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The Flood

 Flood Scan Clean

The Flood in Pest

             In January of 1838, winter hit hard. Snow fell relentlessly in southern Europe and the ice froze three feet thick on the Danube. In Pest, even the main streets were impassable, and the work of digging out was never quite completed before the snows flew again. The city was cut off from the outside world. Mail deliveries ceased. Twelve-foot drifts lay against the rammed-earth and timber walls of Theresienstadt’s cob houses, and the dampness penetrated and softened their adobe bricks. In the midst of such ominous and crystalline silence, the river began to rise—20 feet by the 6th of January—filling cellars and undermining foundations in the sandy soil of low-lying Pest. A 6-foot-high manure and sand embankment was built along the riverfront, and residents operated pumps day and night in a vain attempt to control the water level. The authorities passed word that, in the event of a sudden rise in the water, bells, shots and drum-tattoos would warn the citizenry to escape to higher ground.

After ten days, the flood receded somewhat, but 14-foot levels persisted through February. In March, an upstream snowmelt swelled the waters; the thaw created large floes and ice dams as far north as Vienna, and inundated the puszta from Esztergom to the mouth of the Dráva River. By the morning of March 13th, the Danube at Pest stood at 23 feet, 3 inches above normal. During the day, tens of thousands gathered along the levee to watch the enormous chunks of drift-ice moving down-river. Pandemonium broke out as a portion of the levee ruptured, and was quickly, frantically rebuilt.

North of the city, a large ice barrier had formed at Margaret Island, creating an obstruction of gigantic proportions. That evening, the ice-dam began to give way, releasing a foaming torrent of water. Around 9:00, the bells began to toll and shots were fired. Carrying torches, anxious residents made their way through the damp streets in search of safety. The embankments were breached, and the rapidly rising Danube engulfed the city. The Waitznergasse with its elegant shops, the theater, the town hall, thousands of homes — all were awash in up to 7 feet of icy, yellow-brown water. The flood entered the sewers with such force that they blew apart, eroding the surrounding sandy soil, and causing tremors that toppled buildings throughout the city. [i]

Wednesday, the 14th of March, dawned dreary and raw, exposing the disaster. “What a spectacle revealed itself to us today!” wrote eyewitness Anton Benkert. “Horror was painted on every face; people roamed dumbly in the parts of the city that were still dry, in order to view the unspeakable. —The most beautiful streets, where the happy crowds used to promenade, where the industrious merchants and businessmen had their shops and offices, resembled a turbid lake. —The sight of it was heartrending; every one of those who had escaped had a relative, friend or acquaintance who had already been struck by the hard fate of knowing that a large part of his belongings, or perhaps all that he owned had been destroyed by the waves. It was heartbreaking to watch the honest, good merchant look upon the grave of his property. All the warehouses on the Danube, all of the cellars in the Waitzner-, Schlangen-, Bruck- und Dorotheer-streets contained enormous treasures in wares ruined by the waters that swirled around them. No one knew how great was his loss, for resisting the waves was impossible to contemplate, and every attempt to enter a shop or cellar was in vain. Many a glance was raised to heaven, in the hope that perhaps all was not lost.” [ii]

Things stood even worse in the crescent of outlying districts. Theresienstadt, Leopoldstadt and Franzstadt were swallowed up. Soaked and cold, the residents sought higher ground, or found refuge on rooftops. “Many a wife without her husband, many a mother without children, many children without parents, all in uncertainty as to whether they shall see them again, or whether they were buried in the waves,” Benkert observed—and the waters continued to rise. As the unbaked bricks of the cob houses disintegrated, the dwellings continued to collapse. From a window of her palace high on the hill in Buda, the Archduchess-Palatine “looked down upon the suffering city, seeing whole ranges of buildings sink and disappear in the watery waste about them. She felt her brain reel and her heart sicken, as the vague feeling grew upon her that the whole town would be ere long swept away….” [iii] Night fell.

