Herz Bergner, Australian Yiddish Writer of Excellence(1907 - 1970)

Herz Bergner is regarded as the most important Australian Yiddish writer of the post-Goldhar generation, and as an important Australian writer in his on right. He was the younger brother of Melekh Ravitch, migrating from Poland to Melbourne in 1938, in time to escape the brutalities of Nazism. Howard Freedman writes:

So towards the end of our period, 1939, the migrants began to take control, particularly those of Russian and Polish origin of 'Kadimah', Yiddish theatre, writing and literature, the Yiddisher Nayeses, and the David Herman theatre.

Biographical Details

Herz Bergner's family left the township of Radimno to settle in Vienna during World War I, returning at the end of the war. In the 1920s, Bergner's elder brother, Melech Ravitch, a Yiddish writer, himself, became the secretary of the Union of Yiddish writers in Warsaw. Following his example, Bergner also began to write, joining a group of young, left wing writers. When he married, he decided to emigrate and followed his brother, who had come to Australia in 1933, originally to raise funds for Jewish secular schools in Poland.

Publications

Bergner had practised as a writer in his native Poland, publishing Stiban un Gasan (Houses and Streets) in 1935. After migrating to Australia, he published a collection of short stories about immigrants adapting to a new land entitled Dos Naie Hois (The New House) in 1941, with the help of the National Jewish Library, 'Kadimah', who were to publish several more of his works. In this book he 'fuses his Polish background with Australian scenes'. He published another story of Jewish pioneers to Australia Zwischen Himmel und Wasser (Between Sky and Sea) in 1946 or 7, which the organisation Oifboy supported. Between Sky and Sea, was awarded the Gold Medal of the Australian Literature Society for the best book published that year. It was described as 'a masterpiece of literary organisation', and was instrumental in Bergner's achievement of significance in Australian literary circles.

The latter organisation also produced a magazine, Oifboy which ran for twenty six issues from September 1945 till January/February 1948. It was published by L. Fink and each issue ran for some thirty pages. The literary articles were written in Yiddish, but there were some pages in English as the law demanded during the war years (1939-1945).

At the end of World War II, when 'the curtain was raised revealing the full disaster that had befallen European Jewry', Bergner sought to erect a literary monument to the destroyed Polish Jewish community. The result, in 1950 was A Sthut in Poiln, which described Polish Jewish life before Hitler's invasion. This was his longest novel, numbering some five hundred and seventeen pages. In this book Bergner depicts on a wide canvas the lives, conflicts and ideological divisions among Polish Jews. He captures the flavour of their daily lives and portrays their customs, traditions and beliefs.

In 1955 he published another collection of short stories, Dos Hoiz fun Jacob Isaacs, which illustrated the theme of Jewish alienation in the harsh Australian environment. This theme was developed at greater length in Licht un Shotn (1960) published as Light and Shadow in 1963. Bergner's later short stories, especially his Vu der Emet Shteyt ayn (Where the Truth Lies)(1966) and Mdarf zein a Mentsch (Be Human), published after his death in 1971, continued to focus on Jewish migrant life in post-war Australia.

Bergner wrote well both in Yiddish and English. He writes vividly, has a sense of drama, keeping the reader in suspense and can create an atmosphere with a few word sketches. He won several literary awards for his short stories and novels.

Awards:

  • Zwi Kessel Prize for Jewish Books, 1969 for Light and Shadow.
  • Zwi Kessel Prize for Jewish Books ca 1966 for Vu der Emes Shteyt Ayn: Dertseylungen
  • Australian Literature Society Gold Medal, ca 1966 for Vu der Emes Shteyt Ayn: Dertseylungen
  • Australian Literature Society Gold Medal, 1948 for Between Sky and Sea.

    Bergner was a good friend of the Australian writer Alan Marshall whose book I Can Jump Puddles, telling the story of his childhood battle with polio took the literary world by storm. The latter wrote introductions to Bergner's works on occasions, including his last novel. Alan Marshal's papers in the National Library contain correspondence between Bergner and himself between 1958 and 1974.

    Some Extracts from his Writings

    'The Actor'

    Originally published written in Yiddish in 1995 as one of the collection of short stories in The House of Jacob Isaacs, (pp 188-205), it was translated by Judah Waten, a writer who emerged from a similar background, and was published in The Bridge in 1964 (v.1.no 2, pp 41-46), and later in Jewish Writing from Down Under, edited by Robert and Roberta Kalechofsky, (eds), Michigan, Ann Arbor, 198, pp. 63-70

    The story describes a young boy observing his ageing father whose acting profession is beginning to disappear in the post war days.

