‘An extraordinary act of courage’: the Aboriginal activist who protested against Nazi Germany

William CooperA new song cycle from Lior, Nigel Westlake and Dr Lou Bennett pays tribute to Yorta Yorta elder William Cooper and his 1938 march to the German Consulate.

One morning in December 1938, Yorta Yorta elder William Cooper led a group of Australian First Nations activists, the Australian Aborigines’ League, on a two-hour march from Footscray to the German consulate on Collins Street.

The wave of violence known as Kristallnacht had swept across Nazi Germany a month earlier and Cooper’s group planned to register their “strong protest at the cruel persecution of the Jewish people”.

“Our people have suffered much cruelty, exploitation and misunderstanding as a minority at the hands of another people,” their resolution read. “The Nazi government has a consulate here on our land. Let us go there and make our protest known.”

They were turned away, but the story has endured as a rare act of public solidarity in a time when many outside the Jewish community were reluctant to get involved. Kristallnacht prompted the Australian government to finally expand its immigration intake, but it came with caveats – including a new alien registration bill to allay concerns about Jewish assimilation.


‘I think this is an iconic moment in Australian history’ … Lior. Photograph: Claudia Sangiorgi Dalimore

When he heard the story 75 years later, the Melbourne-based singer-songwriter Lior was “just completely blown away”. At the time, he and composer Nigel Westlake were contemplating a companion piece to their 2013 song cycle Compassion. Drawing from ancient Hebrew and Arabic texts, the project was a sweeping orchestral meditation on peace and cross-cultural understanding. As they looked to create a follow-up, Lior began searching for a story that embodied those themes “in the real world”.

The story of that march, and Cooper’s lifetime of activism and solidarity, was just the inspiration they were seeking. Poignantly, many of the questions Cooper raised – from the historic Day of Mourning on 26 January 1939 to his unsuccessful attempt to petition King George VI to enshrine Aboriginal representation in federal parliament – continue to be raised by First Nations activists.

“When I heard this story about William Cooper, I thought, ‘this is an embodiment of so much of what these ancient texts and Compassion were speaking about’ – this extraordinary act of courage, empathy, compassion,” Lior says.

“I think this is an iconic moment in Australian history and a type of aspirational beacon, if you like, both on a personal level [and] on a societal level as well.”

The pair found an important collaborator in Dr Lou Bennett, the Yorta Yorta Dja Dja Wurrung singer and composer perhaps best known for her work in folk group Tiddas. Bennett is also a respected academic with a PhD exploring the field of sovereign language repatriation but, perhaps most poignantly, the story of Cooper, the brother of her Grannie Ada, is a part of her family history.

Just as Compassion drew upon ancient Hebrew and Arabic, language is at the heart of this new song cycle, entitled Ngapa William Cooper – “ngapa” is a Yorta Yorta word for “grandfather”. And like Compassion, its creation explored not only the common resonances between tongues but also when translation can only go so far.

“Like many First Nations languages, the words can be multiple in meaning,” Bennett writes in the show notes. But when European colonists tried to capture the spoken languages in lexicons and word lists, they didn’t always do them justice, “often rendering our languages to one meaning. Using the language artistically gives the opportunity to place multiple meanings back into the [words].”

Dr Lou Bennett
‘There are times when I sing, I can feel my ancestors’ voices surge in me’ … Dr Lou Bennett. Photograph: Dr Romaine Moreton
The work will see Lior and Bennett perform alongside the Australian String Quartet, with Cooper’s own words narrated by one of his nephews, Yorta Yorta elder Dr Wayne Atkinson. It culminates in a piece called The Protest, in which Bennett draws heavily on those family ties: “There are times when I sing, I can feel my ancestors’ voices surge in me and my voice changes from sweetness to assertion, from young to old.”

For Lior, Bennett’s voice and the Yorta Yorta language added a “whole other dimension” to Ngapa William Cooper, which premieres across two performances at the Adelaide festival on 5 and 7 March.

Since Compassion’s premiere a decade ago, Lior has noticed that whenever it is programmed he reads blurbs that declare its message is “relevant now more than ever”. Like Compassion, aspects of Ngapa William Cooper do resonate with the present day: from Ukraine and the Levant to current conversations around the upcoming voice referendum. But for Lior, these themes are “always relevant”. “Compassion is one of those things that we constantly need to remind ourselves of,” he says.

Cooper died in 1941; almost 70 years later, he was honoured by the Yad Vashem memorial to the Holocaust in Israel. The words of his 1938 declaration, recited in the final passage of Ngapa William Cooper, endure in everything he has inspired since: “Our pen is our spear / Let us have the courage to use it / For resistance is the refusal to yield to silence.”

Ngapa William Cooper will performed at Ukaria Cultural Centre on 5 March and Adelaide Town Hall on 7 March


William Cooper
William Cooper, the Yorta Yorta activist who led a protest against Nazi Germany’s treatment of Jews outside the German consulate in Melbourne in 1938. Photograph: Wikimedia Commons

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