Look across the Maribynong River from the west as the sun sets and you’ll see the glass-panelled city skyline ablaze in reflected gold. It’s easy to remember, in that brief moment of fire, that this modern city is built on sacred ground, on stolen land.
I’m in my colleague’s office at Victoria University in Footscray. A comfortable armchair in the corner is hung with the red, yellow and black of the Aboriginal flag; plants in coloured pots sit on the windowsill. The walls and shelves are a riot of artwork, posters and photos. Among them is a sepia-tinted image of a distinguished Aboriginal man with a bushy white moustache.
The man, I learn, is Yorta Yorta activist William Cooper.
This year marks the eightieth anniversary of Kristallnacht. Literally translating to ‘Crystal Night’, Kristallnacht was the violent pogrom that marked the escalation of anti-Jewish violence in Nazi Germany, and the end for Eastern European Jewry as it once was. On the night of 9 November, 1938 civilians and Nazi authorities ransacked and destroyed Jewish homes, shops and synagogues across Germany and Austria.
In the morning the streets were littered with broken glass.
Almost one hundred Jews were killed that night and some 30,000 Jewish men were rounded up and sent to the now-infamous concentration camps of Eastern Europe. Their wives and daughters would soon follow them, on and on until the streets were emptied of Jews and the skies choked with the smoke of their collective funeral pyre.
These are the stories that make up my family lore; I am named after my grandfather’s red-haired sister who killed herself on the train to Auschwitz.
The events of Kristallnacht made front-page news around the globe. On the other side of the world, on Kulin Nation Country in the area we know as Melbourne, local newspaper The Argus was reporting on Nazi Germany regularly. Even in the earliest reports it was clear that the world knew Kristallnacht was only the beginning: ‘Crouching tearfully in corners, they [the Jews] are awaiting the next stroke of the terror, as promised by the threatened decrees of Dr Goebbels.’
By and large reports in The Argus—like those in other Australian newspapers—were carefully condemnatory, appropriately denouncing the atrocities of Nazi Germany. It was around the question of the Jews that the tone became decidedly more ambivalent: ‘What is to become of the wandering Jews?’ asked The Argus editorial on 17 November, 1938, ‘Nobody wants them’.
On 6 December 1938 William Cooper and a delegation of the Australian Aborigines League walked 10 kilometres across Melbourne, from Footscray to the city, to deliver a formal petition to the German Consulate condemning the ‘cruel persecution of the Jewish people by the Nazi government of Germany’. They were denied entry and the German consul refused to receive their protest.
Today historians agree that the Australian Aborigines League’s action was the only private protest worldwide denouncing Kristallnacht and the Nazi Government’s treatment of the Jewish people.
The kids are asleep and my partner and I huddle against the cold outside, the ember of our shared smoke bright against the ink-spilt sky. I’m telling him about my research into William Cooper, but I just can’t get past the why; why did William Cooper march against the mistreatment of a people halfway across the world when his own people were still being persecuted and dispossessed? Why was he drawn to the plight of Germany’s Jews? ‘That’s what solidarity is,’ Seth answers, bringing a decade of trade unionism to bear.
I bring this question of why with me to a table in the Melbourne Museum on a frosty morning a few days after my late-night chat with Seth. I’m with Kimberley Moulton, a curator at the museum whose great-great-grandmother was William Cooper’s sister. Although we’ve worked together on several occasions through our day jobs this is the first time that Kimberley and I have actually sat down together. She is direct and warm; despite the chaos of mid-week we talk for more than an hour.
Kimberley tells me about visiting Berlin recently and seeing the golden plaques on every building memorialising the Jewish lives that were lost during the Holocaust. She tells me about visiting the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC and looking at an old Nazi eugenics poster and seeing the Aboriginal figure at the bottom of the pyramid alongside the Jew. She tells me about seeing evidence of Jewish persecution and knowing it instinctually, an embedded sense memory that all marginalised peoples know; an embodied awareness not of discrimination-as-theory but of what it feels like to be discriminated against, to be systematically othered. I nod. I know what Kimberley means.
Is that what William Cooper felt, too?
Both Aboriginal and Jewish cultures are rich in storytelling. We share our histories with our children through song and speech so even when our homes are taken we can carry our culture with us. This is what we know. But what else is carried through generations? Recent studies have shown that trauma affects us on a molecular level, that it is passed down through our DNA. I wonder how that has impacted me, the descendant of survivors of genocide. And if we inherit our ancestor’s trauma, do we inherit their strength and empathy, too? I think of Kimberley and of my Aboriginal colleagues and friends who make art and families and live their cultures every day in the face of continued marginalisation. A legacy of community as an act of solidarity.
