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1670 Jews deported to Mauritius during WWII

In 1940, 1670 Jews fleeing the Nazis arrived in Palestine which was then under British mandate. The British authorities feared an influx of Jews would politically destabilize Palestine and were also concerned that German agents might have infiltrated the refugees. The refugees were therefore denied the right to stay in Palestine and were deported to Mauritius. They were detained in Beau-Bassin Prison.

Dr Maxime Shun Shin was Medical Officer in charge of the Jewish Detainees. Here is an extract of his autobiography ("Memoirs of a government Medical Officer"):

"On 26th December 1939 over a thousand Jews arrived here on board two ships from Palestine and were immediately transferred to Beau Bassin Prison where they were detained until the end of World War II. Those Jews were originally from central European countries overrun by Hitler's armies. They had tried to enter Palestine but as they had no entry permit, the British authorities decided to send them to our island. Those poor Jews thought that Mauritius was as backwards as the continent of Africa and tried to resist embarkation in an original way. All the young people of both sexes stripped completely and lay thus naked on the wharf. The authorities then directed powerful jets of water on them who quickly scrambled on board leaving all their clothing behind. During the trip to Mauritius, the clothes were restored to their owners in the same way as in an "auction sale" but many did not get back theirs; so they arrived naked in Mauritius probably wrapped up in blankets. They were famished and an epidemic of dysentery and typhoid had broken among them.

The men were lodged in the prison building while the women were kept in hastily erected corrugated iron huts just outside the prison compound. They were accompanied by British policemen and policewomen belonging to the Palestinian police force but here they were placed under the command of Superintendent Armstrong of the local police, who was known as Commandant of the Jewish Detainees Camp. Guards of both sexes were recruited locally, as well as some sepoys to help maintain order. The old chapel of the prison was turned into a hospital ward for men, some more barracks were built to accommodate more patients.

The country was not prepared to receive such a large number of people at the same time, so there was a general inadequacy of accommodation, of bedding, of clothing and utensils. Philippe de Speville being the prison medical officer became automatically the M.O. in charge of the camp hospital but he could not afford more than 1 hour to attend to his duty there. News soon leaked out of the deplorable conditions existing in the camp. Some deputies: Rivet and Laurent intervened and obtained permission to visit the camp. They then tabled a motion of criticism over the administration which was going to be debated on a Tuesday in Council. On the previous Saturday, Balfour Kirk, the Director of Medical Services came to Civil Hospital to seek advice from Yves Cantin, as was his wont to do whenever there was some difficulty. Yves Cantin advised him to send me to help and the next day I reported to the Detainees Camp.

When the motion came before Council on that particular Tuesday, Kirk informed the Council that a full time M.O. had been sent to the Camp, that statement seemed to have satisfied his critics. At the Jewish Detainees Camp, I was given an interpreter, an Austrian Jew who was very fluent in English and I was placed in charge of the male wards.

The detainees were accompanied by several doctors and dentists. There were : AbeIes, tall, rather cheerful, very cooperative, age about 35 and very active. Arnold, past middle age, general practitioner from Austria, rather rusty but very cooperative and active. Kummerman, nicknamed Commarmond by our nurses, was very young and neurotic, suffering from occasional bouts of depression. He had very little experience. Lederer, very young from Czechoslovakia. He struck me as being a final year student. Steinhaner, about 30, looked very smart but not any more experienced than the others. Soberski, the lame doctor was also a kind of Rabbi and used to perform all the circumcisions in the Camp and never worked in the wards like the above doctors.

Wagner was very mean and would not do any work unless paid. He was disliked by all his fellow detainees. On the other hand Arnold was very popular and for his birthday, he was given a warm party not only to reward him but to spite Wagner. There was a very smart dentist, about 35 called Altman and very efficient, dentist Blum was older and he died in the camp. All those doctors could speak English fairly well but the Czech Kummerman could also speak French.

