Kristallnacht and the Righteous Australian aboriginal William Cooper
Kristallnacht and the Righteous Australian aboriginal William Cooper

Otto Jontof-Hutter, was arrested in Stuttgart during the German state sponsored pogrom of 9-10 November 1938, which became known as Kristallnacht.

What went through his mind as he was marched away with thousands of others, is anyone’s guess, but the twice wounded Mr Jontof-Hutter, a German hero of the First World War who had  also won the Iron Cross, was sent to Dachau Concentration Camp, guest of the NS regime elected in 1933. People who knew him described him as kindly, loyal, hardworking, with a keen sense of humour.

Mr Jontof-Hutter never saw himself other than a patriotic and proud German, overlooking that he was a Jew belonging to an indigenous people that had roamed the plains of the Sharon and hills of Judea and Samaria some 3500 years ago. His family had been Germans for many hundreds of years and the idea of his origins— far down the mists of time—probably was not something he consciously thought about. He  was a German of the Mosaic faith and that was that. Quite simple.

He did not look different from other Germans nor was his lifestyle any different from his middle class compatriots. In winter, he enjoyed langlauf skiing with his wife Flora, and their two sons Erich and Werner. Sundays they generally liked to go for a walk and perhaps enjoy some coffee and cake. Monday it was back to work at his master tailor business that had, until Nazi laws were promulgated, supplied ceremonial uniforms to the German military.

On the other side of the world in Australia, William Cooper, also from an indigenous community, grew up in an aboriginal mission station near Moama in the Riverina in New South Wales. Mr Cooper, a member of the Yorta-Yorta  people made a living as a sheep shearer and fencer. Later he also opened up a fishmonger shop in nearby Mulwala—almost unheard of for an aboriginal in the days of the early 20th century. William Cooper not only sold the fish, but caught the fish himself in the mighty Murray River, that runs 2375 km through south- east Australia.

Otto, a Jew in Stuttgart and William, raised a non-Christian (though converting later in life) Aboriginal in a small Australian settlement lived far apart, both in distance and in culture. They had only two things in common—being members of an ancient culture and their decency. They never knew each other but in one way, their lives crossed by virtue of circumstances.

When Otto was arrested for the ‘crime’ of being a Jew in Germany during the pogrom,  the 78 year old William happened to be with his 9 year old grand-son Alfred Turner (called Uncle Boydie) in Melbourne, to where he had moved in 1933. By chance, Uncle Boydie had seen the story of Kristallnacht in a newspaper lying on the table in their home and asked his grandfather about it.

William, tirelessly active in demanding rights for Aboriginals—in those days they were subjected to Christian missionary activities, children often removed from their parents and placed in “good” Christian homes and then used as labourers in small communities—did not have the right to vote. Only in 1967 would Australian aboriginals be granted voting rights when universal franchise was extended to all Australian states and territories. Probably, William was not aware that German Jews had their voting rights removed under the Nuremberg Laws of 1935. However the story of Kristallnacht had certainly grabbed his attention to the point that he discussed it with his grandson Boydie. His main concern—according to Uncle Boydie—was that “nobody did anything about it, and he therefore thought he would have to do something.”

As Otto, who was well-read, languished with thousands of others in Dachau, William, who was 78 years old and who had only learned to read as an adult but who also read avidly, wrote a strong  letter of protest addressed to the Nazi German regime. On 6 December 1938, when Otto had been in Dachau for about 4 weeks, William, heading a delegation of other aboriginal colleagues he had gathered together, set off from his home and walked the 10km to the German consul- general Dr Drechsler, in central Melbourne, to hand in his protest about the “cruel persecution of Jews in Germany.” Dr Drechsler refused to accept the letter and it was left with a security official. William Cooper experienced a similar outcome in his attempts to deliver a petition early that year for the King, whose title included King of Australia.

The struggle for civil rights was not new to William Cooper. He had been active in circulating petitions for direct representation in the Australian parliament. On 31 January 1938, he led the first Aboriginal deputation to a prime minister, but the Commonwealth, under prime minister Lyons, refused to hand over his petition to King George Vl. Bitterly disappointed, he spent his remaining years fighting for Aboriginal basic rights. His decision to confront the German Reich therefore in that context, as an old aboriginal man with few rights but suffering health issues and fatigue, is therefore remarkable to say the least.

Otto Jontof-Hutter in Dachau must have felt shocked, abandoned and betrayed by the events of Kristallnacht. While back in Australia, William knew of Kristallnacht, Otto would never have been aware of the good deeds and attempts at protest by William Cooper in Australia.

His decision to confront the German Reich therefore in that context, as an old aboriginal man with few rights but suffering health issues and fatigue, is therefore remarkable to say the least.
In the end, Otto was released before the war started and managed, with the help of a lawyer, to sail to South Africa shortly before the war, where he would  join his wife Flora and sons. His experience in Dachau was traumatic and affected his health. He spent much time painting landscapes and still lifes, but died in 1948 after a massive stroke at the age of 68. He is buried in the South African city of Port Elizabeth.

William Cooper of course did not succeed in handing in his petition to the German regime/. Exhausted and ill, he died aged 80 in Mooroopna, Victoria and was buried in Cumeroogunga. As secretary of the Australian Aborigines’ League, he had sought justice and dignity for his people. For Germany, he had brought a sense of outrage and conscience by example.

In 2010, Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, honoured William Cooper with a memorial and garden. Uncle Boydie travelled to Israel to attend the ceremony.

William Cooper, a labourer who became literate only as an adult, was a great man who rose to demand justice for his Aboriginal people and the Jewish people in Germany. He raised his voice from far-off Australia while German communities and church leaders were silent.

Uncle Boydie now lives in Shepparton, Victoria. In 2012, William’s march to the German consul-general in Melbourne was re-enacted and the petition to protest the treatment of German Jews was finally accepted by the German consulate.

When I spoke to Uncle Boydie, I was privileged to thank him for what his grandfather did on behalf of my Opa and thousands of others. Thanks for his strength of character, his fortitude, his moral convictions, and his example to those in positions of influence and  power in Nazi Germany who shamelessly approved or were indifferent.

Otto and William , both of blessed memory, never knew each other, but their story is one of inspiration. William would be a suitable and appropriate role model in today’s Europe and should be part of the German educational system. He is a fitting and special example of the Righteous among the Nations, precisely because of where he came from, as well as his humble and simple life, despite which, he clearly understood right from wrong.

In order to preserve the memory of William Cooper’s courage and  the 1938 pogrom, the Kristallnacht Cantata is being composed and has elicited interest in America, Germany and Switzerland. Based on actual events, the 35 minute Cantata describes  the chaos and creativity of Weimar Germany, the metaphyisical bond between Cooper and Jontof-Hutter, and concludes with a hope for peace, harmony and kindness in the world.

Here is the duet between the two men.