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The Nazi Party
in Power

Beginning of the Second World War

Getting to


Arrival to
Haifa Harbour

Deportation to Mauritius

Detained in

Memory and Memorialisation

The Nazi Party in Power


Arrival of political prisoners at the Oranienburg concentration camp, Oranienburg, Germany, 1933.
Courtesy of Sueddeutscher Verlag Bilderdienst, DIZ Muenchen (GMBH), USHMM Photo Archives.

The National Socialist Workers’ Party (Nazi Party) was a right-wing extremist political movement that emerged in Germany following the First World War. The party rose rapidly to political prominence, becoming the largest in the German parliament in 1932, and on 30 January 1933, President Paul von Hindenburg gave Adolf Hitler, the head of the Nazi Party, the mandate to form a government. The ideology of the Nazi Party was that Germans were “racially superior” and that the Jews and other targeted groups such as the Roma and Sinti, were deemed “inferior”. Anti-Jewish legislation was introduced in the country including the Nuremberg Laws of September 1935, that stripped the Jews of their citizens rights and property. Campaigns of incitement, abuse, and violence were organised to force the Jews to leave Germany. In 1938, persecution of the Jews in Germany escalated and on 9-10 November, the Kristallnacht pogrom was carried out against Jews throughout Nazi Germany and its recently occupied territories. The pogrom was also known as “The Night of Broken Glass” because of the shattered glass that littered the streets after the vandalism and destruction of Jewish-owned businesses, synagogues, and homes. 

Following the pogrom, more than 30,000 German and Austrian Jews were imprisoned in Dachau and Buchenwald concentration camps. About 100 of them were released by the Nazis in the summer of 1940 on the undertaking that they would leave the Reich at once – they were among the 1,580 that were eventually deported to Mauritius in December 1940.

Beginning of the Second World War

1 September 1939

The Auschwitz II-Birkenau main guard house and rail entrance, 1945.
Courtesy of Wiener Library.

On 1 September 1939, the Second World War began with Germany’s invasion of Poland. From late 1939 to 1941, Germany occupied much of the European continent, and formed the Axis alliance with Italy, Japan and other countries. In August 1939, the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact was signed between Germany and the Soviet Union (USSR) which allowed both to annex territories in Eastern Europe. However, immediately after Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941, the USSR had joined the Western Allies in their struggle against Nazi aggression. On 7 December 1941, following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, the United States joined the War on the side of the Allies. 

The Second World War provided the Nazis the opportunity to adopt more radical measures against the Jews and under the disguise of war, they developed their genocidal plan. As the war began, the Nazis implemented systems of ghettoisation, forced labour, incarceration in concentration camps, deportations and finally, through their ‘Final Solution’ plan, the mass murder of six million European Jews.

Getting to Bratislava

1939 - 1940

Gestapo consultation in the Ministry of the Interior's courtyard on Herrengasse, before a raid on the Vienna Jewish Community Center, 1938.
Courtesy of Yad Vashem.

After Germany annexed Austria in March 1938 and extended its occupation to Czechoslovakia and Poland in 1939, many Jews were seeking refuge outside the continent. Berthold Storfer, an Austrian Jewish financial advisor, worked with Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi head of the department responsible for Jewish affairs (especially emigration), to facilitate Jewish emigration from the Reich. In August 1938, Storfer established the Central Agency for Jewish Emigration, which organised and carried out the forced emigration of Austrian Jews. He soon became the main link to Jewish escape routes using the Danube river. 

In the summer of 1940, Storfer chartered ships to carry 3,500 Jewish refugees to British Mandatory Palestine. On 4 September 1940, two ships – Schönbrunn and Melk – set off from Vienna to Bratislava carrying 820 Jewish refugees from Prague and Berno, as well as 800 Viennese and other refugees who had been registered for Storfer’s organised journey. A few hours after their arrival in Bratislava, the passengers joined 1,880 other refugees who arrived from other European cities and were put on two other ships – Uranus and Helios.

The Journey

View of the deck of the illegal immigration ship, the Atlantic.
The Mauritius Exile Collection, The Ghetto Fighters House Archive, Israel.

From Bratislava to Tulcea

5 September 1940

On 5 September 1940, the four ships – Schönbrunn, Melk, Uranus and Helios – set sail from Bratislava, carrying 3,500 Jewish refugees escaping Nazi persecution. The refugees included people from the Jewish communities of Vienna, Prague, Brno, Berlin, Munich, and Danzig, and came from diverse Jewish backgrounds and ideological affiliations. A week after leaving Bratislava, the refugees arrived at Tulcea (Romania), a city situated on the delta of the Danube river, where they were transported to three old ships – Atlantic, Milos, and Pacific – to begin their long journey to British Mandatory Palestine.

