NEW DOCUMENTARY TO EXPLORE STORY OF
Meeting with Mauritian President Sir Anerood Jugnauth. From left,
Irene Zuckerman, Sharon & Geoff Geffroy, Baby Curpens, Rabbi Moshe
Silberhaft and President Anerood Jugnauth
A new, two-part documentary
on the Jews of Mauritius by local filmmaker Kevin Harris is
currently in production and will shortly be screened on SABC 2's
Issues of Faith programme. Entitled "In the Shadows of Beau Bassin",
it tells the story of former Mauritian Geoff Geffroy's search to
discover the roots of his Jewish identity against the backdrop of
the incarceration of 1 670 Jewish refugees who were deported to
Mauritius after attempting to reach Palestine from Nazi-occupied
Europe and detained there by the British government for the
remainder of the war. Beau Bassin was the name of the prison in
which the refugees were held from 1940 to 1945.
Over this five-year period, through the SA Board of Jewish Deputies,
the South African Jewish community provided humanitarian, financial
and material assistance to the refugee-detainees. On their release
at the end of the war, the latter dispersed, some finally reaching
Israel/Palestine, while others went to the USA or back to Europe.
Only one, Hella Rypinsky, went to South Africa, settling in Cape
Town where she met and married Jack Borochowitz. Hella's mother
Pesah and baby brother Yitzchak both died on Mauritius in 1941 and
are buried at the St Martin 's Jewish cemetery.
Geoff Geffroy was born in Mauritius in 1943 and lived there until
1966 when he relocated to South Africa. Despite passing Beau Bassin
Prison every day on his way to school, he had not known that Jewish
detainees had once been held there. On coming to South Africa, he
married a local Jewish woman, Sharon Rudy, and converted to Orthodox
Judaism. It was only in 2004 that, through Rabbi Silberhaft, he
learned for the first time of the wartime saga of Jews in his
homeland. Through researching the topic further, he then looked more
carefully into his own ancestry, discovering thereby that his own
maternal grandmother had been a crypto-Jew (with the same surname,
as it happened, as one of the refugees) and that therefore he had
been halachically Jewish all along.
Earlier this month Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft, Spiritual Leader to the
African Jewish Congress, accompanied Harris and Geffroy to Mauritius
to assist in the making of the documentary. Interviews were
conducted with himself, Geffroy, members of the local Jewish
community and other local residents who had benefited from training
programmes in Israel sponsored by the Israeli Government. Rabbi
Silberhaft and Geffroy were also interviewed by the Mauritius
Broadcasting Corporation (MBC), with the interview being broadcast
three times on national television and reported on in all the major
Much of the filming took place inside Beau Bassin Prison itself,
where the original cells in which the detainees were housed still
exist. Rabbi Silberhaft took this opportunity to visit a French
Jewish prisoner, who was convicted of drug smuggling and of meeting
with the Commissioner of Prisons. The latter informed him that there
were over 35 South Africans in the prison, all of whom had been
convicted on drug trafficking charges.
Rabbi Silberhaft also led a delegation that met with the Rt Hon. Sir
Anerood Jugnauth, President of the Republic of Mauritius. The
delegation comprised himself, Geoff and Sharon Geffroy, Irene
Zuckerman, past president of the Union of Jewish Women, African
Region, and Baby Curpens, president of the local Israel friendship
society, the Amicale Maurice Israel.
During the meeting, Rabbi Silberhaft expressed concern over the fact
that last year the Jewish community's premises, the Amicale Maurice
Centre building, had been defaced with graffiti reading "Al Qaeda".
Jugnauth, whose election platform strongly stressed the need to
combat extremism and foster religious tolerance in Mauritius'
multi-faith society, reiterated his position that his government
would take all steps necessary to prevent racist or anti-Semitic
The trip included the holding of a memorial service at the St.
Martin's Jewish Cemetery in memory of the 126 detainees who passed
away on the island and are buried there. The cemetery was handed
over by deed of grant to the S A Jewish Board of Deputies after the
war, and has been maintained by it, for much of the time with the
voluntary assistance of a local non-Jewish and Jewish resident, ever
since. The South African Jewish community, through the SAJBD,
maintained close links with the Mauritius detainees throughout the
war and assisted them in various ways.
"In the Shadow of Beau Bassin" is scheduled to be screened on SABC
2, Issues of Faith, on Sunday 2nd September @ 09:30.