    When the performance was over and everybody had left the theatre, Gedaliah and Abram (his son) remained behind, collecting the props. The boy packed the clothes, the beards and the make-up into a suitcase. The caretaker, who had been asleep in the corridor outside, suddenly woke up and put the lights out, plunging them into darkness. It was late when they went out. It was a cold autumn night and the streets were dark and empty. Only outside a cafe and a dance hall was there any light, and couples hovered there like insects around a lamp In a nearby side street, a red sports car pulled up outside a house. A young man an a girl go out. The young man wore a long coat and narrow trousers in the American style, and just as in the films he said to the girl: "See you tomorrow, Toots." Gedaliah recognised him as he got back into the car. He was a Jewish chap whose mother sometimes came to the Jewish theatre. Gedaliah and his son walked through the deserted streets, and now and then a drunk emerged from the shadows. Their steps echoed over the empty pavements. Gedaliah was wrapped in thought, not even seeing his son, who was walking beside him. Trying to keep in step. Abram's heart tightened, and suddenly he said to this father:" You acted very well, Father. I liked it. You've never acted as well as you did tonight. The people were a bit tired, that's all. You're listening to me, aren't you?" " Of course, I'm listening," said Gedaliah, and a smile lit up his face.

    Gedaliah's performance was not a success, he had not captured the audience's interest, the audience had remained indifferent and his son was embarrassed for his father. The writer's skill is such that he captures the atmosphere of the dingy inner Melbourne streets on a cold, dark autumn evening, the flavour of Jewish Carlton and the interaction between the two characters, father and son. He also interweaves flashbacks from his Warsaw background, a typical Bergner trait.

    Between Sky and Sea is a short, but powerful novel. It is the story of a steamer that never arrives. It is poignant, for this is the saga of a shipload of Polish refugees fleeing Hitler's terror who are denied refuge at any port, a portrayal that all too vividly depicts the reality of what took place during the Sho'ah period. Eventually, the ship sinks in mid ocean and all on board perish. Bergner paints the emotions and sufferings of the Jewish refugees in a series of what Judah Waten, who translated it into English, describes as 'brilliant character studies'. In the story of the stalled progress of a doomed voyage, Bergner skilfully recreates a dark and oppressive atmosphere. The story has an arresting beginning, which also mirrors its end, as the ship never arrives at its destination: <>P>For five weeks the dirty, old Greek tramp steamer had drifted painfully over stormy waters without sighting land. She creaked with age as she allowed herself to be tossed by the green waves which played with her like young children tormenting a senile old man. It seemed as though the ship had lost its way and would forever trudge across the seas.

    Light and Shadow, another of his works is an artistic portrayal of Jewish settlement in Australia as seen through the eyes of a Jewish family, the Zelings, who settle in Rosemar and seek to come to terms with their harsh environment. It is a story that combines romance with hardship, shows the difficulty of finding a suitable Jewish partner, and the primitive and isolated conditions in which these settlers lived. It is the work of a fine novelist, Alan Marshall wrote in the foreward (pp 8). In some ways, this book could be seen as the crowning achievement of Bergner's work, receiving the Zwei Kessl prize as one of the best Jewish books published that year on the world market.

    Bibliography of Bergner's works

  • 'Dos Hoizgezeiner' (His House). Published in Second Australian Jewish Almanac, Melbourne, York Press, 1940.
  • Dos Naie Hois (the New House) in 1941. Melbourne, National Jewish Library, 'Kadimah', 1941.
  • 'Zwischen Himmel und Wasser' in 1947. Melbourne,'Oifboy',1947.
  • A Shtot in Poiln. A Town in Poland. Melbourne, 1950. also translated into Hebrew and published in Israel.
  • Dos Hojz Fun Djakob Aisaks. The House of Jacob Isaacs. Melbourne Jewish News, 1955.
  • Licht un Shotn . Light and Shadow. Melbourne Jewish News, 1960.
  • Light and Shadow in 1963.
  • Vu der Emet Shteyt ayn (Where the Truth Lies).(1966)
  • M'darf Zein A Mentsch - Oistralishe unandare Dertseilungen . Be human Australian and Other Tales. Melbourne, 1971.

    Secondary Sources

  • Itzhac Kahan, 'Three Australian Yiddish Writers', AJHS 3&4,(1973), pp 286-290.
  • 'Herz Bergner', Encyclopaedia Judaica.
  • Archives in the Jewish National Library, Jerusalem.

    A fuller form of this article will appear in the proceedings of the First and Second Australian Yiddish Conferences being edited by Dr Jennifer Dowling.