A somber past and hopeful new present came together on the island of Mauritius last month as the Jewish community
Solidarity mission by African Jewish Congress to Mauritius
A somber past and hopeful new present came together on the island of Mauritius last month as the Jewish community there joined with African Jewish leaders for a range of activities. There was remembrance and commemoration and also celebration for the continuance of Jewish life in Mauritius. Seventy years ago, some 1,670 Jewish refugees from Nazi-held Europe were interned on the island by the British colonial authorities after they had been refused permission to remain in Palestine.
During the following five years, 127 of them died and were buried in a section of the St. Martin’s Cemetery. The burial place was later handed over by to the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (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), took 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 Aaron Zwergbaum, a prominent leader of the Mauritius detainees who was the liaison between the detainees and the Zionist organizations 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 Ann Harris. It pays 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 ruht mein lieber Mann’ (Here Rests My Dear Husband).
The visiting delegation was comprised AJC President Mervyn Smith, 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 Hebrew Congregation President Owen Griffith. At a special ceremony held the following Sunday the Maurice Amicale Center, which serves as the headquarters of Mauritian Jewry, was renamed the Baby Curpens Center in honor 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 center’s expanded new synagogue. A 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, the AJC leaders also met with Mauritian President Anerood Jugnauth (pictured above from left to right: Griffin, Smith, Jugnauth, Silberhaft) and separately with Prime Minister Navinchandra Ramgoolam. Issues relating to the local Jewish community and its relationship with the greater Jewish world were discussed.