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High Water Mark

Thursday morning, the waters stood at 26 ½ feet and rising. The weather was foggy and overcast. Food was running out, and clean drinking water was nowhere to be found. While profiteers charged as much as a hundred Gulden to ferry individuals across the river to Buda’s high ground, exhausted rescuers searched the city in boats, rafts, washtubs, vats, and odd, makeshift craft cobbled together from loose boards — whatever could be made to float—bringing food and succor to victims. A number of elderly people congregated in a tent in the Jewish market, reciting Psalms. [iv] “The Israelite community was particularly active,” wrote Benkert, “and distributed hundreds of loaves among the poor. —Bread, bread, O it was manna from Heaven—how many were happy just to have bread!” [v]

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During the day, rumors and panic gripped the city as some of the larger buildings began to fall. “Houses and buildings which had survived the first shock, seemed to have been preserved only to add to the horrors of that day,” wrote Julia Pardoe; “many of them fell and perished from roof to base….” [vi] “Miss Pardoe,” as the popular English observer was known to her readers, tells of a merchant, formerly prosperous, who, seeing the ruins of his home, “started from his seeming reverie, and laughed, and shouted, and clapped his hands in wild and savage glee! … the maniac merchant gambolled, and mowed, and mocked the lashing waters that had beggared him—nor knew amid his frenzy, that he was making merry over the ruins of his own reason!” [vii]

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At around 8:00 in the evening, the bells began to toll once more. By 10:00, the water crested at just over 29 feet, 4 inches. In the darkness, from the safety of crowded churches, barracks and other high-lying buildings, huddled refugees heard the distant cries of victims, perched on rooftops or trapped in crumbling buildings, as soldiers and volunteers combed the city by torchlight. “Humanity celebrated the greatest triumph of brotherly love in this night of horror,” Benkert later recalled. “What affliction and suffering this night shrouded with its black wings.”

 Buda Castle

The Palatine’s Palace, Buda

            Friday the 16th was a day of growing resignation to hardship and loss. The exodus from Pest began in earnest. Provisions began to arrive from outlying areas. In Buda, the nobility struggled to provide food and shelter for the victims, and the Palatine opened his palace. All available public buildings were opened to the needy, and as many as twenty thousand found refuge in the Invalid Hospital and the Ludovicia. The latter institution, originally intended for a Hungarian military academy, was reportedly filled with “filth, squalor and misery” by “the half-naked, half-famished crowd mingled together in its vast chambers and corridors.” [viii] Thousands remained there until May.

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Baron Miklós Wesselényi

In Pest, Prince Stephen distributed bread from a boat, and Count Szécheny plied the waters in his steamboat—“so to say, the dove with the olive branch, whose signals rang out like calls of hope” [ix]—braving the frigid, swift waters, dodging ice, roofs, beams and a other floating debris, ferrying refugees to Buda, and carrying food and supplies on the return trips. “In the course of the day the water subsided very considerably,” wrote Julia Pardoe, “and it was a curious spectacle to see the number of rafts, boats, and even doors and shutters filled with people, which were traversing the city streets in search of missing relatives or friends, and even trusting themselves on the treacherous Danube in order to escape to the heights of Buda. […] thus many a raft was launched upon the still angry river which could not bear its owner to the shore of promise.” Among their rescuers was Baron Wesselényi, “powerful as a Hercules, and bold and strong […]” who “put out in his boat alone; and spurning alike danger and fatigue, spent entire days upon the Danube, cheating the choking waters of their prey….” [x] Courageous women did their part. A woman of fortune, a certain Madame Laszlo, fed and clothed a hundred and fifty survivors for several weeks. Baron Jósef Eötvös later recalled: “[…] amid the ruin and the dismay which made men’s hearts stand still, I heard a voice that brought comfort to every spirit—‘Come to me, ye who mourn,’ it said, ‘and I will shelter you—come to me, ye who hunger, and I will nourish you.’ […] It was the voice of Madame Laszlo!” Julia Pardoe observed: “good deeds require no blazonry—they are graven on the hearts which they have saved from bursting.” [xi]

By the 18th, nearly the entire city lay muddied and exposed, free of water. In the days that followed, the toll in lives and goods would gradually be revealed. The entire commercial sector of the city was wiped out. The shops replete with fabrics, flowers, carpets, silks and satins, bronzes and books; the warehouses full of fruit, tobacco, oil, soda, and wool were all destroyed. Even where goods had been carefully stowed, objects had been lifted and tossed by the muddy water, and crumbling walls had completed the work of destruction. “Only he who knows the Pest square, and has an idea of what quantities of these goods are traded here every year, can appreciate the extent of the damage to the spoiled goods” Benkert lamented. [xii] The disaster could not have hit at a worse time. March 19th, St. Joseph’s Day, was to have been the start of the spring fair, and all the store-rooms were filled to capacity.

