The Day The “Lion” River Roared

The 1941 flood in Beaufort West
Pritchard House, in the 1941 flood

Just as droughts are a feature of the Karoo, so too are floods. some old black and white photographs recently reminded Dr Nathan Finkelstein of the devastating flood that hit Beaufort West 70 years ago on April 13, 1941. The pictures were taken by Max Weinberg, an attorney in the town at the time. His son, Eugene and Nathan have been life long friends. Nathan says: “Our mothers were pregnant at the same time in 1939. We arrived within days of each other and we were wheeled about in prams as our mothers chatted. Later as toddlers we played on in the dry riverved of the Gamka. We attended school together and later were pals as Varsity. Eugene, now a professor, and I collaborated in 2009 to write a scientific paper for a 2009 issue of the South African Paediatric Review. Our mothers remained friends until my mother died in 1997.

“The Weinbergs left Beaufort West just after the WWII to settle in Bellville. We moved to Cape Town in 1956.

“These are the only photographs 1941 flood. This one shows Charlie Dubiwitz’ house and shop, Mrs Soskin’s Fish shop and The Levy’s House.  Mr Levy had to be rescued from the verandah by several men roped together.

“The flood was a catastrophe as far as my family was concerned. My father’s general dealer’s business (Jack’s Store) was on the corner of  Church and new Streets on the banks of the Gamka River, and when the river burst its banks the shop was destroyed. So was our house in the building next door to the shop and opposite Queens Hotel.  I was about two years old at the time and obviously do not recall the devastation, but I remember we had to move in with my grandmother, Esther Dubowitz, in Plantation Street (now Danie Theron Street) for a while.

“My father then bought an erf from the Dutch Reformed Church in Bird Street and Berend Wright built a new house for us at No 144. We lived there until we left the town. After the loss of our home my father became quite paranoid about floods. He ordered Berend to raise the level of the house quite considerably and water had to reach the height of a car’s roof  before it could get into our home.   My father delighted in explaining his brainchild and ‘architectural feature’ to anyone who would listen.   He also eagerly pointed out the flood level to everyone who came into his store where a mud-line was clearly visible on an unpainted wall.

“My father lost everything in that flood. He also dealt in skins and hides and these were stoned in cellars below the shop until the buyers came. The water, of course, flooded that area and caused the skins to rot, From all accounts, the stench was quite unbearable. But time heals all and eventually my father’s shop was restored and he was able to continue trading.”

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