Sunday, January 27, is International Holocaust Memorial Day, an apropos time to remember William Cooper, an Aboriginal Australian who protested Nazi persecution of the Jewish people.
When Cooper opened The Argus – a Melbourne newspaper – on November 11, 1938, he expected to read about the anniversary of the armistice following WWI, a war in which he had lost a son. Instead, he found it filled with stories about Kristallnacht.
“After seeing images of shattered windows, William Cooper knew that something had to be done and commented to a member of the Australian Aboriginal League, ‘If someone doesn’t stop Hitler, there’s going to be a genocide,’” Abe Schwarz, founder of the William Cooper Legacy Project, told The Jewish Press.
William Cooper was born in 1861 and was educated at the Maloga Mission, founded by a missionary couple in 1874. He was active in fighting for rights for Aboriginal Australians and founded the Australian Aboriginal League at age 73. In January 1938, he headed the first the Aboriginal delegation ever to meet with an Australian prime minister.
“William Cooper believed in the power of the pen rather than the sword and throughout his lifetime vigorously wrote numerous letters to politicians and statesmen trying to alter the treatment of Aborigines,” Schwartz said.
On November 11, 1938, Cooper read of Jews – a people he had never come in contact with – being rounded up and taken to concentration camps by the Nazis. Cooper bought the newspaper daily to follow the story. He was disappointed by the world’s response to Kristallnacht and commiserated with the Jewish people.
Aged 77 at this point, Cooper called together a delegation of Aboriginal activists (who were illiterate) and read them articles from the newspaper relating to the Jews in Europe. Then he decided to act. He found out the address of the German consulate in Melbourne and organized a protest against the treatment of the Jews.
He made an appointment with the Consul General of the Third Reich and, dressed in suits and hats, a delegation of a dozen men and women marched from Cooper’s house to the consulate. Security guards denied them entry, but before they left, they handed a guard the following petition:
“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.”
William Cooper died in 1941. In 2010, an academic chair at the Holocaust History Museum of Yad Vashem was named in his honor.