A wedding on the ship - a humorous drawing by Fritz Haendel, one of the Jewish refugees deported to Mauritius.
The Mauritius Exile Collection, The Ghetto Fighters House Archive, Israel.

The Journey of the Atlantic

7 October to 26 November 1940

On 7 October, the 1,880 Atlantic passengers, including more than 300 who were over the age of 60 years old, and about 150 children under the age of 12 years old, departed on their long journey. The ship was overcrowded, and the passengers occupied the cabins, the catacombs, the passages, and any other space available. The Atlantic sailed from Tulcea to British Mandatory Palestine through the islands of Crete and Cyprus and arrived in Haifa harbour on the morning of 24 November 1940.

Arrival to Haifa Harbour

24 November 1940

Mauritian exiles.
The Zionist Archive, Jerusalem, Israel.

Arrival in British Mandatory Palestine

24 November 1940

Thirteen year-old Arie-Leopold Keller, who arrived in the Haifa harbour with his parents from Danzig, wrote in his diary:  

“On November 24, at dawn, we saw the mountains of Sula (Lebanon) and then Mount Carmel, and all of us streamed to the deck and sang Hatikvah [the national anthem] with great emotion […] The Jews we came into contact with, especially the officials, looked at the illegal immigrant ship with indifference and cynicism. It seemed as if their paperwork was more important to them than the fate of the people […] More than the behaviour of the British, which after all, we were able to understand, the attitude of the Yishuv [Jewish leadership of the residents of Israel at the time] depressed us, and we felt helpless.”

Arie-Leopold Keller, Mauritius Diary.
Mauritius Exiles’ Collection, Ghetto Fighters House Archives, Israel.

The illegal immigration ship the Patria sinking in Haifa harbour.
The Mauritius Exile Collection, The Ghetto Fighters House Archive, Israel.

The Tragedy of the Patria

25 November 1940

All 3,500 refugees had no legal entrance visa to British Mandatory Palestine and were regarded by the British authorities as illegal immigrants. This followed the 1939 British White Paper, enforcing a strict immigration quota for Jews entering British Mandatory Palestine. The passengers of the Milos and the Pacific, who arrived earlier than the Atlantic to Haifa, were forcefully transferred to another ship called the Patria, to be deported to the British Colony of Mauritius. The next morning, 25 November, the Haganah, a local underground military organisation, decided to plant a bomb on board the ship in order to prevent the planned deportation. Tragically, the ship sank immediately, and this caused the death of 260 Jewish refugees.

Joseph Adler, a 20 year-old refugee from Czechoslovakia who travelled on the Atlantic together with his wife and baby son, wrote in his memoir:

“The passengers who were on the two ships – Milos and Pacific – were already on the Patria and when we arrived in Haifa the British started to transfer us too. The next morning, several boats filled with parents and children went from the Atlantic to the Patria as well as me and my wife and son Yitzhak, who was 8 months old. When our boat got closer to the Patria, we heard a loud explosion and the ship flipped over. People started jumping from the Patria to the sea. It was an awful sight. The boat we were on gathered a few people from the water and took us all back to the Atlantic.”

Josef Adler, in “Memories of my life before and during the deportation to Mauritius” Mauritius Exiles’ Collection, Ghetto Fighters House Archives, Israel.  

Deportation to Mauritius

9 December 1940

The Johan de Witt, one of the ships on which Jewish refugees were deported from Haifa to the island of Mauritius.
The Mauritius Exile Collection, The Ghetto Fighters House Archive, Israel.

The British authorities permitted the survivors of the Patria to remain in British Mandatory Palestine, transferring them to the Atlit Detention Camp near Haifa. However, on 9 December, 1,580 of the Atlantic passengers were forcibly removed from Atlit, placed onto two Dutch ships – Johan de Witt and New Zealand – and deported to Mauritius.

Josef Adler vividly describes the events of the night of the deportation from Atlit Camp:

“The police officers took the men one by one and forcibly led them to the cars. Those who tried to resist were violently thrown into trucks. Most of the young men were actually naked; We went out in a convoy of trucks to the port of Haifa and they divided us to two ships […] the men were brought down to the bottom of the ships, the heat was unbearable and as we passed through the Red Sea it became even worse.”

