The Story Behind The Notes
On the 9th November 1938, Otto Jontof-Hutter, in Stuttgart, together with 30,000 other Jews across the Reich, was arrested. During those 24 hours – known as Kristallnacht – Jewish homes, schools, hospitals and synagogues across Germany and Austria were ransacked, demolished and burned, leaving hundreds dead and thousands wounded.
What went through his mind as he was marched off, is anyone’s guess, but Herr Jontof-Hutter, twice wounded in the First World War, and who was the recipient of the Iron Cross, was sent to Dachau Concentration Camp.
Otto Jontof-Hutter, loyal, hardworking and kindly, never saw himself other than a patriotic German. His family had been Germans for many hundreds of years and the thought of his origins— far down the mists of time—probably was not something he consciously thought about.
Across the world in Australia, William Cooper, who grew up in an Aboriginal mission station. near Moama in the Riverina, New South Wales, was a member of the Yorta-Yorta people and made a living as a sheep shearer and fencer. Later he opened up a fishmonger shop in nearby Mulwala—almost unheard of for an Aboriginal in the days of the early 20th century. William Cooper sold the fish, which he himself caught in the Murray River, originally called the Dunghala.
Otto, a Jew in Stuttgart and William, converting later in life to Christianity, who lived 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, yet somehow their lives crossed by virtue of circumstances.
When Otto was arrested for the ‘crime’ of being a Jew in Germany during the state organised pogrom of 9-10 November 1938, the 78 year old William happened to be with his 9 year old grand-son Alf Turner (now called Uncle Boydie.) By chance, Boydie had noticed the story of Kristallnacht in a newspaper lying on the table in their home and asked his grandfather about it. According to Uncle Boydie, his grandfather's response was, “nobody did anything about it, and therefore I should do something.”
While Otto who was well-read, languished with thousands of others in Dachau, the elderly William, who had only learned to read as an adult, wrote a strong protest letter addressed to the German regime. On 6 December 1938 when Otto had been in Dachau for about 4 weeks, William, heading an aboriginal delegation, set off from his home and walked the 10km to the German consul- general, Dr Drechsler, in central Melbourne. Dr Drechsler refused to accept the letter about the “cruel persecution of Jews in Germany.”
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 Prime Minister Lyons, who refused to hand over his petition to King George Vl. Bitterly disappointed, Cooper's decision, therefore, to later confront the German Reich as an elderly Aboriginal man with few rights, is therefore remarkable.
Otto Jontof-Hutter in Dachau must have felt shocked, abandoned and betrayed by the events of Kristallnacht which were gleefully endorsed by German Lutheran Bishop Martin Sasse. In contrast, he would never have been aware of the decency and attempts at protest by William Cooper in Australia.
In the end, Otto was released before the war started and managed, with the help of a lawyer, to sail to South Africa, where he would join his wife Flora and sons. His experience in Dachau was traumatic which affected his health. He spent much time painting landscapes, 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 petitions to King George or the German regime. In 1941, exhausted, ill and disillusioned, 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, the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, honoured William Cooper with a memorial garden. Accompanied by Colleen Marion, CEO of an aboriginal community health/legal centre in Melbourne—Uncle Boydie travelled to Israel to attend the ceremony.
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.
William Cooper, a labourer who became literate only as an adult, was a great man who rose to demand justice for both his Aboriginal people and the Jewish people in Germany. He raised his voice from distant Australia, while German communities, academics and church leaders either incited violence against Jews or remained silent.
William and Otto, both of blessed memory, lying in graves some 10,000kms apart, never knew each other, but their story is one of inspiration. William's courageous actions teach us the importance to pursue equality, practice tolerance and "love your neighbour as youself" as the Torah directs us.