(January 27, 2023 / JNS) The story of German ocean liner MS St. Louis, whose more than 900 Jewish refugees the Roosevelt administration turned away in 1939, proving a death sentence for 255, is famous. Lesser known is that of the three ships that arrived in the British Mandate Palestine in December 1940, only to earn the unfortunate distinction of becoming the lone instance where World War II refugees were deported elsewhere.
The 1,580 Jews, who arrived at the Atlit detention center near Haifa, came aboard three ships seeking a freer life—not the Niña, Pinta and Santa María, but the Milos, Pacific and Atlantic. After being turned away, they sailed for the island of Mauritius, off Africa’s southeast coast, just beyond Madagascar.
Isaac Adler, who was aboard one of the three ships as a child, told JNS that the refugees were better off in Mauritius than they had been in Europe, but they were still all-but imprisoned merely for trying to reach safety. “This is a less-known chapter in the Holocaust,” he said.
Roni Mikel-Arieli, a Hebrew University of Jerusalem professor, learned about this history while conducting research in South Africa, and she has since studied it extensively. It required a lot of “detective work,” she told JNS.
As the ships lay in wait near Haifa, the Jewish militia Haganah sought to save those on the Atlantic in a brazen rescue scheme. But they had miscalculated, including the ship’s age, which ended in disaster, with 250 dead following a bombing. In response, the British transferred the refugees to the Indian Ocean via the Suez Canal.
Adler’s cousin Gidon Ramati told JNS he survived the explosion as an infant and went missing for three days. Subsequently, his father was sent to Mauritius, while he and his mother stayed behind.
The refugees found no semblance of family life for the first eight months at the Mauritius detention site of Beau Bassin, several of the detainees told JNS. The women and children huddled in makeshift huts, while the men were kept in prison. The first officer in charge, named Armitage, controversially taxed money the detainees received from relatives in Israel and Europe at 10 percent. Eventually, a less corrupt commandant was selected.
By 1941, the women were permitted to visit their husbands during certain hours. “This is why many children were born in the camp,” said Henry Wellish, 100, then an adult in the men’s prison and now living in Canada.
The group was mostly German-speaking Ashkenazim, with so many native German speakers that the young Adler switched from his native Yiddish to German. But the group was also geographically diverse, with natives of Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic, the Free City of Danzig (Poland) and elsewhere in Europe. Oscar Langsam, now 92, recalls a Sephardic Jew, named Walter Covo, who stood out for his Ladino-speaking background.
Tali Regev, who went on to be the Israeli consul to Mauritius, was one of nearly 60 babies born in the camp. Some detainees, including Regev’s parents, maintained ties with one another even decades later, he told JNS.
The only Jew on the island said to not be a detainee was the Lithuanian immigrant Isia Birger, whom detainees remember as a great help, generously providing food, clothing and music instruments. JNS confirmed on background that there was also Jewish man among the British guards.
Even in an unlikely place, a vibrant Jewish life developed among the detainees. Some weren’t religious, recalled Hanna Fried—detained along with her brother Michael Riegler and late sister Regina–but the more-religious declined rice on Passover.
In Mauritius, 128 of the Jewish refugees died, largely due to malaria and tropical diseases. They are buried in the St. Martin Jewish Cemetery, near the Jewish Detainees Museum, currently open to tourists. The detainees maintained the graves on a volunteer basis. Today, the local Jewish community, and South African Jews maintain the cemetery.
Margaret Olmer, whose parents were sent to Mauritius while she was part of the Kindertransport program from Austria to the United Kingdom, assumed her mother died in obscurity in Mauritius. Upon visiting the well-kept grave years later, she was relieved to learn her mother was not buried “in a jungle in the middle of nowhere,” as she assumed.
The centenarian Wellish told JNS that the group was aware of goings on in the outside world via letters from relatives in Europe. His family in Hungary, which corresponded with him through the Red Cross, was not affected by the Holocaust until 1944. South Africa’s Jewish communities also sent the refugees newspapers, and BBC radio was available to them.
One of three brothers, Gerhard Willdorf “gave trouble” to the British and they eventually transferred the teenager to the men’s section, according to his son Rami.
Mauritius was not the best place to grow up, Mordy Kopfstein told JNS, “but as children we didn’t know any better.” They learned English and Hebrew, and there was limited freedom to venture outdoors. A teacher, one Miss Gilbert, gave Meir Figdor his first ever ice cream at the cinema once. Adler remembers trying to pluck mangoes with his father, but the mangoes were out of reach and the monkeys too aggressive.
“Most Mauritians do not know about this incident,” said Kavita Smith, a guide at the museum. On a mild, rainy day, an elderly Mauritian near the prison, which now houses local criminals, told JNS in French that he recalled “White people leaving the building and walking outside occasionally.” A 90-year-old woman told JNS over the phone that she remembered Jews, including Papa Haas, a Jewish detainee who played in a local band and performed at her school.
The British drafted some of the male detainees to fight in World War II. Most moved to Israel after the war, and some–including Kitty Drill, whose family had property in Austria–returned to Europe. Drill’s father felt he did not have to work as hard as he would have in a new country, she told me. A Jewish community can still be found in Mauritius, but Owen Griffiths, the community’s president, told JNS it has no relation to the detainees.
Fried, who was detained with her brother and late sister, stresses the importance of telling this story “so that such an injustice doesn’t happen to others,” she told JNS in German.
The late Genevieve Pitot’s 2000 book “The Mauritian Shekel” tells the story in depth; the author was born in Mauritius and interacted with the Jewish detainees. Adler penned a 2021 memoir “Young Captain on a Broken Boat,” with vivid descriptions of his childhood, including illustrations.
“I will never forget the day I boarded that ship in Port Louis to go to our new home,” Adler told JNS. “Even today, children are displaced by war, and it is not their fault. I hope that our story as Jewish children yearning to be free in Israel will be remembered.”
Jewish News Syndicate
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