Residences were equally hard-hit. In the outlying districts, Franzstadt, Josephsstadt and Theresienstadt, entire rows of houses had been carried away, and a chaotic mess of debris hindered rescuers. Ropes and ladders still hung from the windows of broken buildings, where occupants had escaped to uncertain fates. Whole neighborhoods were unrecognizable. Buildings and walls continued to fall, making passage treacherous. Residents groped amidst the muck for whatever possessions they could salvage. “Nothing encourages hope more surely than a renewal of order,” wrote Julia Pardoe. In the face of such chaos, martial law was declared, and looting was made punishable by death.

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Theresienstadt After the Flood

In Theresienstadt, where the Joachims lived, 811 buildings had fallen down—another 404 were gravely damaged. Only 166 stood fast. In Josephsstadt, the numbers were similar. In the entire city, only a quarter of the nearly 4,600 buildings escaped unscathed. About 150-200 people perished in the flood. Fifty thousand were made homeless. [xiii]

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Edmund Singer

The flood is nowhere mentioned in the Joachim literature. This must be an intentional omission, as the flood’s consequences — for Julius’s business at the very least — must have been severe. We know from Edmund Singer’s [1] memoirs, however, that the Joachim family lived through the event, and escaped across the river to Buda: “My father left his house in a large dough-trough together with his family. We were lucky enough to reach the higher-situated marketplace, where we had to spend the night in the open. Among the occurrences that I recall from those days is that the residents of the building across from ours had to be lowered from the windows in large clothesbaskets, because the entrance to the house was under water. At that time, hundreds of Gulden were paid in individual cases for barges, which is understandable, since staying in the houses was a really dangerous matter due to the threat of collapse. Sure enough, the building across from ours fell down over night. After the exceedingly unpleasant night spent in the marketplace, a large barge was rented and the journey across the Danube to Buda undertaken, which was not un-perilous, due to the numerous ice drifts; so that we breathed a sigh of relief when we were finally able to land, half frozen, in Buda. There a happy accident led to the two befriended Joachim and Singer families finding lodging in the same building, and the two boys, Joseph and Edmund, who were almost the same age, could be taught the difficult art of reading, writing and arithmetic by the same tutor.” [xiv]

It seems probable that the heavy losses associated with the flood encouraged Julius and Fanny to consider an alternative career for their young son, and predisposed them to consider for him the life of a musician. The violin, both passport and calling card, is nothing if not portable, and a musician does not need to lay up goods in trade.

In the shared sacrifice of disaster, many of Pest’s residents recognized their common humanity. After the flood, Jewish silversmith Herman Löwy gave a silver chalice to the Lutheran pastor Mihály Láng, in gratitude for the refuge that the parish had provided Jews in time of need. Joseph Bach, the first preacher of the Orczy House synagogue (whose strong walls had withstood the flood), solicited aid from as far away as Leipzig for the city’s poor and afflicted, and, most remarkably, a number of burghers from Buda, formerly hostile to Jewish immigration, submitted a petition to the government asking that Jews should henceforth be free to settle and buy property there. Several years later, in the Diet of 1839/40, Pest deputy Simon Dubraviczky, proposed that “the Jewish religion should be among the accepted ones;” that “those of Jewish faith should be granted civil rights,” and that “like other non-nobles, they should not only be allowed to buy property but, if they prove to stand in the service of country and king, they should also be eligible to receive a title of nobility.” In 1840, the National Assembly passed Law 29, officially permitting all Hungarian Jews to settle the royal free cities. [xv]

 Cafe Florian

Café Florian, Venice [xvi]

