Australian Aboriginals and Kristallnacht

Australian Aboriginals and Kristallnacht

Because I so rarely get to blog about uplifting things, I wanted to pass along the following story, concerning a group of aboriginals who, in 1938 — when so much of the world was silent — protested the Nazis’ treatment of the Jews during Kristallnacht:

William Cooper’s name does not appear on Yad Vashem’s list of the Righteous Among the Nations, but the Aboriginal elder should be regarded as highly as Raoul Wallenberg, Oskar Schindler and the 22,000-plus others who risked their lives for the Jews.

That was the message delivered by the Jewish Community Council of Victoria at a Dec. 4 ceremony at State Parliament in Melbourne to recognize Cooper, who in 1938 protested the “cruel persecution” of the Jews.

Some 300 Jewish and Aboriginal leaders joined Australian government officials and Israel’s ambassador in paying tribute to Cooper and the Australian Aboriginal League on the 70th anniversary of their petition to the German Consulate in Melbourme on Dec. 6, 1938, just weeks after the Kristallnacht pogrom.

Cooper, then 77, and his delegation were denied entry to the consulate with their petition. But 70 years on, the German consul general, Anne-Marie Schleich, attended the ceremony. Also on hand were Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin and Victorian Premier John Brumby.

John Searle, the Jewish Community Council president, said Cooper understood what it was like to be a minority and to suffer oppression.

“He had long been fighting for his own people, the indigenous Australians,” Searle said. “He was a remarkable man. He could not sit by, watch such oppression and do nothing.”

At the ceremony, Israeli Ambassador Yuval Rotem, Jewish National Fund of Victoria president Sara Gold and Kristallnacht survivor Shmuel Rosenkranz presented a certificate to Cooper’s grandson, Boydie Turner, stating that 70 trees will be planted in the Martyrs’ Forest near Jerusalem to honor the protest.

The Israeli Embassy said it will pay for a member of the Cooper family to fly to Israel in April for the tree-planting ceremony.

Rotem said Cooper “defied the silence” of the majority of humanity.

“If there were more like William Cooper in every nation of the world, then perhaps, just perhaps, the Jews of Europe may have defied their fate,” he said. “He deserves to be remembered as a hero to the Jewish people and an inspiration to mankind. His message is clear: The convenience of silence is as evil as the greatest crime.”

Rosenkranz, 86, lost 32 members of his family in the Holocaust.

“I think back 70 years and recollect that nobody of the so-called Western civilized world raised the voice of opposition against this pogrom,” he told JTA. “But in faraway Australia, an ancient people still not recognized by the Western world as owners of the land that they live on raised their voice.”

It was not until 1967 that the Aborigines were recognized as Australian citizens or given the right to vote, even though they trace their origins back more than 40,000 years.

One of Cooper’s descendants, Kooramyee Cooper, described her great-uncle as “a visionary who realized that others were similar to Aborigines. There was no equality and no justice for Aborigines at that time. Uncle William knew what was happening to Jews was wrong.”

I’ve been to the Holocaust Museum to see the exhibits four or five times, and I always cry at the same place — in the final room, where the museum has collected the stories of non-Jews who risked (and sometimes lost) their lives to save Jews who were often complete strangers to them.  I had the same reaction the first time I read about the aboriginals’ protest.  It’s a beautiful, touching story.

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Asia-Pacific, Europe, International Human Rights Law
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Benjamin Davis
Benjamin Davis

Thanks for this story.  This is the kind of thing I am looking for as I work on my sabbatical book tentatively entitled “The Citizen’s Role in State Compliance with International Law.”  It reminds me also of the non-Japanese Americans who went to see their mayors in places like the Pacific Northwest to protest the internment of their Japanese-American neighbors, or the whites in Texas who petitioned the state to exempt a particular black family in Texas from the post-Civil War State Constitutional amendment that forbade free blacks from settling in Texas  (Jason Miller at Texas Wesleyan has written on this and discussed it at our 1808 Conference here at Toledo this past fall). Selfless activism in a tradition that is fine and doing a thing that Lauterpacht said was essential at a speech at Chatham House in 1941.


Great story. As a very white Australian I guess I am both proud and humbled.

A pity that when one finds something uplifting to post about it is from 70 years into the past 🙁