Fifty-one years ago this month – on March 12, 1968 – Mauritius gained its independence from British sovereignty. Few pay attention to this island in the Indian Ocean 1,200 miles off the coast of East Africa, but 1,600 Jews, interestingly, were deported there by the British during the Holocaust.
On September 4, 1940, a convoy of four ships with approximately 4,000 illegal immigrants from Vienna, Prague, Brno, Berlin, Munich, and Danzig departed for Romania. The majority of the passengers were members of Zionist organizations in Europe. Berthold Storffer – a Jewish Viennese financier who had been appointed director of the Committee on the Transportation of Jews Overseas by Adolf Eichmann – organized the transport. Funding for it came from the Joint.
Once the refugees arrived in Tulcea, Romania, they boarded three Greek steamers: the Atlantic, Pacific, and Milos, and headed for Palestine.
“On October 7, 1940, my father, Dr. Aaron Zwergbaum, aged 27 with a PhD in law, boarded the Atlantic where he met my mother, Regina Kreu, aged 25,” Tali Regev, Honorary Consul of Mauritius in Israel, told The Jewish Press.
Due to poor sanitation conditions, 12 people died of typhoid aboard the Atlantic, which carried 1,800 refugees. The ship also ran out of coal at one point, leading to the stripping and burning of all wooden items on board – doors, wooden paneling, tables, and more.
The Pacific, carrying 962 refugees, also ran out of coal during its voyage but successfully reached Haifa on November 1, 1940 followed by the Milos, transporting 709 refugees, on November 3, 1940. The Atlantic arrived on November 22.
Prior to their arrival, Sir Harold MacMichael, the British High Commissioner in Palestine, had received a telegram from the British Embassy in Bucharest warning him that illegal immigrants were heading to Palestine. MacMichael denied the Jews entry, blaming a lack of entry permits. In an effort to deter more illegal immigrants from attempting to enter, the British then decided to transfer them to a British colony – the first time such a measure was taken.
The 1,671 refugees on the Pacific and Milos were transferred – ostensibly for quarantine – onto the Patria, a French ocean liner. In reality, though, it was the first step in expelling them. The Jewish Agency and other Zionist organizations tried to negotiate with British representatives to allow the refugees to remain in Palestine, but their efforts proved fruitless.
The Haganah, however, refused to accept defeat. Dressed as dock workers, members of the organization boarded the Patria on November 24, 1940, to warn the Jews that they would be deported to an unknown British colony. Then the Haganah members descended to the engine room to plant a bomb. Their intention was to cause minor damage to the engines and thus sabotage the deportation. The Jews were advised to be on deck the following day at 8:00 a.m – an hour before the bomb was due to detonate.
“At dawn on November 25, the first couple of hundred passengers from the Atlantic, including my parents, started boarding the Patria.
“At 9:00 a.m., the bomb exploded. Because the ship was rotten, it sank very quickly, killing approximately 220 emigrants. Some survivors swam ashore, others were picked up by other ships. My parents and the 1,580 passengers aboard the Atlantic were taken to Atlit internment camp near Haifa where they were detained.”
Amnesty was granted to those on the ship who had survived the disaster; they were allowed to remain in Palestine. The other refugees weren’t so lucky. On the afternoon of December 8, the remaining imprisoned Jews were told to pack their bags. Jewish auxiliary police who were working in Atlit together with the British alerted the refugees that they were going to be deported. They encouraged the Jews to lie on the floor and disobey the British guards’ orders the following morning. The refugees were told that the yishuv would come to their aid. Sadly, it was not successful in doing so (although strikes and protests were launched on their behalf).
The following morning, the Jews refused to get up from the floor and get dressed. British guards beat them with truncheons and dragged them from their cells onto trucks. At the port of Haifa, the refugees’ bags were searched and items were confiscated before they embarked onto two big Dutch liners, the Johan de Witt and the Nieuw Zeeland. The men aboard the Nieuw Zeeland were beaten and their hair was shaved as an act of humiliation.
