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"On 9th November, 1938, on the infamous day known as Kristallnacht, hundreds of Jews were murdered throughout Germany, all the synagogues were destroyed, thousands of Jewish stores were burned and 30,000 German Jews were sent to concentration camps. These events left Europe and the rest of the world unmoved. It was only in distant Australia that one man, William Cooper, stood up and led a delegation of his Aborigine clansmen to the German consulate in Melbourne to protest this atrocity. It is to honor his memory that we are gathered here today." Menahem Leibovic, KKL-JNF Vice Chairman, was speaking at Martyrs' Forest in the Judean Hills on Israel Memorial Day, to an audience that included the two Australian delegations visiting Israel, His Excellency James Larsen, Australian ambassador to Israel, KKL-JNF officials, and descendents of William Cooper who are guests of KKL-JNF in Israel.
William Cooper was an activist who fought for equal rights for Australia's indigenous communities and was sensitive to human suffering wherever it surfaced. As Leibovic said, "It is not enough to wait for justice, justice must be pursued. Today we remember our fallen soldiers, who fought to establish a free Jewish state in our people's ancestral homeland. There could not be a better day, nor a better place, to honor the memory of this brave man and the legacy he left us than Martyrs' Forest, where six million trees were planted in memory of the six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust."
The ceremony was beautifully emceed by JNF Australia CEO Rob Schneider, who quoted the words of a Holocaust victim who begged those who would survive 'not to forget the dead. I want you to build a memorial for us that will reach the sky - a memorial built not of concrete, but of good deeds.' "This, too," added Schneider, "was the message of William Cooper."
James Larsen, the Australian ambassador to Israel, noted that William Cooper was a man "decades ahead of his time. When he heard of the Jewish suffering in Europe, he drew on his own experience as being a part of a people dispossessed. This beautiful forest is certainly the most appropriate of sites to remember this remarkable individual, who took a stand in the face of public and government indifference. We are privileged to be in Israel to commemorate his deeds and courage."
The last speaker was Alfred Cooper, better known as "Uncle Boidi" William Cooper's grandson, who lived with his grandfather for twelve years. He began his remarks by invoking his tribal tradition. "I pay my respects to all tribal elders, past and present. I thank you inviting us to your sacred land of Israel. I thank KKL-JNF World Chairman Efi Stenzler, JNF Australia President Ron Ferster, CEO Rob Schneider and all the wonderful KKL-JNF people.
"My grandfather taught me that there is a greater purpose to a person's life than simply to exist. We remember his unselfish, just and righteous acts today, when you remember those who died defending this sacred land. William Cooper was born in Yorta Yorta tribal land in 1861, and he moved to Melbourne in 1933. He was a quiet man until it came to the plight of his people, he didn't really talk much about anything else. When he heard about the events in Germany, he was sickened and frustrated, and when countries did not act, he did. I am proud to be his grandson and I thank Israel and KKL-JNF for creating this tribute to him. If my grandfather were with us now, he would have apologized for not doing more."
The ceremony was broadcast live to Melbourne, where a group of 30 Jews and 30 Aborigines had gathered to follow the proceedings. The group planted 70 trees, one for each of the years that has passed since Kristallnacht, 65 of them in the Australia-Israel Friendship Forest in the south, and the remaining five in Martyrs' Forest. Uncle Boidi and his clan brought water from the Mari River and soil from Yorta Yorta country, which they mixed with the soil and water of Israel. After unveiling the plaque honoring William Cooper, Uncle Boidi was presented by KKL-JNF with a collection of ancient coins from the Second Temple Era, while the rest of the clan were given hand-shaped "hamsas" said to protect the wearer against the evil eye and malicious spirits.
We spoke with Kevin Russell, a great-grandson of William Cooper: "Words cannot express what I feel - I am so moved! My great-grandfather is not sufficiently recognized back home. It is strange, but it takes events like this to inspire us to tell the story in Australia, so in some miraculous way, being here in Israel is like coming back home for many of us."
