Australian Dictionary of Biography

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George Francis (Jack) Bergman (1900–1979)

by Martha Rutledge

This article was published:

George Francis Jack Bergman (1900-1979), soldier and historian, was born on 8 April 1900 at Lissa, Posen, Germany (Leszno, Poland), elder son of Jewish parents Ludwig Bergmann (d.1932), a German clothing manufacturer, and his French wife Hedwig, née Krayn (d.1940). Jack to his family, Franz to his student friends, he was educated at the Royal Comenius Gymnasium, called up for national service in 1917 and joined the Freikorps Lepper to defend Lissa during the Polish revolution. He attended the universities of Berlin, Breslau (Wroclaw), Heidelberg and Munich (Ec.D., 1922), and worked part time in an attorney's office until completing his legal studies. Called to the Bar of the High Court on 7 December 1929, he practised as a solicitor at Munich.

After Adolf Hitler seized power in 1933, Bergmann fled to Paris in August and managed an estate for two years. On 2 July 1935 he married Hilde Baum at the mairie du 19e Arrondissement. He worked as a freelance journalist and gained a certificate in mechanical engineering at the École Professionelle Diderot. An intrepid mountaineer and skier, he had belonged to the Alpenveiren and now joined the Swiss Alpine Club.

From 7 December 1939 Bergmann served with the Foreign Legion in North Africa until, on 10 October 1940, he was interned at Colomb-Bechar, Algeria, by the Vichy government. Liberated in February 1943, he enlisted on 13 April in the British Army and in May transferred to the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers as a fitter. That year he gave evidence to a French military tribunal against officers in charge of Hadjerat-M-Guil, the 'Algerian torture camp' where he had been disciplined.

Meanwhile he learned through the New York branch of his old student club, the Jewish Fraternity of the Kartell Convent, that his wife had fled to Argentina, divorced him (invalidly) in Mexico and remarried; his brother Walter was in La Paz, Bolivia. Sergeant Bergmann confessed to being 'a little tired and embittered by the thought that I can see no promotion and that all my superior officers could all be my sons'. He went on to serve in Italy, and was attached to British intelligence as an interpreter in Austria. On 9 July 1947 he reached Melbourne in the Tamaroa and was discharged in Sydney; he Anglicized his name by deed poll on 26 August.

Cut off from intellectual work, his degrees unrecognized, Bergman tried selling dresses and in April 1948 bought a delicatessen shop in Oxford Street that failed. He joined the Commonwealth Public Service as a post office technician in February 1949 and was naturalized on 10 June. Having been granted a divorce in France in 1948, at the Temple Emanuel, Woollahra, on 22 January 1950 he married a widow Émilie Raik, née Gerstl, a laundry manageress from Prague. The marriage was to prove a disappointment: she did not share his interests, especially in bushwalking, and he was irritated by her perpetual card-playing. He joined the B'nai B'rith (1953), the Youth Hostels Association (1956) and the Liberal Party (1959); he was appointed a justice of the peace on 29 July 1957. Advancement in the public service proved difficult and he was increasingly frustrated by 'his silly routine job'.

Undertaking original research 'in the spirit of an explorer', Bergman uncovered the remarkable stories of Esther Johnston and of many other early Jewish settlers. His biography of Gustav Weindorfer was published in Austria in 1954 and an English version in Hobart in 1959. A member (1953) and vice-president (1954) of the Blue Mountains Historical Society, in April 1956 Bergman believed himself the first 'new-Australian' to be elected to the Royal Australian Historical Society. From 1958 he was a committee-member (vice-president 1968-79) and mainstay of the Australian Jewish Historical Society, contributing almost forty articles to its journal. Bergman wrote short histories of several Jewish institutions, lectured widely and published in the Australian Encyclopaedia, New Citizen, Die Alpen, Der Bersteiger, Sydney Jewish News and Australian Jewish Times. He was delighted to be invited to contribute to the Australian Dictionary of Biography and was sometimes consulted by Professor Douglas Pike.

Having retired from the public service in 1965, Bergman made a world tour and lectured on Australian Jewry in the United States of America, Britain, Germany and Israel. Back 'home', as 'George Klaffe' he penetrated extreme right-wing organizations and set up extensive files on anti-Semitic and neo-Nazi activities in Australia for the New South Wales Jewish Board of Deputies. With Rabbi John Levi and a grant from the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture, New York, he produced his major work, Australian Genesis: Jewish Convicts and Settlers, 1788-1850 (Adelaide, 1974).

Small and birdlike, with sparse, brown hair and blue eyes, George Bergman had great 'courage and physical toughness'. He also possessed 'a profound love and understanding' of painting, music, literature and the theatre. A perfectionist, he was intolerant of those who did not meet his own high standards and inevitably quarrelled with many people. He remained an avid traveller, and bequeathed the Roman and Egyptian antiquities he had collected to the Nicholson Museum. Survived by his wife and stepdaughter, he died on 21 October 1979 at Vila, New Hebrides, and was buried in the Jewish war section of Rookwood cemetery, Sydney, in a grave designated 'Sergeant R.E.M.E. Army Number BNA/13809597'.

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Liberal, Jan 1960, p 12
  • Australian Jewish Historical Society, Journal, 8, 1979, p 397
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 8 May 1961
  • Australian Jewish Times, 25 Oct 1979
  • naturalisation files, A446/1 item 61/508, A439/1 item 51/11/6256 (National Archives of Australia)
  • Bergman diaries and papers (State Library of New South Wales and Wiener Library, London, and Leo Baeck Institue, New York)
  • private information.

Citation details

Martha Rutledge, 'Bergman, George Francis (Jack) (1900–1979)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 20 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (Melbourne University Press), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Klaffe, George
  • Bergmann, George

8 April, 1900
Poznan, Poland


21 October, 1979 (aged 79)
Vila, Vanuatu

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

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