Influential Warsaw family of industrialists and financiers. Related to other aristocratic Jewish dynasties, including the Bersohn, Heryng, and Toeplitz families, the Bergson family originated with Shmul Zbytkower, one of whose sons, Ber (1764–1822), was also known as Berek Sonnenberg. Berek’s children subsequently adopted the surname Berekson (later Bergson) from their father’s first name.
With his inherited fortune and personal connections, Berek Sonnenberg and his siblings built the family’s financial power on state franchises and monopolies, including the Wieliczka salt mines. In the banking sector, 20 percent of banks in the Polish Kingdom were established by Shmul’s descendants or their spouses. Berek supplied the armies of the Grand Duchy of Warsaw, Napoleonic France, Austria, and Russia. Sonnenberg and his family were the only traditional Jews granted the right of residence outside the city’s Jewish neighborhoods and the right to purchase landed property. He was a member of the Jewish community council and conducted extensive charitable work: in 1807 he built and donated a synagogue to the Jews of Praga, a suburb of Warsaw. He used his extensive influence in government circles to protect Jews both in economic matters and against accusations of ritual murder. With his wife, Temerl, he supported the Hasidic movement and acted as patron to various tsadikim. Berek left a great fortune (about 5 million zlotys), of which 10 percent went to charities, both Jewish and Christian (the latter forced by the Polish government).
Berek’s children were Gabriel (1790–1844), Perel Mirl (Horowitz; 1792–1879), Jakub (Yankl) David (1794–1856), Leib (Leopold; 1796–1834), and Michał Józef (1800–1864). As head of the family and executor of Berek’s will, Jakub continued to support Hasidism and was a member of the advisory chamber of the government’s Jewish committee as well as the Jewish community board.
Gabriel Bergson was a merchant and owner of commercial establishments in Warsaw and Hamburg. He had an estate in Jeżewo, over which he presided as lord—a position rarely held by a Jew. He had 10 sons, the eldest of whom, Ludwik (1808–1857), was a well-known merchant in Warsaw. Ludwik’s son Michał (1831–1919) was a member of the board of directors of the Warsaw Stock Exchange and head of the Warsaw Jewish community from 1896 to 1918. In 1867, he was forced to sell his estate because of his support for the January Revolution. That same year, he joined his brother Samuel’s (1829–1911) commercial firm, which became Warsaw’s largest financial institution—S i M Bergson. Perel Mirl, whom Yankev Shatzky calls “legendary” and Naḥum Sokolow refers to as “a heroic Jewish matriarch” was the mother of Yisakhar ha-Levi (“Ish”) Horowitz (1835–1905), a Hebrew writer.
Leib Bergson played a crucial role in the development of Warsaw’s industrial base, leasing a textile factory with 40 mechanical looms and employing 60 workers. He also headed the L. Bergson i Ollendorff trade corporation. Michał Józef, Berek’s youngest son, was the owner and landlord of an estate in Lychów. His own son Wincenty (1837–1907) inherited this estate. One of Wincenty’s daughters, Melanja, was a highly regarded economist and lecturer at the University of Zurich. Wincenty’s brother, Gustav (1850–1908) was a partner in the Librowicz i Bergson trade corporation (the Librowicz family was connected to the family through Gustav’s sister, Anna).
Józef Bergson, Gabriel Bergson’s son, was born in Warsaw in 1812, studied medicine in Prussia, and later became a lecturer in medicine at the University of Berlin. His brother Michał (1820–1898) was a pianist and composer. Performing primarily in Western Europe (Italy, Berlin, Leipzig, Paris, and London), he was well known as a popularizer of Chopin’s music, and was the father of the French philosopher Henri Bergson (1859–1941).
Glenn Dynner, Men of Silk: The Hasidic Conquest of Polish Jewish Society (New York, 2006); Henryk Kroszczor, Kartki z historii Żydow w Warszawie XIX–XXw. (Warsaw, 1979); Kazimierz Reychmann, Szkice genealogiczne (Warsaw, 1936); Jacob Shatzky, Geshikhte fun yidn in Varshe, vol. 3 (New York, 1953); Marcin Wodziński, “Legat Berka Sonnenberga czyli O zaskakujacej karierze mimowolnego dobroczyncy,” Studia Judaica 7.13 (2004): 139–162.
Translated from Hebrew by David Fachler