Map of Mauritius
Exile in Mauritius
On October 1, 1940,
three vessels sailed from the Rumanian port of Tulcia - the Atlantic,
the Milos and the Pacific, carrying some 3,500 immigrants from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia.
At the beginning of November, the Pacific and the Milos reached Haifa,
and their 1,800 passengers were transferred by the British to the 12,000-ton Patria. On November 20,
the Atlantic arrived and 100 of its passengers were also transferred
to the Patria. The British Government had decided to take drastic steps in order to put an end
to the illegal immigration, and announced the following day that the
immigrants were to be deported to Mauritius, a British colony in the
Indian Ocean about 1800 kilometers off the East African coast. Their
fate was to be decided at the end of the war.
The Haganah leaders decided to prevent the Patria from leaving port by sabotage.
On November 25, 1940, Haganah liaison officers detonated a mine aboard
the ship, but blasted a larger hole than expected. The ship sank, and
some 250 people (200 of them Jews, and most of the remainder British
soldiers) drowned. This was the largest number of victims of any single
operation since the beginning of British
rule in Palestine.
The Patria survivors were eventually permitted to remain
in Eretz Israel, but 1,584
of the Atlantic's passengers were deported to Mauritius, where they
spent the rest of the war in a detainment camp in Beau Bassin. The detainees
were made up of 800 Jews from Vienna,
the remnants of the Jewish community of Danzig (Gdansk) and a Maccabi-He-Halutz transport from Czechoslovakia. The
men were held in a former jailhouse and the women in adjacent iron huts.
Though not maltreated, the refugees suffered from tropical diseases
and inadequate food and clothing. After the ban of interactions between
the sexes was lifted, 60 children were born in the camps. During the
internment, the South African
Jewish Board of Deputies and other Jewish organizations such as
the Jewish Agency and the Zionist
Federation sent aid to the refugees in the form of food, clothing, medicines,
and religious items. Through the Zionist Association of Mauritius, they
worked for the release of the refugees and for them to be sent to Palestine.
In all, 128 prisoners died in the camp and were buried in the "Jewish
section of the cemetery of St. Martin," approximately a mile away
from the campsite. At the end of the war, the refugees were allowed
to either return to their former homes or make aliyah,
but most chose the latter. On August 26, 1945,
1,320 landed in Haifa.
The Jewish Cemetery
Under the Deed of Grant in 1946, the Board of Deputies
gained ownership of the Mauritius Jewish cemetery. For a number of years,
Jacques Desmarais, a non-Jew Mauritian, voluntarily maintained the cemetery.
In 1958, the Board, along with a few individual sponsors, donated their
time and money to repair the Jewish section of the cemetery. Other major
restorations were carried out during the 1980s, 2000, and 2001. On April
26,1999, under the leadership of Rabbi Moshe Silberhalft, the Congress
along with 50 former refugees again restored and consecrated the cemetery.
Another special ceremony was held in May 2001 by the South African Jewish
community to unveil 66 graves. A visit to the prison and a Shabbat service
and dinner were attended by the small Jewish community, Jewish tourists,
and former detainees. The delegation also met with President Cassim
Utim of Mauritius.
Today, approximately 40 Jews live on the predominantly
Hindu and Christian island, though they are unrelated to the World
War II refugees. There is also a significant Muslim population. In 2000, Rabbi Silberhalft officiated at the first bar
mitzvah in Mauritius since World War II.
A consul general represented Israel until Mauritius
gained its independence from Britain in 1968 and joined the United
Nations. In 1960, Israel gave Mauritian students scholarships to
study medicine in Jerusalem.
After independence, full diplomatic relations were established and Israel's
ambassador in Tananarive (Malagasy) served as non-resident ambassador
to Mauritius. Mauritians received numerous scholarships and agricultural
expert assistance from Israelis. Many Mauritians went to Israel for
professional training and founded a Mauritius-Israel Friendship Society.
Though an Indian and Pakistani Muslim anti-Israel influence exists in the country, Mauritius is
generally friendly toward Israel, and those who can remember the Jewish
detention during World War II still extend their sympathy.
South African Jewish Board of Deputies
“Mauritius,” Encyclopedia Judaica
Council of Jewish Women
Association of Jewish Geneological Studies--Cemetery
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