Kristallnacht: “White Australia Stood Silent” (Not)

December 19, 2018 by Hilary Rubinstein
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On 7 December 2018, The Guardian’s Australian edition published an article headed ‘Aboriginals stood with Jews against the Nazis – we have a long history together’…writes Hilary Rubinstein.

Hilary Rubinstein

The article opened with:

 “In December 1938, an elderly Aboriginal activist [Yorta Yorta elder William Cooper, hon. secretary of the Australian Aborigines’ League] led a small delegation from his home in the inner-western Melbourne suburb of Footscray to the steps of the city’s German consulate to protest the attacks on Jews in Nazi Germany that occurred less than a month earlier.

The attacks came to be known as Kristallnacht.

Until recently the protest march was little known. Over the past 15 years, it has been celebrated as a symbol of solidarity between Aboriginals and the Jewish diaspora.”

Fair enough. Nowhere in the article, by Aboriginal writer and columnist Jack Latimore,  was there any suggestion that the event referred to was the only protest against Kristallnacht to occur in this country.

Yet, inevitably, among the reactions by Aussie Jews on Facebook that greeted many shares of the article were such disturbingly ignorant claims (answered by other Aussie Jews with clicks of the “Like” button) as “And white Australia stood silent”.

I say “inevitably” because for too many years the falsehood that Cooper’s was the sole “private” protest has been perpetrated, and shows no sign of abating, and in this the Australian Jewish press, which after all is not unreasonably regarded by many as a reliable and impartial chronicle of record, has, no doubt often unwittingly, colluded.  It’s regrettable that some serious investigative reporting was not undertaken by journalistic staff before the legend of the sole “private” protest took hold.

In a full-page article in the Australian Jewish News (7 December 2018) devoted to the possible impact of a certain African American spiritual on William Cooper, Abe Schwarz, a coordinator of the William Cooper Legacy Project, tells us that

‘according to … Yad Vashem “no other public protest by a private organisation is recorded from anywhere in the world … definitely not elsewhere from Indigenous or non-Indigenous communities in Australia”!’

The exclamation mark at the end of that sentence would be amply justified if Yad Vashem’s statement was accurate.  But it is not accurate.

William Cooper

The origin of the claim appears to derive from a misunderstanding of something the Aboriginal activist and academic Gary Foley wrote in the 1990s, namely, that Cooper’s League was “the first group in Australia to attempt to lodge a formal protest with the German government representative” over Kristallnacht. That (although also incorrect) is a far cry from the claim, now ubiquitous in the Australian Jewish press and elsewhere, that Cooper’s was “the only known private protest worldwide against Kristallnacht” that appears in Barbara Miller’s book William Cooper  ̶ Gentle Warrior (2012) and has been repeated elsewhere, for example most recently by Temple Beth Israel’s senior rabbi at the march by members of the Jewish community and others on 6 December that reprised Cooper’s 80 years ago:

“While world leadership watched in silent disbelief, William Cooper was so shaken by the events of Kristallnacht that on 6th December 1938 he marched on the German Consulate in Melbourne to deliver a petition condemning the Nazi government. This was the only known private protest anywhere in the world against the Nazi regime, and an extraordinary, brave and noble gesture …”

That it was “an extraordinary, brave and noble gesture” by a man and a group who lacked civil rights in Australia is undeniable.  But the “only known private protest anywhere in the world”?  That is to ignore and discount all the other protests that took place in Australia, let alone overseas, against the pogrom of 9-10 November 1938.

These protests included two deputations of pro-Jewish sympathisers who called at the German consulate in Melbourne nearly three weeks before William Cooper and his associates did, and who received just as inhospitable a welcome as did they, yet, in contrast, are unremembered and unremarked by the Australian Jewish community today.

So much for the canard that “white Australia stood silent”.

I have described these other protests by non-Jewish Australians, not just in 1938 but from 1933, in an article in the current issue of the Australian Jewish Historical SocietyJournal.  I can but hope that my article there will be read and heeded and that the claim that William Cooper’s was “the only private protest” that occurred on these shores (to say nothing of other English-speaking countries) will be laid to rest.

(Dr Hilary Rubinstein co-edits the Australian Jewish Historical Society Journal‘s Victorian issues and  is the author of many books and articles on Australian Jewish history.)


10 Responses to “Kristallnacht: “White Australia Stood Silent” (Not)”
  1. Liat Kirby says:

    I am referring to the tonality of your J-Wire article.

  2. Liat Kirby says:

    Hilary, I acknowledged your ‘key point’ at commencement of my response and went on to comment on other aspects of what you had to say. In that way I opened up the discussion. Facts by themselves are never enough and I am ameliorating that situation. What do you judge the tonality of your writing to be?

    • Hilary Rubinstein says:

      I suggest you read the books I have written and judge for yourself their “tonality”, Liat.

  3. Lisa Sanderson says:

    This is just a note to say that I heard about William Cooper and the League’s protest on Radio National which gave me the impression
    that it was the only private protest in the world so I was glad to see this cleared up. I have read the comments with great interest.

  4. Liat Kirby says:

    I meant to include in my response that there has been very little recognition given to the Australian aboriginal men and women who served and were part of the War efforts. In general it’s the white Australians who are remembered and revered.

