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Real Talk. Right Here.

Agent of Change: William Cooper

This month we turn our attention to William Cooper - an Indigenous Elder who not only spent his life advocating for Aboriginal Rights but turned his sights on Hitler in 1938.

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Aboriginal Street Art Project - William Cooper and Pastor Sir Douglas Nicholls Mural, Fryers Street (between Maude and Corio Street),  Shepparton VIC 3630

On November 9 to November 10, 1938, in an incident known as “Kristallnacht”, Nazis in Germany torched synagogues, vandalized Jewish homes, schools and businesses and killed close to 100 Jewish people.

In the aftermath of Kristallnacht, some 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and sent to Nazi concentration camps. German Jews had been subjected to repressive policies since 1933 when Nazi Party leader Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) became chancellor of Germany.

However, prior to Kristallnacht, these Nazi policies had been primarily nonviolent. After Kristallnacht, conditions for German Jews grew increasingly worse. During World War II (1939-45), Hitler and the Nazis implemented their so-called “Final Solution” to the what they referred to as the “Jewish problem,” and carried out the systematic murder of over 6 million European Jews in what came to be known as the Holocaust.

Despite no country breaking off diplomatic relations with Berlin after Kristallnacht, many in the global community were shocked. However, there was only one ‘private’ protest (by citizens) that we know of against Kristallnacht and the German Nazi regime led by Adolf Hitler —this was instigated by William Cooper.

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On the morning of December 6, 1938 – one man led a protest in an attempt to protect marginalised people on the other side of the world. A protest that was truly ahead of its time in its courage and foresight. Remarkably, these protesters weren’t Jewish. They were Christians. And yet, Yad Vashem, the world’s leading centre on the Holocaust, says their protest was the only one of its kind. It didn’t happen in France or Britain or even America. It happened here in Australia. And it was Aboriginal Australians who weren’t even citizens of their own country. They were led by a 78-year-old man from Bangerang country. 

He had planned to deliver a letter to German counsel that said:

“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. 

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.”

When Cooper and his fellow protesters arrived, they were not allowed inside the German Consulate, and the German Counsel-General at the time refused to go outside to meet the mob. Cooper’s letter remained undelivered until 2012 when his 84-year-old grandson Alf “Boydie” Turner and great-grandson Kevin Russell handed over a duplicate letter of protest in a re-enactment (with blessing from the German Embassy).

Cooper was perhaps the first Aboriginal to lead a protest of this international nature. In the recognition of seeing a group of people discriminated against, an experience he was very familiar with, he fought for what he knew was right.

And his efforts have been recognized internationally.Forests of Matyrs

From recognition at the Melbourne Jewish Holocaust Museum commemorating an Aboriginal delegation attempting to present              to the German consul general in 1938 through to Israeli people        planting trees in honor of Cooper in the Forest of Martyrs near Jerusalem. There is also a memorial honoring him at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Israel. 

With William Cooper's action, we are reminded that it is everyone's responsibility to act in the face of discrimination.

                                                                                                                             Forest of the Martyrs, Israel