remain for the youth to reconstruct out of boundless chaos a new and more glorious city. The new city will excel the old in wealth, grandeur and beauty, but the San Francisco our fathers knew, and we so truly loved will with Poe’s raven quote, ‘Nevermore.'”

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Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.