While accounts of the Kristallnacht protest focus on William Cooper’s role, Kimberley insists that it was a collective effort from the Australian Aborigines League. Activist and academic Gary Foley asserts the same, praising the actions of what he calls that ‘intrepid band of Koori resistance activists’. Indeed, at the time The Argus reported that the Australian Aborigines League’s resolution condemning Nazi Germany was passed ‘on behalf of [all] the Aborigines of Australia’’
There it is again, I think. Solidarity.
I call Alf Turner, Williams Cooper’s grandson, on a rainy Saturday. He answers the phone immediately. I’m a little nervous to be interrupting the afternoon of an almost-90-year-old man; I stumble over my introduction in haste. He asks for a moment to turn down the television. ‘That’s better,’ he says, ‘now I can hear you.’
The question that I ask him is the same one that I asked Kimberley. Why? ‘That’s always the first thing they ask me,’ Alf Turner chuckles, himself having given countless interviews about this very subject since choosing to honour his grandfather’s legacy and follow in his footsteps as an advocate for Aboriginal rights.
‘He saw his people dying and took up their fight,’ Alf Turner tells me. ‘And when he saw someone else in trouble, he took up that fight too.’ The casual logic of his statement belies the significance of the protest, taking action while the rest of the world watched and waited.
William Cooper’s mother was born pre-contact, before colonisation had made its way down to Yorta Yorta Country around the area we know as Shepparton. By the time she was having her children, the settlers had arrived.
‘When he grew up,’ says Alf Turner, ‘it wasn’t good to be Aboriginal.’
William Cooper was born in 1861. Just over a decade later Daniel Matthews, a local white farmer, started the Maloga Mission on the banks of the Murray River, in part to protect Aboriginal women and children from encroaching settler violence. He kept bringing William Cooper’s mother in and she kept going out bush, back home. Eventually she and her young children did settle there, and it was at the Maloga Mission that William Cooper showed an aptitude for learning, quickly adopting what Kimberley and her family call ‘the spear of the pen’. Later in life he would become known for his prolific letter writing.
It was also at the Maloga Mission that William Cooper began his lifelong campaign for Aboriginal rights. In 1881 he was one of eleven signatories to the Maloga Petition, requesting that the community be granted land that ‘would enable them to earn their own livelihood’. The land was granted and in 1887 the Cummeragunja Reserve was formed. This would ultimately lead to one of the most significant events in contemporary Aboriginal history; the Cummeragunja walk-off. In 1939, after years of mismanagement and restrictions, some two hundred residents of the reserve walked away, igniting the first mass Aboriginal protest and paving the way for Aboriginal resistance to come. Although William Cooper had left the reserve by then, his role as a community and political leader was invaluable to the formation of the broader Aboriginal rights movement.
By 1933 William Cooper had moved to Footscray, where he would cement his influential legacy of activism and advocacy. He was instrumental in the establishment of the Australian Aborigines League and, later, of National Aborigines Day, which is still celebrated in its current incarnation as NAIDOC Week. He penned countless letters of protest, including the petition to King George VI in 1937 calling for the King to ‘prevent the extinction of the Aboriginal race and give better conditions for all, granting us the power to propose a member of Parliament, of our own blood’.
It was during those final years fighting for the rights of his people that William Cooper led the march to deliver the signed petition condemning Kristallnacht. ‘It was in the paper every day, what was happening to the Jews,’ says Alf Turner. Ten years old at the time, he was living with William Cooper and his wife at their home in Footscray. ‘And when my grandfather saw nothing being done he decided to do something. So, he called a meeting of the Australian Aborigines League and they decided to write a letter of protest.’
In retrospect, it’s easy to imagine the Australian Aborigines League seeing parallels with their own situation in the reports on the escalation of violence against Germany’s Jews. They too were being deprived of their homes, denied citizenship, systematically killed in the name of racial theories of social Darwinism. Beyond the paralleled deprivation of home and life and liberty perhaps it was, as Alf Turner suggests, the widespread ambivalence towards the ‘Jewish problem’ that prompted William Cooper and the Australian Aborigines League to act.
