The story of the deportation of tens of thousands of Jews during the Shoah to various remote and often hostile countries around the world is both generally unknown to the public and an understudied area of Holocaust studies, which are invariably Eurocentric. This is the all-but- forgotten story of the 3,500 Jews who, after escaping Hitler and arriving in Eretz Yisrael, were exiled by the British and imprisoned on the island of Mauritius, a remote British colony in the Indian Ocean east of Madagascar.
Mauritius had been the seat of French power in the East and the base from which pirates and privateers attacked British merchants sailing between India and Europe until the British invaded in 1810 (the island remained under British control until Mauritius obtained its independence on March 12, 1968). The island played a key role in British strategic planning during World War II; an important British naval base was established there; and local troops – including, as we shall see, some of the Jews imprisoned there – were recruited for service in the British military.
Before the institution of Hitler’s “Final Solution,” the Nazi policy with respect to their “Jewish problem” was one of expulsion designed to clear the Third Reich of all Jews. Eichmann worked to encourage “voluntary” Jewish emigration out of Germany; his mantra was “either you disappear across the Danube or into the Danube.” After the Nazi annexation of Austria in March 1938, however, the door of opportunity for leaving Europe was closing and, in the wake of Kristallnacht, Jewish emigration became virtually impossible.
The story begins with Berthold Storfer, a Viennese Jewish businessman who was ultimately murdered by the Nazis at Auschwitz in November 1944. A controversial figure viewed by critics alternatively as either a heroic Jewish rescuer or a despised Nazi collaborator, he worked with Eichmann to facilitate Jewish emigration from Germany and lands under Nazi control. In August 1938, he established the Central Agency for Jewish Emigration, which organized and carried out the forced emigration of Austrian Jews, and he became the principal link to Jewish escape routes through the Danube River.
In May 1940, Storfer developed a strategy to extricate approximately 3,500 Jews from Germany aboard three ships and, on September 4, 1940, the Central Office for Jewish Immigration under his leadership chartered three ships under the Panamanian flag. On October 7, 1940, the Atlantic (carrying 1,800 passengers); followed by the Pacific on October 11 (962 passengers); and the Milos on October 19 (709 passengers), picked up some 3,500 Jewish refugees from Germany, Austria, Poland, and Czechoslovakia who had been gathered at Tulcea, Romania for transfer to Eretz Yisrael. This three-ship transport became the last large illegal transport to escape the Nazis before Hitler launched his plan for the mass murder of the entire Jewish people.
However, prior to their arrival, Sir Harold MacMichael, the British High Commissioner of Palestine, had been tipped off by a telegram from the British Embassy in Bucharest that the large group of “illegal” immigrants would be arriving in Eretz Yisrael and, when they arrived in November without entry permits, he blocked their entry. MacMichael, who had earned the nickname “Haman,” maintained that the Jews seeking to escape the Holocaust were “nationals of a country at war with Britain, proceeding direct from enemy territory” and that “Palestine was under no obligations towards them.”
Determined to create a powerful disincentive for future illegal immigration, the British resolved to banish Jews seeking entry to Eretz Yisrael to British colonies. After considering various sites in the Caribbean to deport the Holocaust survivors, including British Honduras, and Trinidad, they decided to transfer them to Mauritius. As such, when the Pacific sailed into Haifa Bay on November 1, 1940, followed by the Milos two days later, the British transferred the passengers onto the 12,000-ton deportation ship Patria. The British had captured the vessel from the Vichy government and, although it had significantly increased its capacity from 805 to 1,800, it failed to supply additional lifeboats.
Meanwhile, the conditions aboard the Atlantic – carrying 1,800 passengers, including 300 over age 60 and about 150 children under age 12 – were horrendous; twelve people died from typhoid, with their bodies thrown overboard, and, when the ship ran out of coal, pieces of the ship itself were burned for fuel. After a long and arduous journey, the ship became the last of the three vessels to arrive in Eretz Yisrael when it sailed into Haifa on November 24, 1940.
