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Jewish Old-timers Recall Quakes of Other Times and Places

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At 89, some of Helen Scozzafava’s memories have faded, but one of them has stayed intact: what happened to her, her brothers and her sisters on April 18, 1906.

That memory rolled back last Tuesday as San Francisco was hit by another major earthquake.

In 1906, when the 8.3 quake occurred, Scozzafava was 5 years old.

“We were living on Fulton Street,” recalled the current resident of the Jewish Home for the Aged in San Francisco, noting that her family, including six brothers and sisters, resided behind a furniture store.

During the early morning rumble, her mother “was going from the kitchen to the store.” She was killed instantly. Her father, Adolph Kornfield, was injured seriously and taken to a local hospital, where he remained for quite some time.

Care of the children was taken over by a bachelor uncle who took Scozzafava, her sister Rose, and her three brothers (Harry, Sam and Martin, “who slept through the whole thing”) to their aunt’s house.

“My sister put us in a shirt — that’s all we had. Then we went by horse and buggy to my aunt’s,” recalled the spry nonagenarian.

Sadly, her great-aunt and uncle were unable to care for the five children, so, within a day, they were taken to the Pacific Hebrew Orphan Asylum, the Jewish orphanage in San Francisco.

Although the agency’s building was damaged in the 1906 quake, it still took in scores of children who had met a fate like Scozzafava’s.

ELEVEN YEARS AT ORPHANAGE

Scozzafava’s father survived and returned to being a junk dealer, but it wasn’t until years later that he was able to care for his children again. He did visit them quite frequently, however.

Scozzafava spent 11 years at the orphanage. “I had my education there, and went to services there.” During that time, she attended Fremont Elementary School and then to High School of Commerce. She also attended services at Congregation Beth Israel on Geary Boulevard.

Scozzafava wasn’t the only resident of the home to remember other quakes.

Edith Weigert was also at dinner Tuesday when the 7.0 earthquake struck at 5:04, but her memories took her back to a different earthquake, one in the “early 1940.”

It “was just as big,” contended the 90-year-old.

After she and her late husband had fled Nazi Germany for La Paz, Bolivia, Weigert had become principal of a school, many of whose students were children of Jewish refugees from Central Europe.

She was sitting at the school’s sandbox with the children, she recalled. “I told them, ‘Don’t move the box, I’m getting seasick.’ “

What she actually was feeling wasn’t the children’s antics but what she called a terramoto (earthquake in Spanish).

Stanley Grant, meanwhile, reminisced about 1945, when he was living in Montpelier in southern France.

It was 2 p.m., he remembered, when he fell from the couch to the floor as a quake rocked the region and knocked dishes out of kitchen cabinets.

Grant will always remember the date of last week’s quake, because he wasn’t just eating dinner with the other residents of the old age home, he was celebrating his 80th birthday.

“I felt the table shake. I held onto the table,” he said.

There was no question that it was an earthquake, he added, so he held on real tight, not wanting to fall again, 44 years after his first tumble.

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