  5. Liat Kirby says:

    Hilary, of course, from a strictly scholarly and factual perspective you are correct. I’ve not denied that. It’s the tonality permeating your discussion of William Cooper, his stance and his efforts that sows discomfort. You can correct the records while giving full recognition of the man who was William Cooper, and that means investing the writing with a dimension other than factual to give him his due. Your anger gets in the way of that.

    You are, after all, arguing with the medium of newspaper reportage (‘The Australian Guardian’ and ‘The Australian Jewish News’), which, whether it annoys us or not, is going to be far more inclined to the William Cooper story than groups of pro-Jewish white Australians. That they should do their research adequately is a given, but also, unfortunately, something notoriously lacking in our press. To suggest inverted racism is involved in their representation, or my remarks, is very far from the truth, indeed, given the circumstances, ridiculous. As for Facebook … well, what can you expect from that source? Not exactly a place for reflection and intellectual exchange of depth. I don’t waste my time and creative energy on it.

    William Cooper’s individual efforts, and the fact that he even felt compelled through empathy to make them, is an extraordinary story and should be both aired, remembered and acknowledged for its own uniqueness. That someone like him, living in a country that negated his people in the way that it did, hardly recognising them as human, that someone living in the inner western Melbourne suburb of Footscray in 1938, with all that entails on a daily basis as a reminder of the daily grind of life and inequality for the poor, well, that, Hilary, deserves some imaginative input and a great deal of reflection. That this person had the psychological and emotional energy to care about the Jews is worth reading about.

    I need no reminder of Australia doing its bit in the Second World War and am fully acquainted with the time-frame of September 1939 – May 1945 for its European component, although believe that it ended in its entirety in August, 1945 when the Japanese surrendered. My reference to scant support for Jews during the lead-up to the war and throughout refers to the lack of focus on their plight at that time. Australians and others who fought as allies to rid us of the hideous Nazi regime were in the main not focusing on the Jews as such, but the bigger picture, the amorphous, chaotic bigger picture they found themselves involved in. To me, there is no bigger picture than the Holocaust, but then, and even now, that is not the case with the thoughts of others.

    I am a protester myself, Hilary, a Jewish activist who allows no media mistake or inaccuracy to go by without due comment to the newspaper, television broadcaster involved. I’m also a scholar and a writer. So, I do understand where you’re coming from. Sometimes though we need imaginative writing to make the facts come alive, not fiction, but imagination to make the facts humanly accessible. An Australian writer who has done this is Inga Clendinnen with her slim volume ‘Reading the Holocaust’. Perhaps, too, we need a book on the pro-Jewish supporters you speak of, however publisher and media interest in it would have to be generated for the kind of appreciation you would like.

    • Hilary Rubinstein says:

      Liat, I’m not angry and I don’t believe my tone is one of anger. In your long response you have strayed from the key point, which is that William Cooper’s was not the only protest, as claimed to be, and it’s not unreasonable for a historian to want to set the record straight. Touching upon your final point, I’m the co-author of “Philosemitism: Admiration and Support in the English-speaking world for Jews, 1840-1939” (1999) which touches on Australia, and have mentioned such pro-Jewish efforts in other works, including the Australian Jewish Historical Society Journal.

  6. Lisa Sanderson says:

    I disagree with Liat. I heard about this on the radio and received the impression that this was the only private
    Australian protest as well, so I am pleased to learn that there were others. Investigative journalists really should get the facts right, especially when they are probably not that difficult to find. I am grateful to Hilary Rubenstein for clearing this up.

  7. Liat Kirby says:

    The thing that makes William Cooper’s action and support stand out is the extremely underprivileged position he and his fellow Indigenous Australians were living in at that time, a situation that is still to be redressed. I have read Hilary Rubenstein’s comments as above before and think perhaps she could allow Cooper his due without continually trotting out the discrepancy mentioned. Especially given the circumstances.

    It’s more than a pity that pro-Jewish sympathisers protesting vigorously were scant as the years progressed from 1938 on to their grievous 1945 completion.

    • Hilary Rubinstein says:

      Liat, I have acknowledged, both here and in my article in the Australian Jewish Historical Society Journal, that William Cooper’s, and the League’s, status made their protest particularly touching.
      What is regrettable, however, is the saturation coverage that the Australian Jewish News, and certain communal institutions, have given the stance of Cooper and the League, to the total exclusion of other Australian efforts on behalf of persecuted Jewry.
      That smacks of ignorance of the historical facts on the one hand, and, if not ignorance (after all, there have been plenty of articles in the Australian Jewish Historical Society Journal down the years) of reverse racism, which I’m sure you will agree is every bit as deplorable as the other kind.
      Are the “Anglo-Celtic” philosemites to be written out of Jewish communal memory because they happened to be white?
      I would remind you that the constant claims that are propounded about William Cooper’s protest is not that it was the only protest against Kristallnacht undertaken by Indigenous people here but that it was the only private protest against Kristallnacht undertaken by anyone anywhere – by anyone not only in Australia, but in the world.
      It’s a nonsensical claim, and I make no apologies for trying to set the record straight. All praise to William Cooper and the League, but all praise, too, to the many men and women, often on the political left but by no means invariably so, who also spoke out, and to those who also attempted to deliver messages of condemnation to Nazi Germany’s consuls, but were rebuffed, just as the Indigenous protesters were.
      Regarding your final point, you present no evidence that such sympathisers were “scant”, and I would remind you that Australia was at war with Nazi Germany from September 1939 until May 1945, and was one of the countries responsible for wiping that evil regime from the earth.

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