The British immediately began transferring the Jews to the Patria and, after moving 130 by evening, they ordered the removal of the remainder to commence the next morning. Determined to prevent the deportation of the Jews from Eretz Yisrael, Haganah operatives dressed as dock workers boarded the ship that evening and planted a bomb in the engine room, intending only to blow a hole in the hull sufficient to incapacitate the ship. However, due to the vessel’s extremely dilapidated condition, they miscalculated, and, when the bomb detonated at 9:00 a.m. the next morning, the Patria rapidly sank, killing within 15 minutes 215 Jews, many of whom drowned because of the lack of sufficient lifeboats, and some 50 British soldiers and crewmen.
The surviving Jewish refugees from the sinking of the Patria and the Jews who had not been transferred from the Atlantic were forcibly taken to the infamous Atlit detention camp on the Mediterranean coast just south of Haifa. The British authorities were determined to banish them all to Mauritius but, due to the personal intervention of Winston Churchill, who insisted that “we cannot have a British Dachau,” they decided to permit the Patria survivors to remain in Eretz Yisrael. However, on December 8, 1940, the remaining 1,584 Jewish refugees from the Atlantic who were not on the Patria – including 800 Viennese Jews and the remnants of the Jewish community of Danzig – were ordered to prepare for deportation.
Jewish auxiliary police working at Atlit with the British authorities urged the Jews to disobey the order because the Yishuv would come to their rescue but, despite several strikes and protests held on their behalf – some critics claim that Jewish leadership did not do nearly enough – the Yishuv proved unsuccessful. When the Jews refused to get up off the prison floor and otherwise refused to cooperate, they were brutally beaten; forcibly loaded, many of them naked, onto trucks; and dragged onto two large Dutch ships, the Johan de Witt and the New Zealand, where they were beaten again and, much like their fellow Jews in Europe arriving at concentration camps, had their hair shaved as a means to humiliate them.
Exhibited here is the original proclamation, published on behalf of Mishmar Hayishuv on December 12, 1940, three days after the deportation, describing the transport and deportation of the ocean liners from the Atlit prison through the port of Haifa to the island of Mauritius. This horrifying proclamation describes in detail how the British seized the immigrants by force and took them on ships for deportation (in part):
On Sunday, many police forces with various military and police officers began flocking to the quarantine camps of the illegal immigrants in Atlit. The British police were armed with batons. Army and police forces broke into the illegal immigrants’ barracks and started a war against women, the elderly and the children in the camp. The sticks operated without any distinction as to age. The wrestling lasted for hours and four policemen would carry one man on blankets, naked, wounded, bleeding, and so the immigrants were loaded into covered military cars and driven to the port through a special gate before the entrance to the city . . .
Despite the war and censorship, the settlement will find a way to convey its message to the world and bring the criminals in charge of the country’s administration to justice.
Before the arrival of the deportees at Port Louis, the capital of Mauritius, the governor of the island needed legal authorization to imprison them. As such, three days before the arrival of the Jewish refugees, the European Detainees Control Ordinance was enacted, pursuant to which: “It shall be lawful for the Governor to order the detention during His Majesty’s pleasure, at any place within the limits of the Colony, of any person who has been deported from Palestine on the ground that such person has entered, or attempted to enter, Palestine, without being authorized to do so.”
After a grueling voyage, 849 men, 635 women and 96 children – which included 600 Austrians, 300 Czechoslovakians, 300 Poles, 100 Germans, 140 from the Free City of Danzig, and 140 of other nationalities – arrived at Port Louis on December 28, 1940. From there, they were taken by British Palestinian Police to the Central Prison at Beau Bassin, a three-story jail on 12 acres surrounded by 15-foot stone walls.
