The German ocean liner MS St Louis’ story is well-known. It had more than 900 Jewish refugees in 1939 who were turned away by the Roosevelt administration in the USA, resulting in the death penalty for 255 of them. A lesser-known fact is that the three ships that landed in the British Mandate of Palestine in December 1940, carrying World War II refugees, were deported to another country.
The three ships that carried the 1,580 Jews that arrived in the Atlit detention facility outside Haifa in search of a freer life—not the Nia, Pinta, or Santa Mara—were the Milos, Pacific, and Atlantic. After being rejected, they headed towards the island of Mauritius.
Isaac Adler, who was a child passenger on one of the three ships, said that although the refugees were doing better in Mauritius than they had in Europe, they were nonetheless nearly imprisoned for attempting to flee to safety. He claimed that “this is a lesser-known phase of the Holocaust.”
While undertaking research in South Africa, Roni Mikel-Arieli, a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, discovered this history, and she has since delved deeply into it. She stated it took a lot of “detective work.”
The Jewish militia Haganah planned a daring rescue operation to save those on the Atlantic while the ships waited near Haifa. However, they made errors in their calculations, notably the age of the ship, which led to a bombing that resulted in 250 fatalities. In response, the British moved the migrants via the Suez Canal to the Indian Ocean.
Gidon Ramati, Adler’s cousin, said that he was a newborn when the explosion occurred and went missing for three days. He and His mother remained behind when his father was later transported to Mauritius.
For the first eight months of their captivity at Mauritius detention site in Beau Bassin in Mauritius, the refugees had no semblance of a family life. While the males were put in prison, the women and children huddled together in makeshift homes. The first commander in charge, Armitage, taxed the inmates’ money they received from family members in Israel and Europe at 10%. A less dishonest commandant was ultimately chosen.
The wives, by 1941, were given permission to see their husbands within specific hours. According to Henry Wellish, 100, who was an adult in the men’s prison at the time and is now a resident of Canada, “this is why many children were born in the camp.”
Since the majority of the group were Ashkenazi German speakers, the young Adler converted from his native Yiddish to German. The refugees, however, also had members from many parts of Europe, including Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic, the Free City of Danzig (Poland), and other countries. The 92-year-old Oscar Langsam remembers a Sephardic Jew by the name of Walter Covo who was notable for his Ladino-speaking heritage.
Nearly 60 infants were born at the camp, including Tali Regev, who later served as the Israeli consul in Mauritius. Even decades later, some detainees, including Regev’s parents, kept in touch with one another.
Isia Birger, a Lithuanian immigrant who was the only Jew reported to not be a detainee, was the only Jew on the island who the inmates remembered as being of tremendous assistance and who gave for free food, clothing, and musical instruments.
A thriving Jewish community emerged among the prisoners, even in this odd setting. According to Hanna Fried, who was detained alongside her brother Michael Riegler and her deceased sister Regina, some weren’t religious, but the more devout refused rice on Passover.
128 Jewish refugees died in Mauritius, primarily from malaria and other tropical ailments. They rest in the St. Martin Jewish Cemetery, which is next to the Jewish Detainees Museum, which is open to visitors right now. The prisoners cared for the graves voluntarily. The cemetery is currently maintained by the local Jewish community and Jews from South Africa.
Margaret Olmer imagined her mother died in obscurity in Mauritius when her parents were brought there and she was a part of the Kindertransport programme and sent from Austria to the United Kingdom. She was relieved to discover her mother was not interred “in a forest in the middle of nowhere” when she went to the well-maintained burial years later.
According to the centenarian Wellish, the group received letters from relatives in Europe that kept them informed of events elsewhere. The Holocaust did not start to affect his family in Hungary until 1944, according to letters they exchanged through the Red Cross. Jewish groups in South Africa supplied the refugees publications as well, and they had access to BBC radio.
According to his son Rami, Gerhard Willdorf, one of three brothers, “caused problems” to the British and was ultimately sent to the men’s area.
Some of the male prisoners were recruited by the British to serve in World War II. After the war, the majority relocated to Israel, however some, like Kitty Drill, whose family had property in Austria, went back to Europe. She told me that Drill’s father believed he did not have to work as hard as he would have in a foreign country. There is still a Jewish community in Mauritius, but its leader, Owen Griffiths, said that the community had nothing to do with the prisoners.
The Mauritian Shekel, a 2000 book by the late Genevieve Pitot, who was born in Mauritius and met with the Jewish captives, explains the incident in detail. Adler wrote a memoir titled “Young Captain on a Broken Boat” in 2021 that included colorful details and images of his youth.
Adler said, “I will never forget the day I boarded that ship in Port Louis to go to our new home. Even today, children are displaced by war, and it is not their fault. I hope that our story as Jewish children yearning to be free in Israel will be remembered.”
Source: Jewish News Syndicate