Mauritius Virtual Jewish History Tour
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.
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.
Sources: “Mauritius,” Encyclopedia Judaica