One exciting thing about being an author is meeting readers who connect with your books because of their own family histories. After publishing my Prohibition-era novel, Mistaken, I heard from readers who remembered their parents or grandparents telling stories of illegal stills, a family bootlegger, or having worked as federal Prohibition agents. Many of these stories had been whispered about in their families for years.
After publishing Out of the Ruins, set in the Great San Francisco earthquake of 1906, I started making connections with readers who had ancestors who’d experienced the disaster. I recently asked one of these individuals if he’d be willing to write a guest post, sharing his family history of life during and after the 1906 earthquake. Phil Litchenstein is a fellow author (writing under the name Philip Michaels) writing about what he knows best–San Francisco, Berkeley, and Harvard during the 1960s. I met Phil on Facebook’s San Francisco History group. [If you’re interested in SF history, especially photographs, you really should join this group.]
Here’s Phil’s family story.
LITCHENSTEIN FAMILY HISTORY
Harrisch Litchenstein emigrated from Poland, via Germany, in the late 1850s to escape the pogroms being inflicted upon the Jews. He found work in New York City’s Lower East Side as a tailor. He would marry Hannah Simon and have five children, the youngest of which, Herman, was my grandfather.
Harrisch and his eldest son, Aaron, then thirteen, left New York in December of 1874 to put down roots in San Francisco. It was Harrisch’s intention to join his brother, Abraham, and start a tailor shop. Unfortunately, in the early morning hours of December 8, 1874, Harrisch’s train was pulling off at a siding near Truckee, California, when it was clipped by a passing freight train. The car Harrisch and Aaron were riding in jumped the tracks and tumbled into the Truckee River. They were the only fatalities of the train wreck.
In 1875, after getting a small settlement from the railroad, Hannah and her four remaining children (all boys) moved to San Francisco and settled on Harrison Street, which was then a Jewish, working-class community. Harrisch’s brother, Abraham, became like a father to his nephews, seeing to it that they had food, clothing, and a roof over their heads. In 1895, my grandfather, then 22, married Esther Michaels and moved to a small house at 8th and Harrison Streets where the Hall of Justice is now located. In 1897, my Aunt Sarah was born. In 1902, my father, Philip Harrisch Litchenstein.
Herman and Esther Litchenstein’s Earthquake Experience
At 5:12 on the morning of April 18, 1906, my grandparents were awakened by a loud rumbling sound. Almost instantly, their house began to pitch and yaw violently. Everything fell from the shelves and crashed to the floor. Drawers opened, highboys toppled, and my father leaped from his bed but immediately fell—the floor was shaking too hard to allow for walking. The shaking would last for nearly a minute. My grandmother would say she felt like a rat being shaken by a terrier.
There were numerous aftershocks in the hours after the main quake. My grandfather inspected the house and deemed it livable, although the brick chimney had collapsed. Ominously, however, as he inspected the home’s exterior, he saw and smelled smoke. Soon, he saw lines of people with whatever possessions they could carry trudging down the debris-littered streets in a south-westerly direction. They were fleeing the rapidly spreading fires.
By 9:00 AM, my grandfather realized that the fires could not be contained. He put whatever possessions he deemed of value (it turned out that his marriage license and a photo of my Aunt Sarah, were two of them) into a baby stroller, and the family joined the throngs of refugees. That night, they slept in a park at the intersection of Gough and Eddy Streets. By then, everything south of Market Street was ablaze. In the darkness of the night, there was a menacing red glow. The smell of smoke fouled the air. The next morning, the family continued their journey, reaching Golden Gate Park by the late afternoon. There, the Army was pitching large, round tents and setting up soup lines.
The park would soon be home to thousands of people who had lost their homes. Food was minimal, sanitation was problematic. It wasn’t long before Typhoid Fever became a serious scourge. My father, then four years old, came down with an extremely high fever. A doctor told the family that it was Typhoid and that he would probably not live unless he was administered a drug that was in short supply and would cost more money than the family had. And he most likely would have died if an affluent Irish woman hadn’t heard what the doctor was saying. She instantly produced the money for my father’s medicine. My very Jewish grandmother always referred to this woman as Saint O’Something.
One of consequences of the earthquake was that communication was most difficult. Families were scattered, relatives hard to locate. Survivors were desperate for news of their loved ones. Through some means, my grandfather did procure a listing of the earthquakes’ casualties. Sadly, his Uncle Abraham and Abraham’s wife and four children all perished when their house on Minna Street collapsed.
As some point during the family’s stay in the park, they moved into a one-room refugee shack. The shack was made of redwood, painted green, and was all of 140 square feet. In the summer of 1907, it was decided by the authorities that the shacks could be bought by their occupants by simply paying to have them hauled away. My grandparents had theirs hauled to one of the then least populated areas of San Francisco, the Excelsior District. That district was then farmland, and my grandparents’ house landed there rather like Dorothy’s house landed in Oz. There were no other houses around—no paved streets, no gas, no electricity, only pastures and cows.
Over time, utilities were provided as more and more people moved to the Excelsior. That earthquake shack soon became larger as my grandfather added another shack to it. Eventually, the shacks were raised and a basement was constructed. Later still, workers added more rooms, a terra cotta roof, marble stairs, and installed plumbing and electric wiring. When my father was old enough, he helped my grandfather make further additions. Today, that shack looks like almost any other house on Moscow Street. It’s only “tell” is that it sits perhaps ten feet further from the street than any of the newer homes.
Thanks for sharing your family’s story, Phil!
We all have stories that link us to the past. I hope this encourages everyone to take the time to write down some of your memories or those of people close to you. Your little family anecdote may provide others with a unique view on history!