The local population on the island was a polyglot society comprised of about 65 percent Indo-Pakistani, most of whom were descended from indentured laborers brought to work in the sugar industry by the hated British; 25 percent of Creole origin; and a small number of Chinese origin and others. Whether because they sympathized with the prisoners or because they simply regarded them as comrades-in-arms in their hatred for their British masters, the native Mauritanians lined the road to greet them and to cheer them on and, throughout the almost five years that the Jews were imprisoned on Mauritius, they collected donations and clothes and did what they could to help. However, the welcome was short-lived indeed, as the British authorities immediately imprisoned the Jews in Beau Bassin. Although the Jews were not tortured or subjected to other such cruelties, their conditions were abominable, as they endured cyclones, had inadequate food, and suffered from various tropical diseases, including typhus and malaria, against which they had not been immunized and for which they received scant medical care.
The men were incarcerated in a former jailhouse and the incomplete women’s prison consisted of 30 corrugated iron huts enclosed within high walls topped by barbed wire. A strict ban against interaction between the sexes was initially enforced, including a prohibition against girls over age 14 visiting their fathers, but after the ban was lifted in July 1942, albeit for only a few daytime hours when the women were permitted to visit the imprisoned men, 60 children were born in the camp.
The only native Mauritanian Jew at the time was Isia Birger, who had escaped from Lithuania in 1937 and married a Catholic woman he had met on the island. He did everything he could to assist his fellow Jews, including serving as the liaison between the British colonial authority and the Board of Deputies of South Africa, the closest Jewish community to Mauritius – although still 2,260 miles away.
South American Jewry played a leading role in keeping the plight of the Mauritanian Jewish refugees before the eyes of the world through articles they published in the South African press. The Board of Deputies and other Jewish organizations, including the Jewish Agency and the Zionist Federation, sent food, clothing, medicine and religious items to the detainees. As reported by the July 1940 – July 1942 Executive Council South African Jewish Board of Deputies Report:
One special refugee problem deserves special attention – that of the 1,500 “detainees” in Mauritius. These refugees from Nazi tyranny endeavored in vain to find refuge in Palestine. Having no certificates to enter that country, they were deported to the Island of Mauritius and there interred. Immediately the news was received in this country, the Board (acting in concert with the S.A. Zionist Federation) formed a Mauritius Committee to assist the refugees. The Committee, under the chairmanship of J. Meyer, is now a sub-committee of the Council of Refugee Settlement, and it has done very useful work.
By 1942, the Mauritanian government had delegated most of the responsibilities for the internal management and maintenance of the prisoner camp to the Jews, who endeavored to the greatest possible extent to maintain community life and culture. They established their own “Zionist Association of Mauritius” and launched a Maccabi Youth Movement; established two synagogues (Orthodox and Liberal) and organized classes in Bible, Hebrew, Zionism, and Jewish history; and created a library, school, and adult education center. Some of the Jews taught art – one art teacher was, ironically, named Anne Frank – weaving, and music to Mauritian children. Several skilled musicians were incarcerated on the island, some of whom had toured professionally, and a popular camp orchestra conducted by “Papa Haas” – who also played piano and led a jazz group called “the Beau Bassin Boys” – was given special dispensation to leave the prison grounds to play at public and private events, including at local weddings and at the Mauritanian concert hall. A camp newspaper was launched, a popular soccer team was organized, and poetry recitations and amateur theatre productions were held.
The Jews were officially “European Detainees” and prisoners who, in accordance with the Control Ordinance, could not challenge the legality of their detention, but they had skills that the British could put to use. As such, in late 1941, some of the prisoners who were craftsmen were permitted to set up workshops to produce toys, jewelry, clothing, leather products and other items to be exported for sale, and other Jews were granted limited permits to work outside the camp, such as assisting in providing electricity and telephone services. Some of the detainees who were permitted to volunteer for the British war effort served with honor in the Jewish Brigade.
