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 Mauritian newspapers.

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 activities.

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.