MAY 2001


Sixty-seven new tombstones in the St. Martin's Jewish Cemetery, Mauritius, where 127 Jews detained on the island during World War II are buried, were unveiled during an African Jewish Congress mission in the first week of May.  A group of ten South Africans, including AJC chairman Mervyn Smith and Spiritual Leader Moshe Silberhaft, took part in the mission. Also taking part were the son, daughter and daughter-in-law of the late Hella Ripinsky, the only former Mauritius detainee who, so far as is known, settled in South Africa after the war. The trip was a follow-up to the widely publicised mission of April 1999, in which a reunion of 50 former detainees took place and an initial 19 new tombstones were unveiled.


The story of the Jews of Mauritius has its origin in an attempt by approximately 1670 Jewish refugees from Nazi-held Europe to immigrate to Palestine, then under the British mandate, in 1941. The British authorities refused to allow them to remain, instead declaring them illegal immigrants and, after two weeks, deported them to Mauritius. Here they were held as virtual prisoners for the remainder of the war. During this time, the detainees were greatly assisted by the South African Jewish community, which, under the direction of the Jewish Board of Deputies, provided them with food, clothing, medicine, religious items and reading matter, including copies of the Zionist Record and Yiddish and Hebrew publications.  The cemetery was handed over by Deed of Grant to the Board of Deputies in November 1946.

In addition to the tombstones, which were made on the initiative of the Board of Deputies following an appeal for funds to the various Chevrot Kadisha countrywide in 1998, two plaques were unveiled. One was in memory of the late Jacques Desmarais, a Christian French architect living on Mauritius who took it upon himself to maintain the cemetery during the 1970s when it had fallen into a bad state of disrepair. The second acknowledged the role of the Medine Sugar Estates, which assisted the Board of Deputies in restoring the cemetery in the decades that followed.


On the second day of the visit, the delegation visited Beau Basson Prison, where the detainees had been held for four years and seven months. The prison, still in use, was built in Napoleonic times, when Mauritius was still a French colony. Karen Boruchowitz, daughter-in-law of Hella Ripinsky, described the experience of retracing her mother-in-law's steps - going through the same doorways and walking along the same paths - as emotionally overwhelming. For the family, it had been very much of a journey of discovery since Hella had made a point of never speaking about this period in her life. "Her baby brother died 21 days after their arrival and her mother died shortly afterwards" Boruchowitz said, "Subsequently her father went blind. Hella was 13 years old and all alone. What must have been going on in her head? We felt this all the time as we walked through the prison".


Boruchowitz added that the fact that the South African Jewish community had done so much on behalf of the detainees had also made a big impression on her.

“It is quite amazing how the community, particularly the Board of Deputies, managed to send some kind of hope to these people” she said, “In South Africa today, we don’t know this. It is so important for Diaspora Jews to be involved in these kind of things on each other’s behalf, because we don’t always realise how far such support goes”. Boruchowitz said that she had also been moved by the fact that so many non-Jews had been involved in the story of the maintenance of the cemetery and expressed the wish that their contribution be properly acknowledged in South Africa itself.


In addition to the unveiling ceremony and visit to the prison, a number of other functions were held for the delegation, including a Friday night Shabbat service and meal in which members of the small Mauritius Jewish community and other Jewish tourists in the hotel also participated. The delegation was hosted by the Shalom Club, an organisation set up by Mauritians who have received training in agriculture and other fields in Israel, on the island of Ile Exe Cerfs. A Yom Ha'atzma'ut ceremony was hosted by the Israeli Ambassador, who is accredited to Mauritius as well as five other African countries and based in Nairobi, Kenya.

A meeting was also held with Mauritian President Cassam Utim, whom Mervyn Smith described as being enormously impressive and dignified. Utim, who was a Muslim in a country that was predominantly Hindu and Christian, had treated the visitors with the utmost courtesy and concern.


Smith paid tribute to those who had come on the trip. "While it was a holiday in one sense, it was also a famous Jewish occasion and those who made the effort to be a part of it should be commended", he said. He reiterated that the Board of Deputies would continue to ensure that the cemetery was properly maintained, saying that it had given a commitment that we would do so and had a duty to stick by it.