In the story of Sodom and Gomorrah Abraham has the holy chutzpah to argue with God about God’s plan to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah along with all of their inhabitants. Abraham bargains God down to an agreement that 10 righteous people will save the cities. We learn from this story that we need to speak up, that we need to be brave to face those in power when we feel they are planning unjust actions and that even if we feel completely powerless – either in relation to those whose actions we are questioning – like God – or perhaps because we truly are – we cannot be silent in the face of injustice. In my classroom, this awareness is fostered so that my students learn to be Upstanders – rather than bystanders. I have been teaching towards creating Upstanders for 12 years and this summer I was brought to Perth, Australia through a grant from the US Department of State, Office of Cultural Affairs to speak about what and how I teach to create Upstanders. This grant was awarded through We Are Here! Foundation for Upstanders, which was founded by Eli Rabinowitz for the purpose of promoting my work and the Partisan’s song as tools for inspiring Upstanders. For my speaking tour, where I would be speaking mostly to non-Jewish audiences, I wanted to have an Australian angle to my presentations and so looked for an Australian Upstander. I would like to share about this Upstander today.
In my 8th grade Jewish History class I teach my students about the Emancipation of Jews under Napoleon. They learn that almost immediately after the Declaration of the Rights of Man awarded the Jews of France equal rights, they had to fight to keep the rights they had just won.The Jews had to prove that they deserved these rights and to show that they were ready to be French Jews, rather than just Jews who lived in France. We look at the questions posed to the Jewish Notables by Napoleon to determine if they were worthy of being full citizens of France and possessors of equal rights. Students work to answer these questions on their own and then we look at the answers given to Napoleon by the Paris Sanhedrin. We learn that they got to keep their rights, then lost some of them, and then got them back again.
After we learn about French Jews getting and, eventually, getting to keep their rights – and about the spread of this equality across Europe as Napoleon built his empire, we then turned to our “going further” portion of our unit – I teach using an Inquiry model and this penultimate step in the Inquiry Cycle is about taking your learning and applying it in a new way. For this unit we skip ahead to today’s world and look at the rights we would all like to have – the rights we are meant to have -the rights proclaimed as “universal” in 1948 in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This document lays out 30 articles giving all humans rights meant to guarantee them a life of dignity and a world where all of one’s needs – not wants – are met in a way that does not cause embarrassment or require feeling beholden to anyone. This document was produced after WWII and the horrors of the Holocaust and was meant to work towards a world where “Never Again” was a realtity for all populations. We review this document and the students are meant to mark any article that they feel is not being “upheld” in today’s world – and I make it clear that I do not mean not upheld in developing nations where one might expect a lapse in full human rights, but right here in their affluent Seattle or Bellevue communities.
When my students ask how this project connects to our learning or to Jewish history, I remind them that once we have rights, it is our job to make sure others have them as well and to work towards making the world more equal and kind. It is one thing to think about the rights of others when your own are secured. It is yet quite another to make a stand over the treatment of or loss of rights by another group when the group you belong to has not yet won its own rights – or is even considered fully human. I teach my students that it is their responsibility to fight for the rights of others EXACTLY because they have them and enjoy the benefits of being full citizens. But to belong to an oppressed group, a group deprived of their ancestral lands and still not viewed as equal and full citizens in a nation created on territory where their people have lived for millenia and to go and fight for the rights of others is quite extraordinary.
Kristallnacht – or the November Pogrom as it is also called – happened November 9th – 10th, 1938. It was meant to look like a spontaneous popular uprising against the Jews remaining in Germany and Austria in response to the shooting of a minor Nazi diplomat in France by a Polish Jewish teenager. “Regular” Germans were meant to be the main participants in this action and the official Nazi party and SS were meant to be less visible. Evidence from Nazi Party documents shows that this “spontaneous” uprising was carefully planned and carried out according to detailed instructions from the Nazi leadership. Who and what could be attacked was specified in a way to make it so that it was a German issue – no Jews from other countries were to be touched, nor was their property. The goal of keeping other countries out of a German issue was very clear in the instructions. That it was also supposed to be carried out in every town, village and rural corner of Germany was also clear. All the plan was waiting for was an excuse for it to be “spontaneous” and the shooting provided this cover. In addition to millions of Deutsche Marks worth of damage to Jewish businesses, homes and houses of worship, around 30,000 Jewish men were rounded up in the first mass arrest of Jews and taken to Dachau and other concentration camps. Thousands of Jews were beat up and at least 100 died. The Jews were billed 1 billion Reichsmark to clean up and repair the damage done by others to their properties! The message “you are not welcome here” was now heard loud and clear and those Jews who had remained to this point realized that they needed to leave and as quickly as they could. In our own congregation there are several people who left Germany within days of Kristallnacht. My husband’s family only left then, urged on by the arrest of his great- uncle Paul. It was a clarion call that no, you are not “more German than Jewish” and no, this will not “just go away.” News of the events in Germany were reported around the world and the message of the dire situation in Germany was clear to not just the Jews living there.