Helped by my interpreter and the Jewish doctors who worked under our supervision, I soon mastered quite an amount of medical expressions, so much so that after 2 months, the detainees were able to consult me in German without any help from the interpreter.
One Robert Horsky was assigned to look after the doctor's office. He came from Czechoslovakia and knew 4 languages, Czech, German, English and French very well and I think Hebrew or the Patois Yiddish as well. He was my unofficial German teacher and quite a friendship sprang up between us. He and eighty other Czechs left Mauritius on 16th Apri11942 to enlist in the Free Czech Army to fight Nazism. After the war he began to write to me and even now he does not fail to send me a New Year's card and a card every summer when he goes on vacation.

In 1966 while holidaying in the Holy Land, I met an Austrian Jew who knew Dr. Arnold who, having thus obtained my address, kept up a correspondence with me until his death 3 years ago. He had settled in Vienna and he asked me for some Mauritian stamps, and in return I got 2 gramophone records of German folk songs.

The very first day I worked at the Camp, I started saying Guten Morgen to everybody. Soon word went round that a new doctor had arrived that could speak beautiful German. Should a group happen to be engaged in a conversation they would immediately stop the moment they saw me, thinking that I could understand what they were saying and report on them. After the morning ward round with the Jewish doctors, I had to visit each individual cell of the prison : two blocks with 4 storeys and I have forgotten how many cells per storey.

Philippe de Speville's services were soon dispensed with and Rene Lavoipierre who was G.M.O. of Plainestwilhems, was appointed M.O. in charge of the Jewish Detainees Camp on 17th February 1941. So now we had two full time M.O.'s to look after the detainees and changes for the better were soon apparent.

We had a very efficient matron, by the name of Mrs. Hewitt, wife of a sergeant in the local garrison. She was a young and pretty woman with blue eyes, slim and very active. She proved to be a great help to Lavoipierre and was very much liked by everybody though she enforced a fairly strict discipline. She stayed only about 2 years and had to leave when her husband was transferred back to U.K.

Mrs. Hewitt was succeeded as matron by Mrs. Muller, later the founder of Clinique Muller, now Clinique Lorette. Mrs. Muller continued the good work and gained the esteem of the Detainees who manifested their gratitude by organizing a party on her birthday.

For the first two months, work was very tiring on account of the epidemics of dysentery and typhoid fever which were only brought under control by vaccinating all those who had anything to do with the Camp. Fly swatters and sprayers were issued in fair amount and the detainees were told to swat the flies and spray the cells against mosquitoes. A young Jew with his sense of humour drew two cartoons: one represented a couple courting under a tree and the second one a young man spraying his cell with the caption: "Before we could flirt, now we must flit".

There were not enough beds for individual occupation; many women had to share theirs. Whenever a bed became vacant through the death of the occupant some woman who had been sharing bed would rush to occupy the empty one even without waiting for its disinfection. I know of at least one woman who thus contracted typhoid fever and paid with her life. As time went, more wooden beds and mattresses were fabricated and each woman could enjoy her individual bed.

The epidemics claimed a good many victims who were buried at St. Martin cemetery near Petite Riviere. The mourners accompanied the coffin up to the gate of the Camp only, and the dead continued his last Journey accompanied by only a few officials. Years later a friend took me to St. Martin cemetery and the sight of the tombs of some of my ex patients brought to me very sad memories of their terrible sufferings. The Jewish doctors, not being registered in Mauritius had to work under our supervision and were provided with the government pharmacopoeia.

There was a strong belief among the Detainees that garlic was very good for the health and they ingested daily as much as they could lay their hands on. According to English School, heat is used to bring hyperaemia and help resolution of inflammation. For example, flannel shirts or hot poultices are used to keep the chest warm in cases of pneumonia, but the Jews had a different idea. Patients suffering from pneumonia would wrap wet cold towels round their chests. It must be a Continental theory since doctors qualified in France have been known to use ice bags on the abdomen in early cases of appendicitis instead of hot water bottles.

As the general wealth of the Camp improved, the Detainees were put on occupational therapy e.g. cooking, baking, gardening and the men did physical training, A school was set up for the children. Soon the young children were removed from the infected Camp to the building of the Industrial School formerly Barkly Hospital and now Teacher’s Training College, where they were less exposed to the epidemics. Their mothers went with them.

The Czechs were well organised and were well nourished when they set out for Palestine but others suffered from lack of food I learned that some girls gave themselves to sailors in exchange for food with the inevitable result that venereal diseases and a few unwanted pregnancies flared up. The Camp authorities had to cope with the problem of unmarried mothers.

