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1670 Jews deported to Mauritius during WWII
1670 Jews fleeing the Nazis arrived in
Palestine which was then under British mandate. The
British authorities feared an influx of Jews would
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"):
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
The detainees were accompanied by several doctors
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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."
Saint-Martin Jewish Cemetery in Mauritius
"The Mauritian Shekel" by Geneviève Pitot, available on
Les armées du monde
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