Although my knowledge of Jewish traditions is rusty, I always remember the story of Passover. It is the story of how we escaped slavery in Egypt, walking through the desert for 40 years to find our homeland. It could have been done in 40 days, but we wandered so that a new generation could be born, a generation that had never known slavery. Every year on Passover we gather together and retell the story of our flight from Egypt. We sing and pray and question; we drink salt water and eat bitter herbs and unleavened bread. We don’t just recount the story, we imagine ourselves as characters within it, liberated from slavery and marching to freedom across the desert. This imagining, writes author Jonathan Safran Foer, demands ‘a radical act of empathy’.
Empathy, though, is a slippery concept. Broadly, it is understood as the ability to feel what someone else is feeling from within their frame of reference. Whatever your definition, studies have shown that reading fiction increases empathic response. Sunyil Yapa’s remarkable novel Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist understands empathy as intrinsically linked to activism; to change the world you have to love it first.
Professor of Psychology Michael Inzlicht suggests that empathy is a choice. The results of an experiment he conducted with several other researchers in 2014 suggests that those in positions of power—even if temporarily—display less empathy for others. Within this framework, empathy is inherently antithetical to power; conversely, it is the language of the marginalised. ‘When oppression is a lived reality, there is no room for complacency,’ Kimberley tells me.
Historically, Jews have understood the significance of empathy as a counteract to the structures of violence. Walk through the Avenue of the Righteous Among Nations in Yad Vashem and see the prominently-displayed row of trees with their dedications below. Each one recognises non-Jewish individuals whose acts of empathy during the Holocaust saved Jewish lives. Taken together, these acts of empathy imply a collective narrative of resistance wherein empathy and resistance become mutually referential, reciprocal acts.
It’s amazing to think that William Cooper and his fellow activists had the capacity and the tenacity to fight for the rights of other marginalised people when they were denied even the most basic of rights on their own land. Perhaps their petition was, as Gary Foley suggests, a politically strategic way to ‘draw attention to the similarities between what was happening in Germany and how Aborigines were being dealt with in Australia’. William Cooper himself suggested as much: ‘We feel that while we are all indignant over Hitler’s treatment of the Jews, we are getting the same treatment here and we would like that fact duly considered.’
And yet if we understand empathy and resistance as mutually referential, any political strategising in the fact of their protest doesn’t mitigate it as, in the words of writer Neika Lehman, ‘utterly an act of love’. The Australian Aborigines League’s protest was simultaneously an act of resistance as an expression of empathy and an act of empathy as an expression of resistance. And who else would have had that empathy—who else could have—but a people also marginalised and dispossessed by history?
I wonder, as I’m writing this, why I thought there had to be an ulterior motive to the Kristallnacht protest. Perhaps I’m too caught up in current news cycles, where everyone seems to be guarding their scrap of (most likely stolen) land from everyone else. And this, of course, is the reason we need to learn and to share stories like William Cooper’s. Stories that counter the colonial narratives we’ve been told our whole lives, narratives that teach us that acquisition and exclusion and individualism make us powerful. While talking to Kimberley I realise something I’ve always known because it is in my DNA; it is empathy that gives us strength.
I had it wrong all along. There was no hidden motive to William Cooper’s protest. It was one of solidarity; it was a radical act of empathy.
It’s fitting that I first learn about William Cooper’s connection to my people in that office overlooking the Maribynong River. I go back to Footscray, stopping at the market for a sesame-studded bánh tiêu. I find Hampstead Street, near the footy oval, where in 2012 Alf Turner started his own march retracing his grandfather’s footsteps. When I get there, I hear Waa and look up to see him on a bare branch above me, a silhouette against a bruised sky. It seems an omen, although I’m not sure of what.
As I ride slowly back to the city I attempt to follow the route that William Cooper and the ‘intrepid band of Koori resistance activists’ might have marched that warm summer day 80 years earlier. I imagine how much Footscray and the surrounding suburbs have changed in the intervening years, the river a consistent heartbeat as factories and houses and families have come and gone. The migrants from Italy, Vietnam, Sudan whose food and culture have become embedded, decade by decade, in this suburb and this city that I call home.
And I think about what hasn’t changed. I think about those memorials to my people’s genocide that Kimberley saw in Berlin and how here the genocide of Aboriginal people is all but invisible. The seat of Batman has been renamed in William Cooper’s honour, a significant detail in a narrative of denial, but what has really changed? Our government is still unwilling to engage with Aboriginal sovereignty. There is no formal recognition of genocide, no treaty. This city is still on stolen land.
And I think, where is my radical act of empathy?
Sarah Gory is a writer and editor. Currently the General Manager + Reviews Editor of arts publishing collective un Projects, Sarah’s non-fiction writing has appeared in newspapers, magazines and journals in Australia and overseas.