Kristallnacht & Aboriginal Australia

Aboriginal protest against Kristallnacht

Aboriginal protest against Kristallnacht

In late 1938, only a few short months before the beginning of World War II, a most remarkable series of events took place in the south east of Australia. Set against a year in which white Australia had celebrated its sesquicentenary, Aboriginal leaders paused for a moment and took stock of the changing face of the world beyond their own shores.

Prominent leaders including Bill Onus, Margaret Tucker, Jack Patten, William Cooper, Tom Foster, George Patten, Bill Ferguson and Bert Groves, who all played a role during the Day of Mourning conference on January 26, took time out from the important task of pushing for equality and human rights for Aboriginal people, to respond to the treatment of another persecuted people. United by bonds of blood and Country, they acted upon a motion by William Cooper, in support of Jewish people in Western Europe.

Raised on the Maloga Mission Station and tutored there by Daniel Matthews, a Christian missionary, Cooper had familiarised himself with the story and plight of Jewish people at an early age. He recognised that their biblical struggles mirrored those of his own people, and expressed a sense of kinship in that knowledge. It was an appreciation that was shared by the other leaders with whom Cooper had partnered with, in fighting for the rights of Australia’s First Peoples.

Horrified by the events of the 9th and 10th of November 1938, in which Jewish businesses and homes were looted and destroyed and Jewish people were terrorised across Germany, Austria and parts of Czechoslovakia, Cooper found support among other Koori leaders in Victoria and New South Wales, willing to respond to what would come to be known as the Kristallnacht” (Night of Crystal), or “Night of Broken Glass”.

On 6 December 1938, William Cooper along with other leaders of the Melbourne based Australian Aborigines League, visited upon the German Consulate in that city and presented a petition, protesting the persecution of Jewish people during the events of the Kristallnacht. [1] This has been an act which has gained recognition in recent years, for having been thought of as the only protest of its kind to have been made at the time, anywhere in the world. However, the fact is that William Cooper was not alone in his poignant efforts.

Six days prior to the AAL delegation delivering its petition, a report was published in the Dubbo Liberal and Macquarie Advocate which quoted William Ferguson, leader of a small Dubbo based splinter group of the formerly united Aborigines Progressive Association (APA), as offering words of support to the AAL in their efforts. [2] Whereas in Sydney, the Aborigines Progressive Association, led by Jack Patten, coordinated with William Cooper to produce a protest in that city, to coincide with the efforts in Melbourne. [3]

In support of Willam Cooper and the AAL

In support of Willam Cooper and the AAL

Whilst the exact timing of Jack Patten and the APA’s efforts are unknown, a report of the protest was made in disparaging fashion, by an ally of William Ferguson’s, and was printed in the Dubbo Liberal and Macquarie Gazette on 11 February 1939.

The article stated that at a meeting of Ferguson’s splinter APA group, held the previous evening, a letter head been read out which accused Jack Patten’s APA of “alleged disloyal acts”, which the article detailed as

“drunken Aborigines being taken into the German Consul’s office at Sydney to sign declarations to the effect that they had been ill-treated by the Government.”

The accusations made by the anonymous letter writer which were supported by William Ferguson and Jack Kinchela, were supplemented at the meeting by an attack on the Indigenous scholar David Unaipon “for his indifference to his fellow Aborigines”, and was followed up by further condemnation of Jack Patten, William Cooper and others. [4] The latter was in response to Patten and Cooper’s efforts over a number of years, made in support of Cummeragunja, the community to which they both belonged. Patten’s efforts in particular would culminate on February 4, 1939 with the Cummeragunja Walk-Off, an event in which the bulk of the Cummeragunja community led by Patten, left their homes in protest at the treatment they were subjected to, never to return.

Jack Patten's efforts at Cummeragunja were misrepresented by the Australian media

Jack Patten’s fight on behalf of Cummeragunja’s residents was misrepresented by the Australian media.

Following Jack Patten’s efforts at both the Sydney German Consulate and at Cummeragunja, an article was published in the Sydney Daily Mail on 7 February 1939 with a headline “Nazis Behind Panic”, which alleged that the exodus of the Koori community from Cummeragunja had manifested as an act in support of the German press, to provide it with “material to further Nazi claims for the return of colonies.” [5] Patten later sued the Sydney Daily Mail for libel, but without success. [6]

As a result of Ferguson’s betrayal in attempting to regain control of the Aborigines Progressive Association, which he and Patten had co-founded, both his and Patten’s efforts, along with the significant contributions made by other Aboriginal leaders, in speaking out on behalf of the Jewish people in their hour of need, have been buried and all but forgotten, save for a few threads of oral tradition and a pair of recently unearthed articles published in a small country town.

Jack Patten was variously labelled a NAZI agent as well as a communist throughout his career. The two heavily contrasting ideologies however sat a long distance from the true methodologies the man employed in his political efforts. Patten was a pragmatist, who believed in his people and utilised the tools at his disposal, wherever they were both appropriate and just, and always for the betterment of his people. He freely associated with the full spectrum of Australian politics, from the Australian Communist Party on the left, to the financing of his newspaper “The Abo Call” by P.R. Stephensen, a publisher on the far right. Highlighting his modus operandi, Jack Patten was quoted in 1947 at a Trade Union gathering as saying to a young man who would later become his protegee “Never ever join a political party and never ever abuse a politican, use a politican.” [7]

In 1940 Jack Patten’s politics and beliefs would lead him into campaigning throughout the course of the year for Aboriginal people to be able to join the fight against NAZI Germany on their own terms, by being recognised as Aboriginal men, rather than having to pretend they belonged to another ethnicity in order to enlist. [8] With the rules relaxed partly in response to Patten’s campaign, both Jack and George Patten enlisted.

Jack & Selina Patten, Jack Patten in Egypt 1940

Jack & Selina Patten, Jack Patten in Egypt 1940

In 1940 and 1941 Jack Patten served in the Middle-East as part of the 2/1 Battalion of the AIF, visiting the lands of the people he along with his contemporaries had spoken on behalf of.

  1. 1938 ‘ABORIGINES’ PROTEST’, The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 – 1957), 3 December, p. 7. ,
  2. 1938 ‘CRUELTY TO JEWS’, The Dubbo Liberal and Macquarie Advocate (NSW : 1894 – 1954), 1 December, p. 6. ,
  3. 1939 ‘NAZIS BEHIND PANIC’, Daily News (Sydney, NSW : 1938 – 1940), 7 February, p. 1. ,
  4. 1939 ‘DISLOYAL ACTS’, The Dubbo Liberal and Macquarie Advocate (NSW : 1894 – 1954), 11 February, p. 1. ,
  5. ibid
  6. 1939 ‘LIBEL CLAIM FAILS.’, The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 – 1954), 9 August, p. 20. ,
  7. Dixon, Charles “Chicka”, 2005: DVD Jumbanna the Indigenous House of Learning

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1 Response

  1. Donna Thomas says:

    hi my name is Donna Thomas, i was taken from my family, my birth name is Darlene Joy Everett, im trying to find out information on my father Edgar Robert Cooper from Cummergunja mission, nsw and my pop William Cooper. if you get any info including DOB, place of birth and anything else, that would be great. Also could you please try and find out information on my birth mother: Leila Levinia Everett?
    donna thomas

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