The Aborigine group joined JNF Australia's "Memorable Moments Mission" for an intense day of touring the Judean Hill and Jerusalem, focusing on the birth of modern Israel. At an observation point from which we could view the narrow pass leading from the Coastal Plain to Jerusalem, Shalom Norman told the story of the siege of Jerusalem and the convoys bringing supplies that were attacked daily by local Arabs until an alternate route, the famous Burma Road, was built. The mission was afforded a magnificent view of the former battlefield, now carpeted in green by forests planted by KKL-JNF.
After a visit to the Scrolls of Fire memorial sculpture, where the Jewish people's rebirth in the Land of Israel after the Holocaust is depicted in bronze and stone, the group visited the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City. They then proceeded to Ammunition Hill, where one the fiercest battles for the reunification of Jerusalem during the Six Day War was fought. There they were joined by the "Gold Patrons Mission", the other JNF Australian mission currently visiting Israel. Our guide to the site was none other than the famous Colonel (res.) Shimon Cahaner, better known as "Katcha." As Katcha noted, Ammunition Hill is very connected to Australian Jewry, since it was developed through the generous support of Harry Triguboff, one of Israel and KKL-JNF's staunchest supporters.
"When Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin went to Washington to conclude the peace talks with King Hussein of Jordan," Katcha told his audience, "he took me with him. I was introduced to the King, who asked me if there was anything he could do for me. I told him that I would like to host a delegation of the Jordanian officers whom I fought against at Ammunition Hill, to meet them in peacetime. The King immediately granted my request, and two weeks later, six Jordanian officers came to Israel and we exchanged notes on the terrible battle. 'We fought like lions,' they told me, 'but you fought like people whose very lives depended on conquering Jerusalem'."
After an audio-visual presentation describing the conquest and reunification of Jerusalem, the group visited the new center honoring the memory of Jewish soldiers who had fought in armies of countries throughout the world. We had an opportunity to speak with Joe Krycer, leader of the Gold Patrons mission: "We have 31 all-year-round supporters of KKL-JNF in this group, a very committed group of people. We're touring the country from north to south, with special emphasis on KKL-JNF projects that group members have helped to support. What is unique about this visit is the people we have met, authentic people who gave us a sense of what it means to live facing so many challenges. You know, cities are often similar wherever you go, so we spent a lot of time in the countryside, where you really get a sense of the land of Israel and what sustainability means here specifically."
Grahame Leonard, incoming JNF Australia Federal President, said that his motivation for taking this job comes partly "from marveling at the miracle of modern Israel. The ties between Australian Jewry are very close - 70% of Australian Jewry has visited Israel, the highest percentage anywhere. Education is a very important for me: it guarantees the bond between Israel and future generations. Jerusalem is the spiritual capital of the Jewish people and our challenge is to convey some of the excitement and passion for Israel we have experienced during this visit to the rest of our community."
Ms. Sarah Gold, President of JNF Victoria, said that one of her goals was to let people know that KKL-JNF was not just about the Blue Box and trees. "One of the comments I keep hearing during this visit is: 'I didn't know KKL-JNF does this, I didn't know how important their work was.' Zionism runs in my family. My father came here in 1936 and dug ditches at what was to become Tel Aviv's Rothschild Boulevard. For personal reasons, he had to return to Europe with his wife, who was killed at Auschwitz. After the war, my father moved to Melbourne. He was a close friend of former Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren. After the Six Day War, my father visited Israel and Rabbi Goren invited him to review an Israeli Army honor guard with him. My father told me that this was one of the most moving moments of his life - that he, a survivor of Auschwitz, was being saluted by the army of the independent Jewish state. I think of him today, as Israel remembers the soldiers who fell defending their homeland, so that Jews will never again be without the ability to defend themselves against those who would destroy them."
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