Song and dance about Aboriginal leader’s protest

On the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht and the protest by Aboriginal leader William Cooper, a multi-media, musical commemoration is being staged

A musical theatre production in honour of the life of William Cooper, the Aboriginal leader who protested against the Nazis’ persecution of the Jews, is being staged in Melbourne this weekend.

Night of Broken Glass commemorates the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, a series of attacks on Jews on November 9-10, 1938, when Nazi paramilitary forces and citizens destroyed hundreds of synagogues, killed at least 91 Jews, ransacked Jewish homes, hospitals and schools and rounded up tens of thousands more across Germany, Austria and Czech Sudetenland.

The attacks left shards of glass littering the streets, which led to the pogrom becoming known as Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass.

Here in Australia, a 78-year-old Christian Aboriginal elder named William Cooper was so incensed by newspaper reports of the violence that he wrote a letter asking the Nazi government to end the persecution of its citizens. At a time when Aboriginal Australians were not even citizens of their own country, he led a protest that is considered the only one of its kind by Yad Vashem, the world’s leading research centre on the Holocaust.

“Every Australian child should learn the story of William Cooper.” – Dr Beth Rankin.

On December 6, 1938, Cooper trekked 10km from his home in Melbourne’s Footscray to the city centre with about 120 friends, family and members of the Australian Aborigines League, which he had co-founded. Cooper wanted to deliver his petition condemning “the cruel persecution of the Jewish people by the Nazi government” – which by then had about 1800 signatures – to the German Consulate but was barred from entering the grounds. The petition was rejected until last year, when Cooper’s grandson, Alf Turner, was able to present it to the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel.

Now 80 years after that remarkable protest, Dr Beth Rankin from the Australian Catholic University, has teamed up with Australian composer and musical director Warren Wills to produce what they call a “socially inclusive musical.”

“Every Australian child should learn the story of William Cooper,” says Dr Rankin.

“As one of Australia’s largest teacher-training universities, we want to prepare our students to teach this inspirational piece of Australian history. It’s wonderful example of ACU’s mission of respect for the dignity of the human person and the common good.”

Night of Broken Glass brings together a widely diverse group of performers who want to explore their talents in musical theatre. Modelled on inclusive music projects run in the UK, Hong Kong, Shepparton and Melbourne, it aims to be an entertaining, educational and inspiring experience.

“We don’t audition, we just invite people to come along and we include everybody in some way.” – Dr Beth Rankin

Using original music and dance, it features an alternating ensemble of 300 amateur youth and professional actors, singers and dancers, including ACU students and staff, The Choir of Hard Knocks, students from St Matthews Primary School Fawkner, Aurora Early Education, Brothers in Arms Aboriginal dance company and the recently formed Men Aloud.

“We actually invite anyone, it doesn’t matter who they are, whether they’re homeless, whether they’ve got any sort of disability. It’s really for anyone, so we don’t audition, we just invite people to come along and we include everybody in some way. You either write yourself into it or everyone else writes you into the piece,” Dr Rankin told ABC Radio National this morning.

“We’ve only been rehearsing this for six weeks so in a way it’s like pop-up theatre. We have some members from the Choir of Hard Knocks, men from Men Aloud, we’ve got quite a few from the Clemente programme at the Australian Catholic University, which is for people who are disadvantaged and have missed out on education.”

“Warren and I, for example, as the directors, don’t tell anyone what they’ve got to do, we just … sort through everyone’s ideas and contributions and then bring that all together in the best way we possibly can.”

Night of Broken Glass has been created in partnership with the German Embassy in Australia and the German Consul in Melbourne.

There will be two performances of Night of Broken Glass, at 3pm and 6pm on Sunday, November 18, at Cathedral Hall, Australian Catholic University, 20 Brunswick Street, Fitzroy. Tickets are available from