The German government has officially apologised after its consulate in Melbourne refused 82 years ago to accept a letter of protest from the Australian Aborigines’ League about the Nazi persecution of the Jews. On Sunday 6th of December 2020, Felix Klein – the Commissioner for Jewish Life in Germany and the Fight against Anti-Semitism – issued the historic apology via video link on behalf of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government.
According to The Argus newspaper, the delegation wanted to convey a resolution voicing “on behalf of Aborigines of Australia, a strong protest at the cruel persecution of the Jewish people by the Nazi government of Germany, and ask that this persecution is brought to an end”.
The Australian Aborigines’ League, which used Mr Cooper’s home in Footscray as its meeting place, drew a parallel between the treatment of Aboriginal people and a pogrom against Jews carried out by the paramilitary wing of the Nazis on November 9-10, 1938, that became known as Kristallnacht.
The league felt moved to protest at the violence from the other side of the world, and a delegation walked from Footscray to the German consulate in Melbourne on December 6, 1938. But the consulate refused to admit the delegation.
“Officially, on behalf of the government of Chancellor Angela Merkel, we are sorry that the 1938 Consul General in Melbourne would not accept the letter of the Australian Aborigines’ League, nor forward it onto the political leadership here in Berlin as would have been the right and morally correct thing for a consulate official to do,” Dr Klein said on Sunday.
Yorta Yorta activist and educator Lois Peeler said she was happy to accept the apology on behalf of her people. Dr Peeler said Mr Cooper – who in the early 1930s founded the Australian Aborigines’ League to advocate for a fairer deal for Indigenous Australians and campaigned to repeal discriminatory legislation – was an “amazing leader”.
“I think what motivated him was the similarity between the persecution of the Jewish community at that time and what was happening to our people. It was about human rights.”
William Cooper Legacy Project convenor Abe Schwarz, who has spent years educating people about this little-known chapter of history, said he was pleasantly surprised when he heard Dr Klein apologise on the video link. “The more I thought about it, I was ecstatic. I said: ‘Is this as big as I think it is?’ ”
Mr Schwarz learnt about Mr Cooper in the early 2000s when asked by a Yorta Yorta elder in Echuca if he was “from that Hebrew mob”. “I’ve always wanted to meet someone from the mob that my mob tried to save,” he was told. Mr Schwarz rang the Jewish Holocaust Centre in Melbourne and asked if they had heard of a bloke called Cooper.
In 2002, the Jewish Holocaust Centre held an event honouring Mr Cooper, at which Mr Schwarz met Mr Cooper’s grandson, Uncle Alfred “Boydie” Turner.
“When many countries around the world would not act … he did,” Uncle Boydie, who is now 92, wrote in 2017. Mr Schwarz accompanied Uncle Boydie to Israel and in 2017 to Germany, where Uncle Boydie presented the German government with a replica of the 1938 resolution.
“He knew his job was to complete his grandfather’s unfinished business. He just asked if he could basically tell Germany, via the German government, of what his grandfather tried to do,” Mr Schwarz said. Germany’s ambassador to Australia, Thomas Fitschen, said Mr Cooper’s letter showed the Aboriginal people of Australia were “keenly aware of the terrible events in Germany”.
“We owe sincere gratitude to … Alfred Turner, known as Uncle Boydie, for nurturing lasting remembrance of the victims of persecution and those who stood up against it,” Dr Fitschen said in a statement.
The German embassy in Canberra said German honorary consul-general in Melbourne Michael Pearce would attend the online event to mark the 82nd anniversary of Mr Cooper’s delegation.
In 1934, Mr Cooper launched a petition asking King George V for a representative for Indigenous people in Federal Parliament, to help address injustices. Then prime minister Joseph Lyons failed to pass it on and the petition never reached the king.
Mr Cooper, along with other Aboriginal leaders from Cummeragunja Aboriginal Reserve, was instrumental in the 1938 Aboriginal Day of Mourning to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the landing of the First Fleet.
In 2018, the federal electorate of Cooper, which takes in Melbourne’s northern suburbs, was named in honour of the Indigenous activist. The electorate’s geography mirrors almost entirely the former electorate of Batman, named after John Batman. The renaming followed a campaign that argued Batman was involved in the massacre of Aboriginal people in Tasmania before he helped found Melbourne in 1835.
Mr Cooper is honoured in Israel by a memorial in Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem Holocaust museum and 70 trees planted across two forests. His legacy also lives on locally in the naming of the William Cooper Justice Centre, the William Cooper footbridge at Footscray station and the William Cooper Cup, a football match between Victoria Police and an Indigenous All-Stars team.
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