Walking in William Cooper’s footsteps

Walking in William Cooper’s footsteps

This protest was for another mob. He [William Cooper] saw injustices happening to others and had the guts and ability to do something about it.

Alfred Turner hands his grandfather William Cooper's Kristallnacht protest letter to Dr Felix Klein of the German government.
Alfred Turner hands his grandfather William Cooper's Kristallnacht protest letter to Dr Felix Klein of the German government.

OFTEN at official events these days, and exceedingly at communal events, it has become common to hear an acknowledgement of country, which mentions the traditional owners of the land and pays respect to Indigenous culture and to their elders past, present and emerging.

When I first heard such an acknowledgement, I thought it to be a little tokenistic. But then I kept hearing it and it intrigued me, so I did some research, and found it contained important, historical, even Jewish values.

An acknowledgement of country is really a modern-day creation. Centuries or millennia ago, there were many Indigenous tribes spread out all over the country, much like the tribes of Israel. Each had their own land, culture, tribal practices, and languages. Each was considered a homeland for the people, and as we know, people are often very protective of their homeland, and rightly so.

Someone wanting to visit another tribe first sent out a group of young men selected by the elders, much like the biblical story of the spies. This group would negotiate terms and would agree to honour and respect the land. Elders would then welcome the visitors.

There were many traditions, but acknowledging the owners of the land and recognising their connection to it, was a major part of any ceremony.

With the arrival of Europeans, many of these traditions were lost. An acknowledgement of country of sorts was first revived in the 1970s, and then started to become ingrained following the Mabo decision in the 1990s. In 2010 a ceremony of acknowledgement was first performed in Parliament House in Canberra, and since then acknowledgements have become part of the mainstream.

Elders were an important part of any acknowledgement, and are still mentioned today. Judaism and many other moral codes teach that respecting elders is paramount, and hearing an acknowledgement of country that refers to elders of the past, present and future sounds very charming to me.

Maybe this is because I still have three grandparents, all in their 90s, and have been spending a lot more time with my grandfather of late. Though he speaks and moves slowly and doesn’t hear everything I say, his mind is still active and his memories are still strong. It is fascinating to hear his stories from before he was married, and from before the war. He is clearly not Indigenous, but every time I hear about elders, I think of him and his legacy.

I also think of Alfred “Uncle Boydie” Turner, currently the oldest of the Yorta Yorta tribe, and grandson of William Cooper, who 80 years on has become one of the most important Indigenous activists of his time. Many of the causes that Indigenous people are still fighting for today stem from his activism in the 1930s.

He not only advocated on behalf of his own people, but when he read about Kristallnacht in the paper and realised that no one was protesting about it, he couldn’t sit idly by because he concluded that things would get much worse before they got better.

As has been reported widely, he wrote a protest letter and organised a march from his house in Footscray to the then German Consulate on Collins Street. He was barred from entering the consulate, and there is no record that the letter was ever read or even opened.

But, 70 years later Yad Vashem officially recognised his actions as the only known private protest against Kristallnacht anywhere in the world. And the fact that it was organised by an Indigenous Australian, who did not have citizenship in his own country, makes it all the more remarkable.

My grandfather’s family also heard about Kristallnacht and events that followed, and also concluded that things would get worse before they got better. After the war started, many of them escaped to Siberia and spent a couple of years there. That’s how my grandfather, a few of his siblings and mother survived.

Most of the stories I hear now are from his time in Siberia, or in the immediate years after. He wasn’t interned in a camp but nonetheless endured starvation and many other challenges during that time. He did however meet my grandmother there, whose family also escaped to Siberia.

William Cooper’s story resonates with me so much because Uncle Boydie and many others have said that his stance on behalf of the Jewish community against the pogroms of Kristallnacht, is what they are most proud of.

Everything else he advocated for was for his own community. This protest was for another mob. He saw injustices happening to others and had the guts and ability to do something about it.

My grandfather and Uncle Boydie remind me of each other. They are about the same age, tell stories of the past, and are the epitome of an elder.

And in honour of both of them, last year I helped to get Uncle Boydie, at age 89, to travel to Berlin to symbolically present the protest letter penned by his grandfather to the present day German government.

It was rejected at the German Consulate in Melbourne in 1938 but was warmly and sincerely accepted by the German government at the Australian embassy in Berlin in 2017.

It was a symbolic ceremony and maybe could have been seen as tokenistic, but like the acknowledgement of country, for the people involved it was anything but.

For me, it reinforced my visceral connection to the Indigenous community and to the acknowledgement of country. For Uncle Boydie, he was finally able to complete the unfinished business that his grandfather started all those years ago.

Watching from afar, I was reminded how important elders are, past and present. I also realised that events on the other side of the world with seemingly no connection to us, can have long-lasting impacts.

We still commemorate and remember Kristallnacht, and this year, exactly 80 years after William Cooper’s march, we will be recreating his march as well, which will finish with the lighting of Chanukah candles and a not so tokenistic acknowledgement of country.

ALEX KATZ is a committee member of the William Cooper Legacy Project. The march will take place on Thursday, December 6, starting at Flagstaff Gardens at 6.30pm, and concluding at Alexandra Gardens at 8pm with a ceremony and candle lighting. For more information, visit www.walkingtogether.org.au.

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