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Yorta Yorta elder a hero of the Jews

Australia has a human rights defender on a par with Raoul Wallenberg and Oskar Schindler for his stance against Nazi Germany, yet William Cooper is little known in Australia today.

William CooperAppalled by the vicious carnage of Kristallnacht, the watershed pogrom of November 1938, Aboriginal leader Bill Cooper (right) led a protest walk from his home in the Melbourne suburb of Footscray to the German consulate in South Melbourne.

His deputation sought to present a petition to the consul — the first Australians to formally protest the onset of the Nazi genocide — but was refused entry.

Their petition was quoted in The Argus newspaper the next day:

"On behalf of the Aborigines of Australia, a strong protest at the cruel persecution of the Jewish people by the Nazi government of Germany, and asks that this persecution be brought to an end. "

Cooper also agitated for the Australian government — which did not accord him full citizenship — to defend the Jews, writing to then-PM Bob Menzies.

The 'so-called civilised world' was silent to the plight of European Jewry, says Holocaust survivor Shmuel Rosenkranz, 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.”

Israeli Ambassador to Australia, Yuval Rotem, says Cooper "deserves to be remembered as a hero to the Jewish people and an inspiration to mankind."

Thinking Black by Attwood & Markus (2004)Historians Bain Attwood and Andrew Markus believe Cooper's empathy for Jews was influenced by a teacher, Cornish missionary Daniel Matthews (1837-1902), who drew parallels between indigenous Australians' experience of persecution and that of the Jews of the Bible.

Similarities persisted under the Third Reich, with both Jews and indigenous Australians labelled according to their 'blood' ('half-Jews' and 'half-castes', etc.), intermarriage restricted by the State and these minorities confined to designated ghettos or reserves.

Geoffrey Zygier of the Jewish Community Council of Victoria agrees:

"Some of the connections between our peoples are obvious: the attachment to our native land, our spirituality and antiquity, and the genocide directed at our respective communities.  Others are not so obvious, but nevertheless very real: our mutual love of story-telling, of singing and dance, of ceremony, and especially our pride in our histories and communities."

A shearer, unionist and veteran campaigner for his own people's rights, the Yorta Yorta elder was aged 77 at the time of his 9km (5.5-mile) walk across Melbourne.  Four years earlier, Cooper founded the first Aboriginal organisation in Australia, the Melbourne-based Australian Aborigines' League (later renamed the Aboriginal Advancement League and still in operation).

Attwood and Markus have chronicled the activism of this important indigenous leader in their book Thinking Black: William Cooper and the Australian Aborigines' League (Aboriginal Studies Press, 2004).

Three hundred Jewish and Aboriginal leaders joined Ambassador Rotem, Australian government officials and the German consul in a ceremony in Melbourne on 6 December last year to mark the 70th anniversary of the petitioners' walk.

In Israel, 70 trees have been planted in the Martyrs’ Forest and the Australia-Israel Friendship Forest to honour the protest.  Eight of Cooper's descendants flew to Israel to attend the ceremony in April.  They brought with them river water and earth from Yorta Yorta land in northern Victoria to tend the young trees.

Comments

  1. 2 December 2010 | 5:38 pm

    For the anniversary of Kristallnacht, ABC News made this 7-minute report of these historic events, including interviews with Cooper’s descendants and a survivor of Kristallnacht: http://www.abc.net.au/news/video/2010/12/01/3082041.htm

  2. 25 August 2017 | 10:02 am

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    RightsBase » Blog Archive » Yorta Yorta elder a hero of the Jews

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