A Tribute to ‘Uncle Boydie’ on the Anniversary of Kristallnacht
On November 9, 1938, Otto Jontof-Hutter was one of 30,000 Jews arrested in Stuttgart.
That day — Kristallnacht — saw Jewish homes, schools, hospitals and synagogues across Germany and Austria ransacked, demolished and burned. Hundreds of people were killed and thousands beaten.
Twice wounded in the First World War and a recipient of the Iron Cross, Herr Jontof-Hutter now became an inmate at Dachau, courtesy of the Nazi regime that had been elected in 1933. What went through his mind as he was marched away is anyone’s guess.
Otto, loyal, hardworking and kind, never saw himself as anything other than a patriotic German. His family had been German for many hundreds of years, and he probably did not often think of his ancestral origins. He was simply a German of the Mosaic faith. He did not look any different than his neighbors and his lifestyle was similar to that of his middle class compatriots. In winter, he enjoyed langlauf skiing with his wife Flora, and their two sons Erich and Werner. Sundays were generally used for a nice stroll and perhaps 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, a member of the Yorta-Yorta people, had grown up on an aboriginal mission station near Moama in the Riverina, New South Wales. He originally made a living as a sheep-shearer and fencer, and later opened a fishmonger shop in nearby Mulwala — something that was almost unheard of for an Aboriginal Australian in the early 20th century. William not only sold fish, but caught his product himself in the Murray River that runs through southeast Australia. He moved to Melbourne in 1933.
Though Otto, a Jew in Stuttgart, and William, an Aboriginal Australian, were as different as two people could be, they shared distinct similarities. They were hard-working members of ancient cultures being persecuted by their governments. They were both disenfranchised — Aboriginal Australians had never had the vote, and German Jews had that right taken away under the 1935 Nuremberg Laws.
They never met, they never knew each other, but their lives were about to intersect in a profound way.
As Otto was being arrested for the crime of being a Jew in Germany, 78-year-old William happened to be with his young grandson, Alf Turner. Looking through a newspaper, Alf — known today as “Uncle Boydie” — noticed an article about Kristallnacht, and asked his grandfather about it. William had not heard before about what the Jews were going through, but the story had his attention immediately. Uncle Boydie told me that his grandfather said, “Nobody is doing anything about it, so I will have to do something.”
While Otto languished with thousands of others in Dachau, the elderly William — who had only become literate as an adult — wrote a strong letter to the Nazi regime protesting the “cruel persecution of Jews in Germany.” On December 6, 1938, he and an aboriginal delegation walked 10 kilometers into central Melbourne, to serve the German Consul-General, Dr. Drechsler, with the petition. Drechsler refused to accept the document and the delegation left it with a security official.
The struggle for civil rights was not new to William. He was a tireless activist for aboriginal people, active in circulating petitions for direct representation in the Australian parliament. On January 31, 1938, he had led the first aboriginal deputation to hand the signatures to Prime Minister Joseph Lyons, who refused to pass the petition on to King George Vl. The aboriginal people were bitterly disappointed.
For William to decide as an elderly aboriginal man with few rights, suffering ill health and fatigue, to confront the German Reich is remarkable, to say the least.
As Otto was locked in Dachau — no doubt feeling shocked, abandoned and betrayed by the German people — he was unaware of the attempts of a decent man far away in Australia to stand up for him.
Otto was fortunate to be released from the camp before the start of the war. He managed to sail to South Africa, where he joined his family and spent time painting, but his traumatic experiences in Dachau effected his health. In 1948, he died after suffering a massive stroke and was buried in Port Elizabeth. Otto was 68.
A few years earlier, in 1941, William had died at the age of 80, exhausted and disillusioned. He had fought for much of his life for the justice and dignity of his people as the secretary of the Australian Aborigines’ League, and, toward the end of his life, he devoted himself to trying to end the suffering of those thousands of miles away.
In 2010, the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem inducted William into the Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations. Uncle Boydie traveled to Israel to attend the ceremony, accompanied by Colleen Marion, CEO of an aboriginal community health and legal center.
In 2012, a re-enactment was staged of William’s march to the German Consul-General, and the petition — still sitting in the office after all those years — was finally accepted.
During Prince William’s 2014 to Australia, Uncle Boydie was granted a five-minute meeting, during which he asked that his grandfather’s 1938 petition for Aboriginal rights be finally recognized by the crown. Though Australian Aboriginals received full constitutional rights in 1967, Uncle Boydie wanted his grandfather’s work recognized. Reportedly, the petition was finally handed to Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth by the Governor-General of Australia, Sir Peter Cosgrove. Thus, William’s life’s work finally came to fruition.
William Cooper was a great man, standing up whenever and wherever he saw injustice. As German communities, church leaders, academics and politicians either incited violence against Jews or remained silent, William raised his voice in protest from far-off Australia. His strength of character and moral convictions should serve as a role model for those living in today’s troubled Europe.
I am privileged to be able to personally thank Uncle Boydie for what his grandfather did on behalf of my grandfather and thousands of others.
This article was first published by the Jewish Journal.