The Jewish community of Melbourne thanks the descendants of Kristallnacht’s unsung hero

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By Devi Rajaram

A Synagogue in St Kilda recently hosted a fundraising event; formally thanking an Aboriginal man and his descendants for leading the world’s only known private protest against the Nazis in 1938.

The Sukkot Jazz Event, held at the St Kilda Synagogue last month, was organised by Hanna Baum who thought it was important for the Jewish Community of Melbourne to formally thank William Cooper and his descendants.

William Cooper – a Yorta Yorta man who himself was living as a second-class citizen in his own land at that time, was reportedly the only man in the world to have led a private protest against the atrocities of Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass.

William Cooper marched down from his Melbourne home in the Western suburbs of Footscray, to the German consulate with a group of Aboriginal people when he heard of the cruel acts by the Nazis in Germany that happened on the night of November 9th 1938.

That night there were attacks on Jewish people across Germany; Synagogues were burnt down, people were killed in the streets and men were rounded up and taken into concentration camps.

“I decided that once I knew that William Cooper had done this incredible act of courage and as an oppressed person without even a vote in his own country, I wanted to give his grandson, Uncle Boydie, a personal thank you from the Jewish people of Melbourne. We had already done it as the Israeli government, we had already done it as a Jewish National Fund, but I didn’t feel that we had done it yet,” organiser Hanna Baum said.

In an extraordinary gesture of thanking William Cooper and his descendants, the event raised funds for a rehabilitation program aimed at Indigenous prisoners. The Healing program, run by the Western Suburbs Indigenous Gathering Place, located in Footscray, recently had its funding cut by the Victorian government. “They had a very difficult financial situation, and this was a very important program. That’s when I came in and I said maybe we can help with the Jewish community,” organiser Hanna Baum said.

About 150 people of mainly Jewish and Indigenous background attended the event, held at the St Kilda Synagogue.

Warren Wills, an internationally renowned pianist, and Albert Dadon, an international Jazz musician, treated those who attended the event to a musical performance.

Albert Dadon said that he had brought his band along to raise funds for the Indigenous community because he thinks William Cooper is a very important person for the Jewish people; “If all the world had imitated Mr. William Cooper, maybe, the Holocaust would not have happened,” he said.

The Sukkot Jazz event raised about $2000 for The Healing Program.

However, it was not just a musical night of raising funds.

“This was something much more important. This was the Jewish community and the Koori community coming together for a long, long time”, organiser Hanna Baum said.

Those who attended the event witnessed the coming together of the two communities through a musical union that happened towards the end of the event. Rabbi Yakkov Glassman of the St Kilda Hebrew Congregation played the Shofar followed by Uncle Reg Blow, an Aboriginal elder, on the Didgeridoo.

Many who attended the event not only sang praises for William Cooper but also for the event’s efforts in bringing the two communities together.

“The courage, I can’t even quantify it, it’s amazing. That’s why any time I hear anything to do with William Cooper, being the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, I participate. I use my feet, I use my wallet, I do anything to support it,” said Charlotte Frajman who attended the event, “It was beautiful to see that there was a lot of sharing and a lot of commonality. A whole lot of emotions, tears in my eyes. It was incredible, incredible”.

David Southwick, Member of Caulfield, who was also present at the event, praised the event’s positive impact on multiculturalism and commended the Jewish community for supporting a community outside of theirs: “For me, it identifies the importance of multiculturalism here in Victoria, the fact that we’re all different. Doesn’t matter where we are, doesn’t matter where we come from, we’re all different. But together we are so much more than as individuals; when we work together, when we come together and we live together and when we respect one another’s culture and traditions and we learn from one another’s culture and traditions,” Southwick said, “It’s great to have the Shoal actually get involved in a fundraiser that’s actually supporting a group outside of the community”.

Southwick told the listeners of how neo-Nazi stickers had been painted on the Victorian parliament buildings as an act of anti-Semitism earlier that week. He said that he believes such acts come from “people that don’t understand and it’s through lack of tolerance and understanding and ignorance more importantly”

“The way to fix that is through education. Those people I’m sure, and I really do believe that they don’t understand just how much harm they’re doing to Holocaust survivors that actually went through the atrocities of the Second World War. The last thing that many of those Holocaust survivors want to see is sword stickers painted in a place that they want to feel safe and secure. So, it’s great that we have tonight because that brings it all back,” Southwick said. Southwick said events such as the Sukkot Jazz Event, which promote cultural awareness, are crucial in preventing such acts.

Rabbi Yakkov Glassman, of the St Kilda Hebrew Congregation which provided the venue for the event, said it was critical for the Jewish Community of Melbourne to formally thank William Cooper and his descendants. He said to appreciate goodness and to give gratitude when it’s due is one of the most fundamental tenets of the Jewish faith called ‘Hakarat Ha-tov’.

“Gratitude can be two fold. It can be gratitude to God for the things that he does for us but also, gratitude to our fellow people and our fellow human beings who have gone out of their way to help others,” Rabbi Glassman said, “I think that the example that William Cooper had set is a phenomenal one, it’s one that speaks about self-sacrifice. It’s one that speaks about standing strong against a lot of the poisonous undercurrents of society in any given time and place and I think that he demonstrated loud and clear that he was following his moral conscience and his moral compass and not just following the waves of what everyone else was doing. So, I think it’s very important that we express gratitude for that”

For the descendants of William Cooper the event was a moment of pride as well as a restoration of faith in their fellow people: “The whole family is pleased [with] the way that he has been recognised for the work that he did in the 1930’s and 1940’s. I think the time has come and it has come pretty quick. Now, we have educated young Aboriginal people that can take their place anywhere in the world. I think if the opportunity came around to be able to do something like my grandfather did, I think we have a lot of Aboriginal people that could do that same goal and I think they will stand up and be able to do it,” said Uncle Boydie, the grandson of William Cooper.

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