The news found its way to Australia and reached even those in the Aboriginal community. One of the people who read about these events was William Cooper. Cooper was a leader in the Aboriginal Rights movement and had spent much of his adult life advocating for recognition of the Indigenous population of Australia as humans, as citizens and has having equal rights and equal access to a productive and meaningful life. He had petitioned the Australian Parliament and even wrote a letter to the King of England because, while he was not recognized as a citizen of Australia, he was still a subject of the English Crown. William Cooper was a leader of the Australian Aboriginal League and was a member of a people who had suffered much at the hands of white settlers in Australia. Much like the native peoples of North America, the Aborigines were victims of attempted genocide, cultural genocide, loss of land and were viewed as unequal to white Europeans. I was horrified as I read about the treatment of Aboriginals by European settlers and the continued oppression of them. That they were classified as “flora and fauna” – literally equivalent to rabbits and other pests that could be shot if they were on your land – up until the year I was born – actually until just 8 days before I was born – is mind boggling. While state laws in the early 1960s had given the Indigenious rights in parts of Australia, the 1967 Referendum, is seen as giving them full status as Australian citizens, and was passed on 27 May, 1967. I was outraged as I read about their struggles for their rights and recognition as human beings deserving of equal treatment.
William Cooper learned about the events of Kristallnacht and assumed that there would be a protest in the white European community. He waited to hear what would be said and done to get Germany to stop their oppression of the Jews. But there was no outcry. So, on December 6th, 1938, William Cooper tried to present a resolution condemning the actions of the Kristallnacht to the German/Nazi Consulate in Melbourne. He had made an appointment but when he arrived with a group of protestors and was discovered to be Aboriginal, he was refused entrance. Cooper left the letter at the Consulate and, despite some press at the time, the story was quickly forgotten until a few years ago.
So, why did this man and his fellow Aboriginal activists take this action? Why did they write a letter and then walk 7 kms from Footscray to downtown Melbourne to try and present it to the German consulate? Shouldn’t their concern for their own fight for rights have taken all their focus? How did they have energy to fight for others when they were still deep in their own fight? They had suffered much of what the Jews had experienced over centuries in Europe and what they would go on to suffer at the hands of the Nazis in the next seven years. They were able to see beyond their own suffering and humiliation to recognize another group similarly suffering and to speak out on their behalf. They knew, all too clearly, the atrocities that are committed against those with no rights and who are seen as less than human. They did not want this to happen to anyone else. This is the empathy one would hope that suffering creates in one, but it is often hard for those still actively oppressed have the ability to step outside their own fight for justice to fight for others. They just don’t have the energy or time or bandwidth. Even more rare when those others are thousands of miles away, and when even those who should be raising an alarm are not doing so. While many other groups in Australia went on to raise concerns and call for a stop to the inhumane treatment of Jews by the Nazis, that the first group was Aborigines is quite astonishing and worth investigating and honoring.
In learning about the history of white, European settlement of Australia, it is clear that the Aboriginal population were seen as racially inferior and dispensable. The parallels between their experiences over 150 years and those of the Jews under Hitler are startling. These similarities give rise to the idea that perhaps the appeal on behalf of the Jews by William Cooper was also a call to give attention to the treatment of Aborigines in Australia. Perhaps if people could be directed to give their attention to pending genocide on the European continent, they might have their eyes opened to what was occuring on their own. Encouraging Australians to protest the treatment of Jews could lead to a confrontation about their attitudes towards their own minority that was being oppressed and eliminated. This brings to mind the story from King David’s life where Nathan the Prophet gets David to see his crimes against Uriah by telling a parable about a rich man with many sheep who steals and slaughters the one sheep of his poor neighbor rather than one of his own for an unexpected guest. David – who had stolen Uriah’s wife and had Uriah killed – declares this man should be harshly punished and Nathan says “This man is you.” Perhaps Cooper and his colleagues hoped the same could be accomplished with the Australian government and society. It is also common that those who have suffered come to the support of others who are suffering the same oppression – Jews were allies of Blacks in the fight for Civil Rights in the US, and also involved in the work to gain rights for Aborigines in Australia. But this is usually after the first group has freed themselves from oppression – It is easier to work for others when you feel secure – so much braver and harder when you don’t yet have that security of equality before the law.
