by Deb Absler (Member of Descendants of the Shoah)

On a recent Sunday I was very privileged to attend an extremely moving and important function held at the Jewish Holocaust Museum and Research Centre. The function’s purpose was to dedicate two plaques. One plaque acknowledges that the land that the Jewish Holocaust Museum and Research Centre stands on is Aboriginal land. The other plaque commemorates the action undertaken over sixty years ago by the Australian Aborigines League.

I was delighted and surprised to discover that the hall was packed for this event; that upwards of 300 members of the Jewish community had attended. A number of dignitaries were present representing a range of organisations including State and Federal governments and members of the indigenous community. A highlight of the many moving speeches was the key note speaker, Justice Marcus Einfield, whose stirring speech earned the standing ovation he received, and for me, was one of the most powerful and passionate speeches I have ever been privileged to hear.

The facts in relation to the actions that the Australian Aborigines League took, and that we were honouring, are remarkable. In December 1938, a few weeks after Kristallnacht (the Night of the Broken Glass), a group called the Australian Aborigines League (AAL) passed a strongly worded resolution condemning Nazi Germany’s treatment of Jews and asked that it be brought to an end. They took their resolution to the doors of the German Consulate in Melbourne to request that the consulate pass on their resolution to the German government but were refused admission.

Present at the function were descendants of William Cooper, the founder of the Australian Aborigines League, one of whom, Dr Wayne Atkinson, spoke eloquently about his great-uncle who was clearly a visionary man, able to consider the human rights of all people at the same time as being a leader of his own people, including being a pioneer for indigenous land rights. Wayne poignantly pointed out the irony that this wonderful event was occurring only days after the latest of a long line of tragedies for indigenous Australians, with the High Court rejecting the Yorta Yorta land claim. Wayne and other members of his family have been actively involved in pursuing this claim for a number of years and in his grief and shock over the decision demonstrated that the struggle that the indigenous people face in this country is as alive and well as it was in William Cooper’s time.

I would also like to acknowledge the very moving and stirring speech delivered by Arnold Zable who spoke about the links between Jewish and Aboriginal peoples’ experience and the “chilling similarity” he noted between the “massacre maps” he discovered near Treblinka and the maps of Aboriginal massacres that occurred around Victoria. He also reminded us that in 2002 in Australia it was still a time to think about the human rights injustices that were occurring within our own country and our actions and inactions in relation to these.As I listened to all these speeches I found myself deeply moved and affected. There were so many different layers of thoughts, feelings and experiences that were evoked for me.

As I sat in the Jewish Holocaust Museum and Research Centre, I felt, as I always do, chilled to the bone, thinking about all the innocent people who perished in the holocaust including members of my own family. I think about the profound unspeakable experiences and bravery of the survivors (including that of my late father) and looked around the room with respect to those survivors who were sitting in the audience with me, who knew better than any of us the meaning of the action that the members of the Australian Aborigines League had taken.

As well as those thoughts I also found myself in the present, reflecting about the extraordinary experiences I have had working, as a social worker, for over ten years with the indigenous community in a number of settings; the enormous amount I have learned from indigenous professionals including members of the Atkinson family and from the many indigenous children, adolescents and families I have worked with. From them I began to have a glimpse of the impact of the terrible injustices that have and still are being perpetrated in this country, the layers of sadness and loss but alongside those experiences a sense of dignity, integrity, courage, humanity and commitment to their culture that stuns me.Professor Emil Fackenheim, the eminent Holocaust writer and philosopher opposed this view, stating that God was present in the camps and that there is a need to add one more mitzvah - to remain Jewish - otherwise Hitler wins. He argues that we are mere mortals and can’t understand but we must believe in God. However he offers no explanation for God’s silence/lack of action.

And then back to the thirties. Since that Sunday morning and certainly as I write this article, these same words keep on returning. Dignity, integrity, courage, humanity. I find myself wondering about this action that Mr. Cooper and other members of his organization had taken, about the qualities that these men and women must have possessed to firstly have identified that this was a situation that concerned them; to develop a plan of action and then act on it particularly within an environment and society that remained silent. And particularly when this group of people who took this action were members of a community that had no legal rights within their own country at the time and lived under appalling economic, social and psychological hardship. Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of UK supports Fackenheim’s views but states Jewish survival has significance after the Shoah because it was significant before. The miracle in fact is that Jewish life continues.

They were not citizens of their own country but they chose to act on behalf of a group of people that they not only had absolutely no connection to, but also no direct knowledge of, or involvement with. The courage, integrity, humanity and dignity that these members of the Aboriginal Advancement League demonstrated in 1939 overwhelm me. It also puzzles me. How could they see what was going on to people halfway across the world when others could not? Why did they choose to act when others did not? The Satmar Rebbe Teitelbaum represents the extreme view that God punished the Jews because Zionism was a secular movement and because the State of Israel was trying to emerge before the Messiah.

And for us, sitting comfortably in 2003, I applaud the extraordinary action of these courageous people and at a time when there is so much to be concerned about both nationally and internationally, I hope that this new year will provide us all with the opportunity to find just a glimpse of the courage, integrity, humanity and dignity that sits within us all, and put it into practice.Still others said it was precisely because Jews had rejected Zionism that the Holocaust punished them.

(References: articles by Peter Kohn, Jewish News, December 6th and 20th 2002)

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