An Aboriginal Protest Against the Nazis, Finally Delivered

A heroic act of solidarity with persecuted Jews in Nazi Germany by an Aboriginal activist comes full circle - 74 years later.

SYDNEY -- One of the most remarkable protests against the “cruel persecution” of the Jews by the Nazis has finally been completed – 74 years after it was initiated in faraway Australia.

Just weeks after Kristallnacht, William Cooper, an Aboriginal elder of the Yorta Yorta tribe, led a delegation to the German consulate in Melbourne to deliver a petition condemning the Nazis treatment of the Jews.

Cooper, then the 77-year-old secretary of the Australian Aborigines League, was denied entry to the consulate.

But last Thursday, exactly 74 years to the day, Cooper’s 84-year-old grandson Alf “Boydie” Turner and great-grandson Kevin Russell along with about a dozen other family members handed over a duplicate letter of protest.

This time, the German consul received the petition, which was read out by Turner in front of about 200 supporters, including Holocaust survivors and members of the Jewish community.

“On behalf of the Aboriginal inhabitants of Australia, we wish to have it registered and on record that we protest wholeheartedly at the cruel persecution of the Jewish people by the Nazi government in Germany,” the petition said.

“We plead that you would make it known to your government and its military leaders that this cruel persecution of their fellow citizens must be brought to an end.”

Michael Pearce, the German honorary consul, said the German Embassy supported the re-enactment of the 1938 protest. “It’s been an opportunity to right a wrong from the past,” Pearce told ABC Radio. “Seventy-four years ago the then German consul should have accepted this letter and this resolution.”

Kevin Russell, who helps reunite Aborigines who were “stolen” from their families as part of government actions as late as the 1970s, told Haaretz, “The biggest moment was Uncle Boydie handing that letter and having it received,” he said. “It was very special for us family members.”

Russell said it was not extraordinary that Cooper took up the plight of Europe’s Jews while his own people were being oppressed in Australia.

“It doesn’t surprise me at all,” he said. “We know he also campaigned for all marginalized people, so when he heard of Kristallnacht, he protested. He spent all his life fighting against exactly that.”

At the time of the protest, Aboriginal Australians were discriminated against under the White Australia policy. It wasn’t until 1967 that they were recognized as Australian citizens with the right to vote – despite the fact they can trace their origins on the continent back some 40,000 years.

To coincide with the anniversary of Cooper’s protest, a new book was launched last week called “William Cooper – Gentle Warrior: Standing up for Australian Aborigines and Persecuted Jews.”

Its author, Barbara Miller, said in the preface that she was inspired by the story from the moment she heard about it.

“Because of my love for the Aboriginal people and for Israel, I became fascinated with his story and wanted more people to know about it,” Miller wrote.

In the book’s foreword, Alf Turner wrote: “Grandfather could sadly recognize that same affliction of fear, desperation, bewilderment and a sense of hopelessness which the Jewish people faced in Europe.

“When many countries around the world would not act he did.”

Cooper’s unique protest against the Nazis has only gained traction here in the last decade or so after a small newspaper report about the 1938 protest was unearthed.
In 2002, a plaque was unveiled at the Jewish Holocaust Centre in Melbourne in honor of “those Aboriginal people who in 1938 stood up and protested the atrocities and persecution of the Jews.”

In 2009, trees were planted by the Jewish National Fund in Cooper’s honor in the Martyrs’ Forest outside of Jerusalem and the Australia Israel Friendship Forest in the Negev. And in 2010 Cooper became the first Indigenous Australian to be honored by Yad Vashem, where a memorial was unveiled and an academic chair for the study of resistance during the Holocaust was endowed.

Since Cooper’s act of altruism, Jews have been at the fore front of the fight for Aboriginal rights. In the mid-1960s, James Spigelman, the former chief justice of the Supreme Court of New South Wales, was a leader of the so-called “freedom rides” into rural Australia to highlight the plight of Aborigines.

More recently, Jewish members of the legal fraternity have represented Aborigines, notably the late Ron Castan, who was senior counsel for Eddie Mabo in the 1992 landmark case in which the High Court of Australia recognized Aboriginal land rights for the first time.

Mark Leibler, a former chair of the world board of trustees of Keren Hayesod-UIA and a former co-chair of Reconciliation Australia, said on the 70th anniversary of Cooper’s protest, “At a time when his own peoples’ rights were also being ignored, William Cooper had the generosity of spirit and the clarity of vision to draw connections from the mutual struggles of two persecuted minorities.

“Such acts of solidarity will never be forgotten by Jews in Australia and beyond,” he said.

Emmanuel Santos
Emmanuel Santos