A sombre past and hopeful new present came together in Mauritius last month as the island’s youthful Jewish community joined with international guests for a range of activities. On the one hand, there was remembrance and commemoration; on the other, celebration for the continuance of Jewish life in the here and now.


Seventy years ago, some 1670 Jewish refugees from Nazi-held Europe were interned on Mauritius by the British colonial authorities after they had been refused permission to remain in Palestine. During the next five years, 127 of them died and were buried in a section of the St Martin’s cemetery. The cemetery was later handed over by Deed of Grant to the SAJBD, which has overseen its maintenance ever since. Over the last decade, a major series of initiatives, jointly conducted by the SAJBD and African Jewish Congress (AJC), have taken place to restore the cemetery, including the laying of new, granite tombstones as an addition to the existing stones that had become badly weathered.


At the latest rededication ceremony, three new plaques were unveiled at the cemetery. The first was in memory of the late Dr. Aaron Zwergbaum, a prominent leader of the Mauritius detainees who was the liaison between the detainees and the Zionist organisations in Israel and in later years continued to be very active on their behalf. It was unveiled by his son Tali Regev, who was born in Mauritius’ Beau Basson prison during his parents’ captivity.


The second plaque was unveiled by Mrs Ann Harris, and paid tribute to her late husband, Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris, for the leading role he played in additional granite plaques being affixed to the existing tombstones. The third plaque bore the wording, in Hebrew and English, of the traditional benediction recited by those who have not visited the cemetery for thirty days and more. It was dedicated by Mauritian-born Geff Clency Geffroy, who discovered late in life that he was Jewish by birth (although he had already ‘converted’ prior to that) and has since become one of the local Jewish community’s most active supporters.


Also in attendance was Zev Weininger, who like Regev was born in captivity on the island, and his son Oren. It was an additionally meaningful occasion for him as the newly-discovered grave of his grandfather, Szaja Junker, was being unveiled. By a bizarre misunderstanding, that grave had been recorded as being that of one ‘Ruth Lieberman’, even though there had been no prisoner by that name amongst the detainees. That error, as AJC Spiritual Leader Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft has since discovered, came about through the stone’s original inscription, composed by Junker’s widow, having read ‘Hier Rut mein Lieber Man” (here Rests my dear Husband).


The Southern African delegation comprised AJC President Mervyn Smith, Rabbi Silberhaft, AJC executive member Ann Harris, Council for Zambian Jewry President Michael Galaun, SAJBD Cape Council chairperson Li Boiskin and Vice-Chair Lawrence Miller, Geff and Sharon Geffroy and Michael Kushner. All joined with the local Jewish community, headed by Island Hebrew Congregation President Owen Griffith, in Shabbat services (conducted by Kushner) and meals held at Sugar Beach Resort.


At a special ceremony held the following Sunday the Maurice Amicale Centre, which serves as the headquarters of Mauritian Jewry, was renamed the Baby Curpens Centre in honour of the late Supaya ‘Baby’ Curpens, a stalwart non-Jewish campaigner for Zionist and Jewish causes on the island. Amongst those in attendance were his widow and the Lord Mayor of Curepipe.


This was followed by the official opening of the Centre’s expanded new synagogue. A joyous Hachnasat Sefer Torah ceremony marked the introduction of a new Sefer Torah, donated by Geffroy, to the congregation. Also presented was the Aron Kodesh from the old small shul of the Emmarentia synagogue. Other fixtures once used by congregations in South Africa include the bimah and pulpit from the former Grahamstown and Bethlehem Hebrew Congregations respectively.


During the visit, Smith and Rabbi Silberhaft, along with Griffith, met first with Mauritian President Anerood Jugnauth and thereafter Prime Minister Navinchandra Ramgoolam. Issues relating to the local Jewish community and its relationship with the greater Jewish world were discussed. Rabbi Silberhaft also visited the island’s sole Jewish prisoner in Beau Basson Prison.

HACHNASAT SEFER TORAH Ann Harris, Rabbi Silberhaft and Owen Griffith
Owen Griffith, Mervyn Smith and Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft
with Anerood Jugnauth, President Republic of Mauritius