The Aboriginal leader who spoke up for the Jews – Jewish Chronicle features cover story

After Kristallnacht, one of the only protests in the world came from an Australian Yorta Yorta tribesman. Now a musical composition pays tribute to him

Photo: Denisbin

In November 1938, Kristallnacht saw the destruction of synagogues and Jewish-owned businesses and homes and marked the first time the Nazis imprisoned Jews on a mass scale.

Historians have noted that the passivity with which most Germans responded indicated to the regime that the public would have no problem accepting more extreme persecution.

But within a month, a remarkable act of protest and solidarity would come from the most unlikely of places. A 77-year-old man — who was yet to secure his own civil rights — wanted to express his horror at the pogrom, despite living 10,000 miles away and likely never having met a Jew in his life.

William Cooper, an elder from the Yorta Yorta clan, led a deputation of the Australian Aborigines’ League that walked six miles from his home in the Melbourne suburb of Footscray to the German consulate in the city to deliver a written resolution that voiced, “on behalf of the aborigines of Australia, a strong protest at the cruel persecution of the Jewish people by the Nazi Government of Germany”.

It is believed to have been the only such demonstration by non-Jews anywhere in the world. But in the Melbourne newspaper The Argus it made just four paragraphs, and by the end of the century one Aboriginal academic said the event had been “almost completely forgotten in Australian history”.

Three musicians are among those working to rectify that. Israeli-born singer-songwriter Lior Attar, composer and conductor Nigel Westlake and Yorta Yorta singer and language expert Dr Lou Bennett have created a song cycle titled Ngapa William Cooper (ngapa means grandfather), which has its world premiere at the Adelaide Festival in South Australia on Sunday (March 5).

Westlake, who composed the scores for the films Babe and Miss Potter, says he is ashamed to admit he was ignorant of Cooper’s protest before the story was brought to him by his collaborator, who goes by the stage name Lior. “He was a man who spent his entire life lobbying for recognition of his people’s rights,” says the 64-year-old on a video call from his home in Sydney.

“I mean, they were denied the right to speak their language, they were denied the right to practise their cultural practices, and they were denied access to the land that was cruelly taken away from them, so they were very much a persecuted people who lived in the shadow of the white invaders, as they called them.

“For him to have the empathy to notice what was going on on the other side of the world in the context of these fights that occupied his entire life was an extraordinary act of compassion.”

Lior, 47, who was born in Rishon LeZion to an Iraqi father and Polish mother before moving to Sydney when he was ten, sees the act as one of “not just compassion, but courage as well” from a man “who was seen as a second-class citizen. We all need some sort of beacon like this to aspire to, to bring out the best in ourselves,” he says from his home in Melbourne.

In the “cinematic” song cycle, Lior narrates the story in English, while Lou Bennett — Cooper’s great-great niece — “occupies the spirit” of Cooper, singing in Yorta Yorta. Lior, a fluent Hebrew speaker, opens the piece in his native language — with an extract from Psalm 137.

It begins: “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat, we also wept when we remembered Zion.” To many the words are familiar from Boney M’s 1978 UK No 1 hit.

“What I wasn’t aware of,” adds Lior, “is the next verse says, ‘There upon the willow, we hung up our harps.’ So it’s this sort of melancholy expression of almost like the death of music or joy in continued displacement and oppression.”

Cooper’s petition fell on deaf ears. He was refused entry to the consulate (his grandson, Alf “Uncle Boydie’’ Turner, believes the letter, handed to a guard, probably ended up “in the wastepaper basket”) and he died in relative obscurity in 1941.

It was not until 2012 that delivery was finally made, by the proud grandson, who re-enacted the walk and handed a replica letter to German honorary consul-general Michael Pearce.

Uncle Boydie — whose voice is used in the culminating song by Lior and Westlake — wrote in the foreword to William Cooper: Gentle Warrior, a book by Barbara Miller: “Grandfather could sadly recognise that same affliction of fear, desperation, bewilderment and a sense of hopelessness which the Jewish people faced in Europe. When many countries around the world would not act, he did.”

So determined was the then-89-year-old to also receive a formal reception from Germany that a group called William Cooper’s Legacy was formed to raise funds that allowed him to travel to Berlin on the Kristallnacht anniversary in 2017.

And in 2020, a full 82 years on, Germany formally apologised to members of the Australian Aboriginal and Jewish communities for refusing to accept the petition.

“Officially on behalf of the government of Chancellor Angela Merkel, we are sorry that the 1938 consul-general in Melbourne would not accept the letter of the Aborigines’ League, nor forward it on to the political leadership here in Berlin, as would have been the right and morally correct thing for a consular official to do,” said Felix Klein, the Federal Government Commissioner for Jewish Life in Germany and the Fight against Antisemitism.

A plaque marking the event sits outside the Melbourne Holocaust Museum — from where Lior first heard about the story — and another was unveiled in 2010 at Yad Vashem, the first time the national Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem had honoured an Indigenous Australian.

Westlake is not Jewish, but it was a High Holy Day prayer — along with Lior’s moving a capella vocals — that provided a powerful turning point in his life. After the murder of his son Eli, deliberately mowed down by a car just weeks before his 22nd birthday in 2008, Westlake was engulfed by silence.

“I spent 12 months in a sort of no man’s land really, wondering how I was going to ever find my way back into music. I couldn’t focus on anything. I’d lost the will, I guess. That was the big thing — I’d lost the will to create.”

Westlake invited Lior to sing at a fundraising concert in memory of Eli. Though the pair had never met, his songs were some of the final pieces of music the father and son had enjoyed together.

“And at the end, he sang this encore, Avinu Malkeinu. I vividly remember sitting at the back of the marquee, with about 600 people there. And it was a calling for me. There was a spirituality there that I felt attracted to and I asked him if he wouldn’t mind if I did an orchestral arrangement of a solo recording of the song.”

The result was Compassion, performed with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, which debuted to critical acclaim ten years ago. Since hailed as a modern classic by the Guardian, it won an Aria award — Australia’s equivalent of a Grammy — for best classical album.
Lior wove in Arabic proverbs in an attempt to make a work that was “truly universal”.

Ten years on, he would inevitably be drawn into a debate about “cultural appropriation”.He admits he did feel “quite confronted and a sense of imposter syndrome with the Arabic” at the time — until he had a conversation with his father.

“He reminded me that he was born in Iraq and Arabic was his first language, and said it is part of your lineage and you should embrace that.”

Lior — described by Westlake as an “absolute genius melodic composer” –—took lessons with an Arabic-speaking friend on “meaning, interpretation, pronunciation. And, yeah, I have to say I’ve only received positive feedback. No one’s said, ‘Oh, you can’t sing that.’”

Meanwhile, the Jewish community has been keen to appropriate Westlake. “I can say that any Jewish people that know Nigel will strongly attest to what a mensch he is,” says Lior, “so in that sense, he is an honorary Jew.”

Lior hopes their new music, “an embodiment of all these virtues of compassion that Nigel and I were presenting in the first work”, will not just entertain, but may also play a small part in bringing about political change.

Later this year, Australia will hold a referendum on whether to recognise indigenous citizens in the constitution for the first time and establish a committee that can make representations to parliament on policies affecting them. The Aboriginal people have inhabited the land for 60,000 years, but suffer socio-economic outcomes well below the national average.

So, says Lior, Cooper’s act of resistance “also strikes a very immediate relevance in speaking to the Jewish community here, that I’m part of, and saying, look at what William Cooper and his elders have done, you should bear that in mind when you rock up to vote in the referendum.”

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