Berger Surname Meaning, History & Origin

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The root of the surname Berger is berg meaning “mountain” and would describe someone who lived by a mountain. The name is found throughout central and eastern Europe, either as a surname of German origin or as a German translation of a topographic name with a similar meaning.  As a Jewish name it is mainly ornamental.

Berger in France has another meaning.  It came from the Old French berger meaning “ram” and would be the occupational name for a shepherd.

Berger is quite distinct from the Burger name which is derived from the German word burc or “burg.”   This would be a status surname for a freeman of a burg or borough, especially one who was a member of its governing council.

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Berger appeared initially in the English-speaking world, in London and in Boston, as a Huguenot surname from France.  Later immigration was from German-speaking lands.  Today the Berger numbers amount to some 70,000 in Germany (with the larger numbers in the southeast of the country), 30,000 in Austria and Switzerland; while there are also around 25,000 Bergers in France.

For Berger immigrants to America, it is estimated that 64% of them came from Germany.

England.  The introduction of the Berger name into England came first from an influx of Huguenot refugees fleeing religious persecution in France in the 17th century.  The christening of David, the son of Louis Berger, was recorded at Le Temple in London in 1692.

A century or so later, the German Berger presence became evident in London.  Louis Steigenberger, a chemist from Frankfurt, became Lewis Berger after he had moved to London in 1760 to sell a Prussian blue color there which had been made using his own formula.  His paint-making operations began at the Homerton plant in Hackney in 1780 and continued until 1958 when the plant eventually closed.  William Berger of this family was a starch manufacturer who involved himself in Christian missionary work to China in the 1860’s.

Later Berger arrivals in London were: 

  • Stanley Berger who was a Hungarian émigré from Trieste arriving in the early 1900’s.  He was an infantry officer on the Western Front during the First World War and was awarded the Military Cross.  His son John Berger, born in Hackney in 1926, became a famous art critic and writer.
  • and Gerson Berger who was a Jewish immigrant from Romania, naturalized in 1949.  He built up a huge residential property empire after the war, now handled by his grandson Berish Berger.

America.  The progenitor of the Berger Huguenot family in Boston appears to have been a Philip Barger or Berger who arrived from New Rochelle in France around the year 1685. He was subsequently a mariner and part-owner of the brigantine Neptune active in Boston’s trade with the Caribbean.   Jean Berger, a Boston painter/stainer, came from this family.

German.  Georg Berger was an early German arrival in America, coming from the Rhineland to Philadelphia with his family on the Aurora in 1744.  He made his home in Berks county.  Peter Berger or Barger came to Germantown, York county around the same time.  His descendants migrated to Virginia, Kentucky and points further west.  Jacob Berger meanwhile was born in Augusta county, Virginia in 1745.  Later known as Jacob Barger, he helped build the first Lutheran church in the county in 1794.

Then there were Bergers who arrived from Germany in the mid-19th century: 

  • George and Henry Berger who came to Baltimore in 1835 and brought with them the Berger cookie that was to become a cultural icon in Baltimore.
  • Adolph Berger who trained as a lawyer in Germany, came to America in 1849, and began his legal practice in Lebanon, Illinois.  His son Albert followed in his father’s footsteps in Kansas City.
  • William Berger who came to America in the same year and later married and settled down in Gasconade county, Missouri
    where he farmed.
  • John Berger who came with his wife Barbara in 1852 to Iowa where he began to deal in livestock and became one of the well-known stockmen in the county.  His son John was pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Dodge City, Kansas.
  • and Meinrad Berger and his family who emigrated to Cincinnati, Ohio in 1853 where Meinrad started a cigar factory.  His son John moved into an area which became known as Berger Hill.  Fred Berger’s 1995 book Stories from the Berger History provided an account of this family.

Another Berger family, arriving in 1870, started a cigar factory, this time in Detroit, Michigan.  Gustav Berger seems to have been the founder of this business.  But other Berger family members were involved as well.  Sadly Gustav died in 1913 when he was hit by a runaway Detroit streetcar.

Jewish.  Later came Jewish Bergers.  They came from a wider area of Europe that extended to Poland and the old Russian empire and they mainly headed for the big cities.  Among those who came were:

  • Victor Berger, the son of prosperous innkeepers in Romania, who arrived in America in 1878 and later made his home in Milwaukee.  He became active in newspapers and then in politics.  He was elected as the first Socialist in the US Congress in 1910 and, despite his anti-militarist views, was elected to three further terms in the 1920’s.  
  • Rueben Berger, a cigar merchant, and his wife Jeanette from Poland who arrived in Chicago in the early 1880’s.  Their son Sam Berger was Olympic heavyweight boxing champion in 1904.
  • and Nathaniel and Esther Berger from Russia who arrived in New York in 1891.  Nathaniel was a building contractor there.  But he died in 1909 and his wife in 1917 while en route to Jerusalem.  Their son Nathan became a successful businessman and restaurant owner in the Bronx.

Canada.  The best-known Berger in Canada, Justice Thomas Berger, is of Swedish heritage.  His grandfather Ivar Theodor Berger was a police judge in Gothenburg, Sweden; and his father came to Canada in the 1920’s and was a sergeant in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.  Thomas, born in British Columbia, has been a distinguished jurist.

