The little-known story of Mauritius and its Jewish refugees

However, there’s a forgotten piece of that story, one that even few local Mauritians, people who live on the very island in which the story took place, know.

The graves in Saint Martin Jewish Cemetery in Mauritius tell a Holocaust story that few people know (photo credit: AMIR LESHEM)
The graves in Saint Martin Jewish Cemetery in Mauritius tell a Holocaust story that few people know
(photo credit: AMIR LESHEM)
TROU AUX BICHES, Mauritius – An auspicious part of Holocaust history is the story of the Atlit detention camp and the Jews who escaped the horrors of Nazi Europe with the hopes of reaching the Holy Land.
However, there’s a forgotten piece of that story, one that even few local Mauritians – people who live on the very island in which the story took place – know.
On the outskirts of the western Quatre Bornes district on the island of Mauritius sits an unusual cemetery and memorial museum. Buried there are Jewish detainees who died on the island between 1940 and 1945.
Its story was “out of sight and out of mind” for Mauritians, Vanessa Calou, a guide at Saint Martin Jewish Cemetery, told The Jerusalem Post.
In 1939, around 3,500 Jews who had managed to gain visas to Latin America decided to attempt to land in Mandatory Palestine, Calou explained. At the time, the British, who controlled the territory, were waging a fierce campaign against illegal immigration to the country and “had already made up their minds to deport all these people.”
“It was a punitive measure,” Calou added.
Vanessa Calou, guide for the Saint Martin Jewish Cemetary, explains the little-known piece of Holocaust history that took place on the island. (Photo credit: AMIR LESHEM)Vanessa Calou, guide for the Saint Martin Jewish Cemetary, explains the little-known piece of Holocaust history that took place on the island. (Photo credit: AMIR LESHEM)
The refugees, European Jews arriving from Romania, were traveling on three ships: the Milos, the Pacific and the Atlantic. The passengers on the first two vessels, the Pacific and the Milos, arrived earlier and were transferred by the British to “an old French ship in Haifa named the Patria,” Calou said.
When the third ship, the Atlantic, arrived, British soldiers began transferring passengers to the Patria. A short time later, there was an explosion onboard. More than 250 people died in the blast, including some British officers.
The Hagana, the pre-state Jewish militia that eventually became the IDF, were against the deportation and wanted to stop the ship from sailing and force the British to negotiate. After the incident, however, the British decided to take all the survivors and house them in the Atlit detention camp.
The remaining passengers on the Atlantic were also detained in Atlit, before being deported two weeks later to Mauritius, which was then a British colony. Some 1,580 refugees landed on the island on December 26, 1940. At that time, there were around 400,000 inhabitants living there.
Mauritians didn’t know about the deportation. There were rumors weeks before that soon there will be refugees coming to the island but “no one told them about the punitive measures, they lined up by the side of the road to welcome the visitors,” Calou explained. But when the people arrived, they were transferred to the Beau Bassin prison, where they were kept for nearly five years, before being liberated at the end of World War II.
The Beau Bassin Jewish Detainees Memorial is seen in Mauritius. (Photo credit: EZRA TAYLOR)The Beau Bassin Jewish Detainees Memorial is seen in Mauritius. (Photo credit: EZRA TAYLOR)
“During their detention, there was no family life for nearly 18 months,” Calou said. “Then finally, married women were given a pass to be allowed to visit their husbands during certain hours of the day.”
“The main reason they were detained is because the British believed there were Nazi spies among them,” Calou said.
When the British realized there were no spies among the prisoners, some of them went to work outside of the prison and marriage was allowed among the single detainees.
 The gate to the Saint Martin Jewish Cemetery is seen opened. (Photo credit: EZRA TAYLOR) The gate to the Saint Martin Jewish Cemetery is seen opened. (Photo credit: EZRA TAYLOR)
“Nearly 60 babies were born here,” Calou proudly told the Post.
“It’s been a dream of mine to visit here all my life, ever since my grandparents were here as refugees,” said Amir Panzer, an Israeli visiting the cemetery. “My mother was actually born here. When I was growing up, I heard all the time ‘Your mother is from Mauritius,’ but nobody knows about this place.”
“I actually took advantage of the new Air Seychelles flight and went to Seychelle, we then said we’re already here, we’ve got to come and check it out,” Panzer said. “We managed to locate my grandfather’s name, my grandmother’s we couldn’t find yet but I found her in a picture here… I still don’t know what name to look for.”
According to Calou, “there’s a lot of research to be done on this part of history.”
She said that only those who lived in the vicinity of the prison knew about this part of history. The story of what happened on the East African island is now being taught in some of the local private schools as it begins to become more known.
In the graveyard there are 130 graves, out of which 128 are refugees.
A star of David is seen on the gate of the Saint Martin Jewish Cemetery in Mauritius. (Photo credit: EZRA TAYLOR)A star of David is seen on the gate of the Saint Martin Jewish Cemetery in Mauritius. (Photo credit: EZRA TAYLOR)
“Now we are lighting a torch on a part of history that has remained in the darkness for more than 70 years,” Calou concluded.
Much of the story of the Jewish refugees on Mauritius Island is documented in the book, The Mauritian Shekel by Geneviève Pitot.
The writer was a guest of Air Seychelles and Beachcomber Hotels.