Everyday for a couple of hours, women were allowed to visit their men folk, but they were not allowed into the cells. Couples used to lie down on the lawn, Hyde Park fashion which a humorous Detainee dubbed "the two blanket method". The married women sent a petition to be allowed to go into the cells with their husbands, complaining that they were being deprived of their physiological needs. It was granted.

The Jews were from all social classes, some were very educated. One Handel eventually even taught at the Teacher's Training College but later was found hanged in his cell. The Haas family took charge of the kitchen and set up a small orchestra which occasionally gave a concert. There was a really good musician by the name of Steinberg. Some organized a "theatre de marionnettes". The Jews were fairly well treated, their only grudge was their detention and their loss of liberty.

Some had relatives and friends in U.S.A. who would make remittances for them. The Camp authorities opened accounts for them and they could withdraw only limited amounts every now and then. In the Camp there was a small shop run by some of the detainees where sundry articles e.g. toilet paper, sweets etc. were available.

They were of all ages, and the women were of all grades of physical beauty. There was a very curvaceous young woman thanks to her very modern uplift bra. A little girl of about 5 or 6 was simply a beauty, prettier than a doll, with blue eyes. I don't think she had Jewish blood in her and it was indirectly that she became involved in the anti-Semitic persecution.

One hospital ward was staffed by Red Cross volunteers under the supervision of Lady Clifford, the Wife of the governor and of Mrs. Moody, the Colonial Secretary's wife but not for very long. Lady Clifford tended to spoil her patients and wanted egg nogg for them. Lavoipierre could not agree to that.

The Jews developed a great hatred for Hitler and Nazism, the cause of their woes, but they were proud of their nationalities. To a British policeman who declined gold fillings for his teeth a Jewish dentist retorted: "If it is good for a German, it is also good for an
Englishman".  

Once the epidemics had been eradicated life became too quiet. I had barely half an hour's work every day and spent the whole day doing nothing except for a few minutes of German practice. The patients consisted mainly of old people with some chronic complaints; at that time geriatrics had not been invented.

During the time I was there, a young girl had acute appendicitis and she was taken to Moka Hospital where Roger Pilot did the operation assisted by Lavoipierre and I gave the anaesthetic. As for Lavoipierre, he was busy with the administration and would stay in the Camp up to sunset. I could not decently leave the Camp before him, I had to stay until he left. Frankly life became boring and I craved for the busy and interesting work of Civil Hospital. So I went to see Dr. Kirk asked for my transfer back to Civil Hospital. The following day he came to talk to Lavoipierre. I don't know what was the argument put forward by Lavoipierre but nothing happened for a whole month. Finally I went to see Dr. D' Arifat who was really running the Department as Kirk was taken up with the control of supplies. Dr. D' Arifat granted my request immediately and employed Dr. Regis Chaperon, as G.P. at Rs. 10. .for barely one hour's work a day which was more economical than employing a full time M.O. So I spent only about 4 months with the Jews. 

Chaperon did not stay long there. He was succeeded by Alex Vellin who remained there for 4 years. Later Lavoipierre was transferred back to the district of Plaines Wilhems and Vellin took charge of the Camp Hospital until at the end of World War II when a Jewish doctor was sent by the British Government to take charge of the Detainees and to accompany them back to Palestine and other places in Europe and U.S.A. Finally the Jews left Mauritius the 10th August 1945 by the boat "Franconia".


After the Detainees Camp, Lavoipierre was rewarded by being promoted to Medical Officer of Health of Plaines Wilhems at Rs12,000 an increase in salary of Rs 2,000.

 

In the beginning, the Jews were kept under strict surveillance but after about 1 year, they were allowed outside the Camp in groups of 3 or 4 unaccompanied. When 2 boats were torpedoed off the coast of Mauritius, suspicion of spying fell upon the Jews and the privilege of outing was abolished for some time."

  St Martin Jewish Cemetery - © armées.com
Saint-Martin Jewish Cemetery in Mauritius - © armées.com

 

 

More information

"The Mauritian Shekel" by Geneviève Pitot, available on Amazon

http://www.africanjewishcongress.com/MAURITIUS2.htm

 

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