             News of the flood reached all the corners of Europe. Franz Liszt first read about it over a cup of coffee at the Café Florian near the campanile in Venice’s St. Mark’s Square. He later claimed that the calamity in Hungary reawakened his feelings for his childhood home, dormant after sixteen years of living abroad. “I was badly shaken by that disaster,” he wrote, “…and the surge of emotions revealed to me the meaning of the word ‘homeland.’ I was suddenly transported back to the past, and in my heart I found the treasury of memories from my childhood intact. A magnificent landscape appeared before my eyes: it was the Danube flowing over the reefs! It was the broad plain where tame herds freely grazed! It was Hungary, the powerful, fertile land that has brought forth so many noble sons! It was my homeland. And I exclaimed in patriotic zeal that I, too, belonged to this old and powerful race. I, too, am a son of this original, untamed nation which will surely see the dawn of better days….” [xvii]

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Notice of a concert by Franz Liszt for the benefit of the flood victims.

    The disaster offered Liszt an opportunity to make a long-premeditated return to Vienna, his first since his youthful sojourn there fifteen years earlier (1821-1823), with the object of giving a benefit concert for the flood victims. [2] Liszt left Venice for Vienna on April 7th, arriving late on the evening of the 10th. [3] While there, he gave a series of ten concerts, the first of which, April 18th, was devoted to the aid of the flood’s victims. According to Liszt himself, it was the success of these concerts that finally decided him on his career as a virtuoso, and that led him to embark on his unparalleled Glanzperiode, from 1838 to 1847, the period of his greatest public triumphs, during which he traveled from Lisbon to Constantinople, from Gibraltar to St. Petersburg, performing from memory more than a thousand concerts, comprising virtually the entire piano repertory, before retiring from the stage at the age of thirty-five.

© Robert W. Eshbach, 2013.


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[1] Ödön (Edmund) Singer (b. 14 October 1830, Totis, Hungary — d. 1912), Joachim’s friend and exact contemporary, likewise studied violin with Böhm and composition with Preyer in Vienna.

[2] Alan Walker claims that, while in Vienna, Liszt hastily arranged a series of eight benefit concerts, raising the enormous sum of 24,000 gulden for the victims of the flood. This account has been convincingly challenged by Christopher Gibbs. Q. v. Christopher H. Gibbs, “Just Two Words. Enormous Success:” Liszt’s 1838 Vienna Concerts, in Gibbs/LISZT, p. 181. After his wildly successful visit to Vienna, he decided not to proceed to Hungary. “What’s the point?” he wrote to his mistress, the Countess d’Agoult, “You are my homeland, my heaven, and my sole repose.” [Gibbs/LISZT, p. 187]

[3] While in Vienna, Liszt stayed in the hotel Zur Stadt Frankfurt, the same hotel as the eighteen-year-old pianist Clara Wieck and her father Friedrich. Their acquaintance there was the beginning, both of their friendship and of their rivalry. While there, Clara introduced Liszt to her friend Robert Schumann’s Carnaval and Fantasiestücke; Liszt dedicated to her his recently composed Etudes d’exécution transcendante d’apres Paganini.


[i] Witthauer/ALBUM, pp. viii-ix.

[ii] Benkert/WUTH, p. 13-14.

[iii] Pardoe/MAGYAR II, p. 8.

[iv] Frojimovics/BUDAPEST, p. 59.

[v] Benkert/WUTH, p. 19.

[vi] Pardoe/MAGYAR II, p. 10.

[vii] Pardoe/MAGYAR II, p. 13.

[viii] Pardoe/MAGYAR II, p. 24.

[ix] Benkert/WUTH, p. 27.

[x] Pardoe/MAGYAR II, pp. 19-20.

[xi] Pardoe/MAGYAR II, pp. 38-39.

[xii] Benkert/WUTH, p. 29.

[xiv] Edmund Singer, “Aus meiner Künstlerlaufbahn,” Neue Musik-Zeitung (Stuttgart), Vol. 32, No. 1, (1911), p. 8.

[xv] Frojimovics/BUDAPEST, p. 59.

[xvi] Leipzig Illustrierte Zeitung, Vol. 4, No. 100 (May 31, 1845): 348.

[xvii] Quoted in Walker/LISZT I, pp. 253-255.