Viv Parry, an amazing Australian woman who uses art therapy with Aboriginal men who are in recovery, learned the story of Wiliam Cooper and decided to make a film about it. Viv is Jewish and she was already using the lessons of the Holocaust to help counter prejudice in her clients. Having them hear the stories of Holocaust survivors was impactful as they connected to the commonalities of experience. She brought Alf Turner- known as Uncle Boydie – who is William Cooper’s grandson – and Moshe Fiszman – a survivor from Poland together to talk about their experiences and the histories of their two people. In the film “The Ties that Bind” – Moshe tells Uncle Boydie, that he can’t believe that the Aborigines would come down and protest at the German Consulate when they themselves were “not treated as others by the Australian government.” Moshe continues “The Aborigines could feel it – because they themselves were subjected to a lot of problems…” This film is a record of a meeting between these two men in 2016 to discuss their experiences and the parallels in them. Moshe shares his story of survival and the miracle that he is alive and “here” to have this conversation. Uncle Boydie reaches out to pat Moshe’s knee and tells him “Well, I am glad you are here mate.” It is the place in the movie that got a response from every audience I shared it with in Australia – from middle schoolers to adults – they all loved this moment of human connection between these two survivors of hatred and oppression.
Uncle Boydie, as a young boy, went with his grandfather and the others on that march from Footscray to the German Consulate – a walk he has since re-enacted as seen in the film. He shares in the film, and also told me when I was privileged to get to speak to him by phone while in Melbourne, that he “knew my grandfather would do this – that was the man he was – he was not fussed a bit to go down there and protest. I lived with him for 8 or 9 years and I knew he would do it.” Moshe Fiszman compares Cooper to Gandhi in terms of a fighter for the rights of his own people, and for the Jews.
When a group is being oppressed, it often relies on the help of those not in the group to survive and escape persecution. During the Holocaust, Jews in many countries were helped by their non-Jewish neighbors and friends – and often by complete strangers. These people were motivated by many things – religious conviction that what was being done was wrong and needed to be resisted, friendship and love, a shared humanity that made not helping not even a possibility, past favors being returned and a shared resistance to the Nazis, Hitler and fascism in whatever form it was in their country. These individuals have earned the distinction of “Righteous Gentile” or “Righteous among the Nations” from Yad Vashem. To earn this title, one must have acted out of altruism – this means that there was no reward, or payment for what they did. These people almost always acted at great risk to themselves and their families. If caught, they, along with the Jews they were helping, would be likely shot on sight. The vast majority – in fact almost all – of these Righteous lived in countries were the Holocaust was happening. They were giving material aid to Jews in their country, town, village, neighborhood. Some were from countries not directly impacted, but were serving in a diplomatic capacity in those countries – Ambassadors Sugihara and De Sousa Mendes come to mind. Each of these men wrote hundreds of illegal visas so Jews could escape to a safer place.
William Cooper is a Righteous Gentile. As he did not live where the Holocaust was occurring and did not provide direct aid to Jews, he cannot officially be given this title by Yad Vashem, but I have little doubt if he had lived there, he would have acted in a way that would earn him that title – as Uncle Boydie said “He wasn’t fussed a bit to do it.” He was honored at Yad Vashem by the establishment of an endowed Chair of Resistance Studies in the International School of Holocaust Studies at Yad Vashem. The Jews of Australia were not many, and they were not at risk. It is William Cooper’s actions, as an individual, as a member of a disenfranchised group himself, that have earned him his place in history. While other groups in Australia may have spoken out and called for Germany to cease its inhumane treatment of Jews, they were usually motivated by a connection to those being persecuted – and all of them, other than the Aboriginal League – were full citizens, with full rights in their country. Unions protested the persecution of unions, communists and other political groups – which likely included Jews but they were not the first concern. Discussion of providing a haven for Jewish refugees is peppered with mentions of their hard working attitude, assumed wealth, and the benefit they would have to Australia as settlers in all that open land – likely taken from those Cooper represented. That Cooper and others from the Aboriginal community took it upon themselves to protest is a striking display of their sense of a shared fate with the Jews of Europe. Of their awareness of what could happen when you were seen as less than human. Of their desire to prevent the Jews from suffering what they themselves suffered. William Cooper stood to gain nothing from his actions. He had no connection to the Jews of Europe. But he knew what it was like to be persecuted based on one’s racial or ethnic identity and did not wish that on anyone else. We should all be so inspired by the sufferings of our people to work for all who are at risk.