“Where books are burned, human beings are destined to be burned also”
— Heinrich Heine, German critic and poet (1797-1856)
This quote strikes a chilling chord as Jewish communities and others mark the anniversary of Kristallnacht (‘Night of Broken Glass’), the night of 9 November 1938 when a Nazi rampage caused massive destruction of Jewish communities in Germany and Austria. In the absence of international protest, Kristallnacht marked a critical step in the movement of Nazi policy towards the ‘Final Solution.’
Particularly sobering is that the anniversary of Kristallnacht recalls a specific moment in history when there was still time for people to speak up; a moment which passed all too silently. As the adage goes, evil triumphed because good people did nothing. When I imagine the morning after Kristallnacht, I picture (from eye-witness accounts) Jewish children walking through streets of shattered glass, while others mourn their dead parents, or gape in horror at razed synagogues and incinerated Torah scrolls.
But I also know that for most people in the world the day after Kristallnacht was ‘business as usual.’ A day with enough of one’s own problems to be taking notice of the plight of the Jews ‘over there’.
And I admit that, in a certain sense, I can understand this reaction. After all, the daily tasks of life are difficult, busy, all-consuming. And who am I to think that I can make a difference in complex political events on the other side of the world? Surely they need to be dealt with by somebody more knowledgeable, smarter, wealthier, more powerful than I.
Enter William Cooper: an Indigenous Australian, in his late seventies, living in Melbourne in 1938. In the context of the times, he was hardly the image of power. His Aboriginal identity meant he wasn’t even considered an Australian citizen. Yet when William Cooper woke to the news of Kristallnacht in November 1938 he responded by organizing a protest march. With supporters he walked to the German Consulate and attempted to deliver a petition (which was rejected), decrying the persecution of Jews. His initiative was formally acknowledged at Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in December 2010 with the establishment of the Chair for the Study of Resistance during the Holocaust, in tribute to William Cooper.
The William Cooper story has a number of fascinating angles to it, including the sheer nerve of Cooper himself. If an elderly, disenfranchised, indigenous Australian living in Melbourne in 1938 can take a stand against one of the most murderous regimes in history, then you and I have just been stripped of every excuse to avoid ‘getting involved’ in other people’s problems. I am not suggesting that William Cooper rolled out of bed one day and did something completely out of character. He led a life of activism, campaigning for the rights of Indigenous Australians as well as other oppressed groups. But this only underscores the point: here was a man whose life embodied a commitment to justice, never seeing the reforms for which he strived. Cooper died in 1941.
Each year on 9 November, the anniversary of Kristallnacht calls for attention to our ongoing relationship with the Jewish people. It is a moment when people of every culture and creed can join together to say ‘never again’ to antisemitism and to every form of destruction of human dignity. It is a call to personal responsibility for the human family. For Australians in particular, William Cooper has made it the anniversary to declare: 'no excuses’.