The Value of Being an Upstander!

Eli Rabinowitz and Uncle Boydie Alf Turner in Mooroopna, VIC 189km from Melbourne

By Eli Rabinowitz

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing’ – Edmund Burke, philosopher.

I wrote about the Bielski Partisan Reunion in Belarus in July in last month’s CJC, and what an inspiring event it was. There were numerous other groups that operated in the region – the  Zoran group in Belarus and Abba Kovner’s Litvak Partisans, based in Vilna. The 2008 movie, Defiance, featuring Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber, brought attention to the story of the Bielski partisans in the forests. Unfortunately, over time, this movie has slipped out of focus. 

On the other hand, there are definitely more people interested now in connecting with their own family histories. Online genealogy, DNA testing, and the like are booming!

New accessibility to countries like Belarus, Lithuania and Poland certainly makes a trip relatively easy these days. Getting to and travelling in Belarus has seen a marked improvement in the past few years, since I first travelled there in 2012.

There is now also a growing interest amongst educators to use narratives about the Partisans, and specifically the Jewish Partisans, to highlight a range of topics, for example: Upstanders vs Bystanders. The JPEF – Jewish Partisans Education Fund in San Francisco and other NGOs are popularising the concept. 

Universities like UWA here in Perth have a Diversity and Inclusion Manager in place to ensure that courses take into account the interests of different multicultural groups. We were awarded a US government grant for my WE ARE HERE! Project because we were able to focus on promoting Human Rights and Social Justice for those facing prejudice, hatred and discrimination. We developed the stories of the Jewish Partisans in WWII into a universal message of hope and inspiration for all who are victims of prejudice and oppression.

Global TV series such as the BBC’s “Who Do You Think You Are?” have helped highlight high profile family stories of the Holocaust. These programs grab our attention. Any of us who have watched the series would have been attracted to these real life stories, the amazing detective work, the victims and heroes, and being able to identify with them. One such story is that of the Kaplinsky family which focuses on Natasha Kaplinsky, a BBC identity with connections to Solly and Benny Kaplinski. Although I didn’t know the family then (I was at Sea Point Boys’, not Herzlia), who now wouldn’t know about Solly and Benny, even though neither live in South Africa. Who can forget the final scene in the episode where Benny sings kaddish in the ruins of the Slonim shul!

However, living in a different environment here in Australia, we also have narratives that inspire us.

One such story is about an Aboriginal Australian elder, William Cooper.

William Cooper was so incensed by what he read about the Kristallnacht pogrom, Night of Broken Glass, when Nazis attacked Jews and their propertiesin Germany, Austria and Sudetenland on 9/10 November 1938. The Nazis also rounded up some 30000 Jewish males, who were taken to concentration camps. In addition, the Jewish community was ordered to pay one billion Reichsmark as compensation for the damage, and many anti-Jewish laws were introduced. 

Although already 78 years old, William Cooper collected signatures for his petition which condemned the cruel persecution of the Jewish people by the Nazi government, and marched the 10km from his house in suburban Melbourne to the then German consulate in the city on 6 December 1938. The Nazis refused to acknowledge his petition, and although there was some local press coverage, the protest was largely forgotten. It should also be noted that Aboriginal Australians only received recognition to be included in the census after a referendum of the Australian population in 1967, long after Cooper’s death in 1941.

It was only in 2002 that William Cooper’s legacy was appreciated by the Jewish community. In 2008 his grandson Alf “Boydie” Turner was presented with a certificate of 70 trees that were planted in William Cooper’s honour in Israel. There were further honours in 2009 and 2010 by Australian and Israeli politicians, including the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Further recognition came from Yad Vashem.

In 2017, seventy nine years after his march, the German government finally accepted William Cooper’s petition from Alf “Boydie” Turner, his grandson.

In June 2018, an Australian federal electoral seat was named Cooper, in his honour.

William Cooper has now become the focus of what an Upstander is and can achieve.          On 10 November, people around Australia commemorate Kristallnacht, and the eventual success for the outstanding efforts of William Cooper.

Watch Viv Parry’s film: Ties That Bind 

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