On December 28, 1940, the ships arrived at Port Louis, the capital of Mauritius. Accompanied by Palestine Police, the refugees were transported to H.M. Central Prison at Beau-Bassin – a three-storied, 12-acre jail surrounded by 15-foot stone walls.
Men from Prague and Danzig was housed in Block A and men from Vienna in Block B. An Orthodox and Reform synagogue was established in the men’s jail.
The women’s prison, which was incomplete at the time of arrival, was adjacent to the men’s. It consisted of 30 corrugated iron sheds surrounded by high walls and barbed wire. Four to five women shared a hut.
At the time of arrival, there were 849 men, 635 women, 96 children, and 12 babies. Twenty-eight people died within the first few weeks of arrival from typhoid, diphtheria, and malaria. A plot of ground at one end of the St. Martin Cemetery in Petite-Riviere became the Jewish cemetery.
Healthy men aged 18-55 worked in maintenance, cleaning, and gardening. There was a patch of garden in the men’s section of the prison which enabled them to become self-sufficient after planting and cultivating crops such as corn, onions, beans, lentils, and potatoes.
Mauritian craftsmen conducted workshops for the detainees in tailoring, sewing, shoemaking, tinsmith, carpentry, and mattress-making.
The commander of the prison, Commander Armitage, encouraged the refugees to produce and sell products such as jams, candy, dolls, wooden toys, children’s dresses, wallets, and leather belts within and outside the camp.
“A Zionist Association of Mauritius (ZAM) was established among the refugees. The group’s secretary was my father, Dr. Zwergbaum. ZAM organized classes in Hebrew, Bible studies, Jewish history and Zionism. While exiled, my father liaised between the detainees and the Zionist Federation in Jerusalem.
“He also wrote to the Maccabi, a Jewish club in Cape Town, asking for books and Jewish newspapers since the refugees were not allowed to listen to the radio.”
They responded by immediately shipping 10 cases of books and 60 cases of clothing to Mauritius. Prior to their arrival, the British government had issued each man one shirt, a pair of trousers, and a bedsheet; women received one dress each and a bedsheet.
In 1941, cultural activities blossomed in the camp. Radios were permitted. Since there were many musicians amongst the refugees, an appeal for instruments was made in a local newspaper, Le Cerneen. On July 1, 1941, several instruments were donated, which enabled the refugees to perform “La Boheme” at the Plaza Theatre in Rose Hill.
Initially interaction between the men and women were prohibited by the British guards. Girls aged 14 and above were excluded from entering the men’s prison, even to visit their fathers. On July 11, 1942, women had to apply for a pass to visit their husbands. Later on, this restriction was lifted and 30 marriages occurred and 60 children were born. The number of Jews who died in prison was 124. Dr. Meier Bieler, a rabbi from Danzig who was a prisoner, performed both the joyous and sad ceremonies.
“On September 4, 1942, while imprisoned at Beau-Bassin my parents got married. My father borrowed the prison commander’s suit for his wedding. I was born on July 5, 1944.”
After World War II ended, the refugees were finally allowed to leave for Palestine. The day of departure was Saturday, August 11, 1945. Arrangements were made for the 250 Orthodox Jews to board the ship a day before. Two weeks later on August 6, 1945, the Franconia, with 1,320 Jews on board, arrived in Haifa.
“My parents went to live on Kibbutz Ga’aton in the north of Israel. My father already knew Hebrew from Europe which enabled him to commence work straight away. He began working as a builder and in 1946 moved to Jerusalem where he worked for the Zionist Federation in Israel. He published a diary about the detainee’s life in prison….
“All my life our family was involved in encouraging relations between Israel and Mauritius. In July 1996, I was appointed the Honorary Consul of The Republic of Mauritius in Israel. For me, it was closing a circle – a son of refugees exiled to Mauritius, who was born in Beau-Bassin prison, who became the official representative of Mauritius in Israel.”