 


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Bergers in America by Country of Origin.

Country Numbers Per cent
Germany   1,438    64
Switzerland     281    13
Hungary     171     8
Austria     169     8
Russia     164     7
Total   2,223   100

Jean Berger, Boston Huguenot.  Jean Berger was a Huguenot painter/stainer in Boston in the early 1700’s.  His design book and a few court cases involving him represent most of what is known about his life and work.

Written in both English and French, a sketchy family register at the back of his book records the birth of Berger’s wife Rachel on October 16, 1686 and the death of his father-in-law on June 29, 1730.  It also reveals that Berger had at least four children and was a member of Boston’s sizable Huguenot community.

His approximate working dates can be extrapolated from the date 1718 on the front of his book, Berger’s last known court appearance in 1732, and Rachel’s appearance in court as a widow in 1736. Court records also indicate that Berger rented a house on the northwest corner of Pond and Short streets from Mary White.

Berger Cookies.  Berger cookies are a kind of cookie made and distributed by DeBaufre Bakeries today. They are topped with a thick layer of chocolate fudge that derives from a German recipe and are a cultural icon of Baltimore.  The Berger cookie recipe was brought to America from Germany by George and Henry Berger in 1835.

Henry owned a bakery in East Baltimore which was later run by his son Henry.  While the younger Henry took over his father’s bakery, his two brothers, George and Otto, opened their own bakeries.  Around 1900 Otto died.  Then George and Henry combined the bakeries to create ‘Bergers.’

As technology grew so did the bakery. Eventually Henry died, leaving George as the sole proprietor of the bakery.  When George retired he sold the bakery and the recipe to Charles E. Russell. DeBaufre Bakeries purchased Berger’s from the Russell family in 1969.

The Berger cookie is well known for its thick chocolate frosting layered on top of a shortbread cookie. The recipe has won several awards around the Baltimore area including the 2011 Best of Baltimore Award and the Best Cookie award in 2011.  

Sam Berger, World Heavyweight Boxing Champion.  Like Mohammed Ali, Sam Berger was a heavyweight boxing champion.  Born in Chicago in 1884 to Polish immigrant parents, he moved with them when he was twelve to San Francisco where he took up boxing.  In 1901 he won the Pacific middleweight amateur crown and he won the heavyweight version in 1902.  Berger won virtually all of his amateur bouts by KO.

Two years later he took part in the 1904 Summer Olympics held in St. Louis, Missouri.  It was the first time boxing was featured in the modern Olympics.  Only American boxers participated in the competition and Berger proved superior in the heavyweight division.  Weighing in at 182 pounds, the 6’2″ boxer earned the gold medal.

Afterwards Sam Berger became a professional boxer.  But unlike Mohammed Ali his promising professional career didn’t last long.  On Halloween Day 1906 he was walloped by Al Kaufmann. The scheduled 20 round fight was stopped in the tenth when Berger’s seconds threw up the sponge.  That loss ended Sam Berger’s career as a boxer.

He remained close to boxing, however, and was forever a fan.  He was a promoter for a good number of years, an official referee on occasion, and sparring partner for boxers such as Jim Jeffries. He also ran a clothing store in San Francisco.

Sam Berger died in 1925 at the young age of 41.   He was elected to the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 1985.

Stanley and John Berger and Their Different War Experiences.  Stanley Berger, the son of a Hungarian émigré merchant from Trieste “who sometimes had quite a lot of money and sometimes had none,” had wanted to be an Anglican priest before 1914.  But four cataclysmic years as an infantry officer on the Western Front where he was awarded the Military Cross, left him without faith or politics.

“He was a brave soldier but it indelibly marked him and for a while he was totally lost,” recalled his son John.  He wrote as follows about his father’s experiences in a poem:

“It seems now that I was so near to that war.
I was born of a look of the dead,
Swaddled in mustard gas,
And fed in a dugout.”

After the war Stanley remained in the army for a further four years until 1922, organizing war graves for the British dead.  He then worked quietly in London at the Institute of Cost and Works Accountants.

Son John had his own but different war experiences in the Second World War.  He was drafted into the army in 1944, where he was immediately considered officer material because of his schooling.  He refused the commission, to the considerable chagrin of his superiors, and for his sins was dispatched to Ballykelly barracks in Northern Ireland.

“I lived among these raw recruits,” he said almost wistfully, “and it was the first time I really met working-class contemporaries.  I used to write letters for them, to their parents and occasionally their girlfriends. It was the first time I wrote publicly in a way and though it was a pretty awful year, I can see now that it was a very, very formative experience for me.”

John Berger achieved fame as an art critic in 1972 when his book Ways of Seeing was published.

 


Select Berger Names

Henry Berger was a composer and royal bandmaster of the Kingdom of Hawaii from 1872 until his death in 1929.
Victor Berger
was a founding member of the Socialist Party of America and was elected in 1910 as the first Socialist in Congress, representing a district in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Peter Berger
 is an English art critic, writer, and poet.  His best known work Ways of Seeing, published in 1972 with an accompanying TV series, has had a strong influence on later generations of art students.


Select Berger Numbers Today

  • 4,000 in the UK (most numerous in London)
  • 21,000 in America (most numerous in New York)
  • 2,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)

 

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