The Aboriginal who stood up for the Jews

By Dan Goldberg, December 11, 2008
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Fought prejudice: William Cooper

Fought prejudice: William Cooper

A remarkable 1938 Aboriginal protest against European antisemitism has been honoured at the State Parliament in Melbourne.

On December 6 1938, just weeks after the Kristallnacht pogroms in Germany, William Cooper, an Aboriginal elder, delivered a petition to the German consulate in Melbourne.

They were denied entry to the consulate but handed over the petition, which condemned “the cruel persecution” of the Jews by the Nazis.

Seventy years later, about 300 Jewish and Aboriginal leaders, as well as government officials, paid tribute to Mr Cooper and the Australian Aboriginal League.

John Searle, the president of the Jewish Community Council of Victoria, said: “William Cooper understood what it was like to be a minority, to suffer oppression. He was a remarkable man. He could not sit by, watch such oppression and do nothing.”

Israeli Ambassador Yuval Rotem, JNF of Victoria president Sara Gold and Kristallnacht survivor Shmuel Rosenkranz gave Mr Cooper’s grandson, Boydie Turner, a certificate stating that 70 trees will be planted in the Martyrs’ Forest near Jerusalem to honour Mr Cooper’s protest. The Israeli Embassy is paying for one of the Cooper clan to fly to Israel next April to take part in the tree-planting ceremony.

Mr Rosenkranz, 86, survived Kristallnacht in Vienna but lost 32 family members in the Holocaust.

“Nobody of the so-called Western civilised world raised the voice of opposition against this pogrom,” he said. “But in faraway Australia, an ancient people — still not recognised by the Western world as owners of the land that they live on — raised their voice.”

Aborigines were not recognised as Australian citizens or given the right to vote until 1967.

One of Mr Cooper’s descendants, Kooramyee Cooper, described her great-uncle as “a visionary who realised 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.”

Kevin Russell, a great-grandson of Cooper, said: “It’s an amazing thing to be acknowledged by the Jewish community. Pop would be just ecstatic.”

Mr Russell, who helps to reunite some of the 100,000 Aboriginal children forcibly removed from their families between 1910 and 1970, said he would invite the Jewish community to Cooper’s gravesite in his Yorta Yorta homeland to thank them.

Mark Leibler, a veteran Jewish community leader and co-chair of Reconciliation Australia, which promotes relations between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians, noted that Mr Cooper also wrote to then prime minister Robert Menzies in 1940 to protest the “oppression of
Hitlerism”.

    Last updated: 2:32pm, December 15 2008