Kristallnacht: The remarkable Mr William Cooper and Herr Otto Jontof-Hutter
On the 9th November 1938, Otto Jontof-Hutter, together with 30,000 other Jews, was arrested in Stuttgart.
During those 24 hours – Kristallnacht – Jewish homes, schools, hospitals and synagogues across Germany and Austria were ransacked, demolished and burned, leaving hundreds dead and thousands beaten.
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 won the Iron Cross, was sent to Dachau Concentration Camp, guest of the NS regime that had been elected in 1933.
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. He simply was a German of the Mosaic faith, did not look different from other Germans and shared a similar lifestyle with 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 stroll and perhaps enjoy some coffee and cake. Monday it was back to work at his master tailor business that supplied ceremonial uniforms to the German military.
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 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 Murray River, that runs through south-east Australia.
Otto, a Jew in Stuttgart and William, 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, 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) in Melbourne, where he had moved to in 1933. 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. William, a tireless activist for Aboriginals—in those days subjected to Christian missionary activities, often removed from their parents and placed in “good” Christian homes —did not have the right to vote. He was probably unaware that German Jews lost their right to vote under the 1935 Nuremberg Laws. Nonetheless, the news of Kristallnacht had certainly grabbed his attention to the point that he discussed it with his grandson Boydie. Uncle Boydie told me that he recalled his grandfather saying “nobody did anything about it, and therefore (he) would have to 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 Nazi 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,” and it was left with a security official.
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, his decision therefore to later confront the German Reich as an elderly aboriginal man with few rights, suffering ill health and fatigue, is remarkable to say the least.
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, honored 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 laborer 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 far off Australia while German communities, academics and church leaders either incited violence against their Jews or remained silent.
I was privileged to thank Uncle Boydie personally for what his grandfather did on behalf of my grandfather and thousands others. His strength of character and moral convictions, were an example to those in positions of power and ordinary people in Nazi Germany who shamelessly approved or were indifferent.
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 is a role model whose example should resonate in today’s troubled Europe.
Despite full constitutional rights having been extended to all aboriginal Australians in 1967, Uncle Boydie still had some unfinished business to attend to. When Prince William visited Australia in 2014, Uncle Boydie was granted a five minute meeting with him. Prince William promised to raise the issue of William Cooper’s petition of January 1938 for aboriginal rights which had been rejected. Eventually the Governor-General of Australia, Sir Peter Cosgrove, reportedly handed in the petition to Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth.
Thus, William Cooper’s life’s work finally came to fruition. Some forty years after Otto’s death, his son Erich would be invited to Stuttgart as a guest of Mayor Manfred Rommel, whose own father was Field Marshall Rommel and whom Erich had fought against in North Africa under Field Marshall Montgomery’s leadership.
Uncle Boydie feels that his tasks are now complete and he enjoys leading a quiet life with his grandchildren in a country Victorian town.
Ron Jontof-Hutter is a Fellow at the Berlin International Centre for the Study of Anti-Semitism. He is the author of the satirical novel “The trombone man: tales of a misogynist.”