Monday, March 12, 2018

Jews in Mauritius

In the Indian Ocean, just off the coast of Africa, is the island nation of Mauritius. Despite the general absence of Jews in Mauritius in the past, there is enough of a Jewish community there today to maintain a synagogue, the Amicale Maurice Israel Center in the city of Curepipe, which opened in May 2005. The current community, however, is not the first time Jews have lived in  Mauritius.

Mauritius’s place in Jewish history is related to the founding of the State of Israel. In November 1940, three ships loaded with Jewish refugees were detained by the British off the coast of Palestine. The passengers were all transferred to the British Patria ship, which was tragically sunk, killing 260 people, in a Hagana sabotage operation against the British that went terribly wrong. The British initially sent the surviving passengers to the crowded Atlit detaining camp outside Haifa, but then determined to transfer 1,584 of them to the British colony of Mauritius. The final decision on their fate was to be delayed until after the war.

On Mauritius, the refugees were brought to the town of Beau-Bassin. The men were housed in a former jail house, the women in adjacent iron huts. Initially, the British banned all interaction between the men and women. After this ban was lifted, 60 children were born. In the foreign climate, the refugees suffered from tropical diseases, and their suffering was compounded by a lack of proper food and clothing. However, the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, the Jewish Agency and the Zionist Federation sent kosher food and religious items.

The Jewish refugees remained on Mauritius for five years.  Over that time, 128 of them passed away and were buried in the St. Martin Cemetery. After the war, the British gave the refugees the choice of returning to their home countries or going to Palestine. On August 6, 1945, 1,320 detainees from Mauritius arrived in Haifa. After the camp in Beau-Bessin was emptied, there was no known Jewish settlement on Mauritius until the 21st century.

On March 12, 1968, Mauritius became an independent nation.

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