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Jan Andrzej Hempel (1909–1997)

by Stanislaus Hempel

This article was published online in 2022

Jan Hempel, n.d.

Jan Hempel, n.d.

Jan Andrzej Hempel (1909–1997), diplomat, shipping economist, and Polish community leader, was born at Wȩglin, Poland, on 19 July 1909, second of three children of Stanisław Hempel, landowner, and his wife Maria, née Świda, both Polish-born. Jan matriculated from the Jesuit College in Chyrów in 1928, and the following year served briefly with the 9th Horse Artillery Battalion at Baranowicze. In 1929 he entered the Higher Trade School in Warsaw, but straitened finances arising from his father’s suicide seven years earlier and his mother’s difficulties in managing the family estate led him to cease his studies the following year.

Hempel found employment at the Polish consulate in Hamburg in 1930, and studied shipping economics at the University of Hamburg (Doctor of Political Science, 1935). In June 1935 he was appointed consular attaché at Bombay (Mumbai), India, where he learned English. Upon returning to Poland in 1937, he was employed by the Polish Steamship Company at Gdynia where he met Zofia Anna Romer, whom he married at Tytuvėnai, Lithuania, on 5 June 1938.

In August 1939 Hempel was separated from Zofia when the Polish government sent him to the Middle East to negotiate with the British authorities in Jerusalem and Cairo on securing military supplies. From September 1939 he was an ambassadorial attaché with the Polish Consulate-General in Istanbul, where he helped to organise the transfer of Poland’s gold reserve to Syria and the movement of Polish troops to France. In April 1940 he joined the Polish army in France and, after the fall of France, escaped to Britain. There he was appointed adjutant to General Stanisław Sosabowski, founder of the Polish Parachute Brigade, and liaised with British parachute units. He joined the foreign ministry of the Polish government-in-exile.

A plan to parachute Hempel into Poland in August 1944 to contact the underground government was abandoned after the eruption of the Warsaw uprising. Instead, the government-in-exile appointed him as liaison officer with United States of America forces in newly liberated Paris. In September 1944 he was attached to the headquarters of the American 9th Army in the Netherlands, and was awarded the United States Bronze Star Medal for directing the extrication of liberated Poles.

With the end of the fighting in Europe, Hempel was in July 1945 promoted to major. He was senior liaison officer with the American 3rd Army under General George S. Patton, and became the head of the Polish military mission based in Munich. Hempel found himself accused by his Polish superiors in London of being too zealous in repatriating Poles to Poland, and by the Warsaw authorities of not being zealous enough. The difficulties of this period of his life were alleviated by his success in bringing his wife and their six-year-old son out of Poland to Britain.

From May 1947 Hempel served with the Polish Resettlement Corps in Britain, until he was demobilised in May 1948. He lived in London where he worked as a food sales manager and took out British citizenship. Frustrated by a lack of opportunity in postwar Britain, the family migrated to Australia in April 1950, settling in Brisbane. He was engaged by the Queensland government’s Bureau of Industry as a shipping economist, served with the Australian army reserve as a lieutenant interpreter in the Intelligence Corps (1951–53, and became president (1952–58) of the Polish Association in Queensland. Brisbane hosted Australia’s first Polish parish and, as an opponent of cultural assimilation, he successfully pressured the coadjutor archbishop of Brisbane, Patrick Mary O’Donnell, to allow Polish language sermons. Hempel became director of the settlement division of the Queensland Migration Office in 1953. During this period of Cold War tension he helped establish in 1954 the Australian Committee of the Congress for Cultural Freedom.

Hempel was in 1958 given a three-month fellowship by the demography department of the Australian National University, Canberra, where he wrote the research monographs Italians in Queensland: Some Aspects of Post-war Settlement of Italian Immigrants (1959) and Dutch Migrants in Queensland (1960). He transferred to Canberra permanently in July 1960 to join the Commonwealth Bureau of Agricultural Economics as an economist, and was later a statistician in the Department of the Treasury. Late in 1961 he moved to Melbourne where he was a research officer and later director of planning with the Commonwealth Department of Shipping and Transport.

In mid-1965 the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development contracted Hempel to work in Geneva as a shipping expert. He left after eight months and returned to his position in Melbourne, having been unable to accept the application of complicated economic models to developing countries and preferring practical technical assistance, a view that later gained wide acceptance. In November 1968 he was seconded to the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America as a shipping advisor to Caribbean nations, based in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago. He resigned from the Commonwealth Public Service in January 1971, and returned to Melbourne in December 1972. After advising the Australian Shipping Commission on developing overseas linkages for the Australian National Line, in early 1977 he moved to Manila to assess World Bank funding of maritime links between the islands of the Philippines. Endemic corruption and interference from the Marcos dictatorship prevented any effective work, and in November 1978 he retired to Melbourne.

The strong willed, larger than life Hempel was of medium build and above average height. He remained active in the Polish community including by supporting the Help Poland Live campaign in the early 1980s to raise over $2 million for medical supplies, and by becoming a foundation member of the executive committee of the Australian Institute of Polish Affairs (1991–95). His work was recognised by appointment in 1991 to the Order of Polonia Restituta (Commander’s Cross), one of Poland’s highest civil orders. He died in Melbourne on 18 May 1997 and was buried, survived by his wife, and their two sons and one daughter.

Research edited by Stephen Wilks

Select Bibliography

  • Bzowski, Zdzisław Janota. Dzieje Rodziny Hemplów [The History of the Hempel Family]. Warszawa: Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy, 1987
  • Personal knowledge of ADB subject
  • Queensland Times (Ipswich). ‘Always Poles … But Good Australian Citizens.’ 12 November 1953, 2
  • Meysztowicz, Szymon, and Barbara Schenkel. ‘Leader to the Polish Community.’ Age (Melbourne), 20 June 1997, C2
  • National Archives of Australia. BP129/1, NCCR 171/5/900, Appointment of Officer Lt Hempel, Jan Andrew

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Stanislaus Hempel, 'Hempel, Jan Andrzej (1909–1997)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2022, accessed online 25 May 2024.

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