Ironically, when news confirming the Nazi launch of the Final Solution became known to Jewish leadership during the early months of 1942, the poor conditions among the Jewish refugees on Mauritius did not deter efforts by the British Chief Rabbi’s Emergency Council to attempt to intercede with the British authorities to issue visas for Hungarian Jews to emigrate to the island. The Council, founded by British Chief Rabbi Joseph H. Hertz and Solomon Schonfeld, launched “Operation Rabbis to Mauritius,” pursuant to which it sought entry to the island for 300 of the “great rabbis of Europe.”
Schonfeld persuaded the British Colonial Office to allow Jews to find refuge in Mauritius, but the Colonial Bureau Department withdrew its initial support for the plan. Along with his failure to convince the British to bomb the tracks to Auschwitz, he considered this to be one of his two greatest disappointments in all his years working to save Jews during the Holocaust.
While, undoubtedly, political squabbles and the inability of Jewish leadership to unite and to prioritize the immediate goal of saving a few hundred Jews played a role in the failure of Operation Mauritius, and saving these Jews was not the priority it should have been, many charedi leaders jumped at the opportunity to blame it all on “the Zionists.” Particularly reprehensible was the attack by Rav Michael Dov Weissmandl, an important leader in the effort to save Jews during the Holocaust, who accused Zionist leadership of advocating for the gassing of the 300 rabbis in Hitler’s crematoria rather than permitting them to go anywhere but to Eretz Yisrael. In one of his infamous “Ten Questions to the Zionists,” which Rav Weissmandl wrote in 1948 and which has been republished countless times thereafter by anti-Israel charedi Jews, he asks:
IS IT TRUE that the British government granted visas to 300 rabbis and their families to the Colony of Mauritius, with passage of the evacuees through Turkey. The “Jewish Agency” leaders sabotaged this plan with the observation that the plan was disloyal to Palestine, and the 300 rabbis and their families should be gassed. (Emphasis added.)
On February 21, 1945, the British Governor of Mauritius advised the surviving prisoners that they would be given the choice of returning to their former homes in Europe or making aliyah to Eretz Yisrael, but it was only six months later, on August 11, 1945, that they were granted permission to leave the island. August 11 fell on Shabbat that year, so special arrangements were made to permit 250 Orthodox Jews to board the Franconia on Friday before Shabbat. Most of the refugees opted for aliyah and, on August 6, 1945, 1,320 of the Mauritius prisoners arrived in Haifa. In total, 128 prisoners had died in the camp, 54 during the first year, and they were buried in the Saint Martin Cemetery near Beau Bassin, even today the only Jewish cemetery in Mauritius.
Today, about 150 Jews live in Mauritius, but none are known to be related to any of the Jewish prisoners on the island during the war. There is a synagogue, the Amicale Maurice Israel Centre (inaugurated 2005) in Curepipe, a town on the eastern side of the island; Rabbi Moshe Silberhalft officiated at the first bar mitzvah in Mauritius since World War II (2000); and the Beau Bassin Jewish Detainees Memorial and Information Centre was opened in November 2014.
In a July 31, 2020, correspondence to Owen Griffiths, the president of the Island Hebrew Congregation and chairman of the Beau Bassin Jewish Detainees Memorial and Information Centre, Lord Tariq Ahmad of Wimbledon, Minister of State for South Asia and the Commonwealth (writing as a representative of the British government), acknowledged for the first time the suffering of Jewish “detainees” on Mauritius during World War II. Ahmad also recognized the suffering of European Jews who fled persecution in Nazi-occupied Europe and affirmed the British government’s commitment to honoring the victims of Nazi persecution. On August 12, 2020, an online commemorative ceremony was held to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Mauritanian Jewish detainees.
To be clear, as many critics note, this by no means constituted a British apology or acknowledgment of wrongdoing but, rather, an “expression of regret” and an empty suggestion that the British government might have handled the Jewish situation in Mauritius better.