Josef Adler, in “Memories of my life before and during the deportation to Mauritius” Mauritius Exiles’ Collection, Ghetto Fighters House Archives, Israel.   

Detained in Mauritius

1940 - 1945

A harbour in the Island of Mauritius.
The Mauritius Exile Collection, The Ghetto Fighters House Archive, Israel.

Arrival to Mauritius

26 December 1940

On 26 December 1940, after traveling for 17 days, the refugees arrived at the harbour of Port Louis, the capital of the British Colony of Mauritius, and were then transferred to the Central Prison of Beau Bassin. 

Aaron Zwergbaum, a young lawyer originally from Prague, who was one of the leaders of the detainees in Mauritius, described the arrival of the refugees to the island: 

“When the refugees were driven to their destination camp in buses, natives lined the road greeting and cheering them. It was not clear whether the natives extended this unexpected welcome because they regarded them as enemies of their masters, or because they sympathized with the refugees. In any case the deportees were touched and agreeably surprised by this unexpected welcome, even if it could not change their fate.”

Aaron Zwergbaum, in Exile in Mauritius
Yad Vashem Studies

The Beau Bassin Prison, Mauritius.
The Mauritius Exile Collection, The Ghetto Fighters House Archive, Israel.
A diagram of the Beau Bassin Camp.


When the Jewish refugees arrived, they numbered 849 men, 635 women, and 96 children. There were 600 Austrians, 300 Czechoslovakians, 300 Poles, 100 Germans, 140 from the Free City of Danzig, and 141 of other nationalities.  

The high walls of the principle compound of the prison ensured the separation between two sections of the camp: the men were accommodated in the prison cells, and the women and children were housed in a compound of specially built huts. Their conditions gradually improved and from July 1942, women were allowed to visit their husbands for a restricted period of time. The detainees’ major worry during the early months of detention was the high number of sick and those that tragically died in the camp.

In Aaron Zwergbaum’s annual report he stated: 

“When we arrived here on December 7, 1940, we numbered 1,581 people: 849 men, 635 women, and 96 children. One year later, after 54 deaths and 4 births, we were only 1,527 people […] The health conditions could certainly not be called good, if an average of 10% of people are kept in hospital.”

Aaron Zwergbaum, in The First Year on Mauritius, January 1942
US Holocaust Memorial Museum Library and Archives

Fritz Beda Meir Mayer, Visiting Day.
The Mauritius Exile Collection, The Ghetto Fighters House Archive, Israel

The South African Connection

The only Jew on the island of Mauritius was Isia Birger who immigrated there from Lithuania in 1937. He supported the detainees as much as he could and soon became the liaison between the South African Jewish Board of Deputies and the British authorities in Mauritius. The closest Jewish community to the island was that of South Africa, located 3,637 kilometres away. As soon as the news about the deportation to Mauritius reached the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, it established a special committee to communicate with the colonial authorities, and to provide food, clothing, medicines, religious items and reading material for the refugees. Interestingly, it appears that South African Jewry became an important source of information on the detainees’ conditions for the Jewish world, which based its newspaper reports on the matter using the Jewish South African press.

A group of men praying at one of the synagogues set up in the Beau Bassin camp.
The Mauritius Exile Collection, The Ghetto Fighters House Archive, Israel.
A group of detained girls, part of the Scouts youth movement, Mauritius.
The Mauritius Exile Collection, The Ghetto Fighters House Archive, Israel.
A sewing workshop in the men's section at the Beau Bassin camp.
The Mauritius Exile Collection, The Ghetto Fighters House Archive, Israel.
Detainees visiting local Mauritians.
The Mauritius Exile Collection, The Ghetto Fighters House Archive, Israel.

Life in the Camp

Despite the strict conditions, the detainees developed a vibrant social, cultural, and political community life during the four years and seven months of their imprisonment and had different encounters with the local population. Many of the detainees kept diaries and some documented their experiences through art. There were two religious communities and two synagogues in the camp – orthodox and liberal.

There was a canteen and a camp library, a school and an adult education centre. The detainees established the Maccabi Youth Movement, Jewish Scouts, a camp newspaper, a football team, a music band, and “the Zionist Association of Mauritius.”

The detainees were kept occupied through workshops established in the camp, in which they produced wooden and fabric toys, silver jewellery and other items that were sold outside the camp.

For a limited period in 1942, some of the detainees got permits to work outside the camp, which allowed closer interaction with the local population. Some of the detainees taught art, weaving and music to Mauritian children. The camp orchestra of Papa Haas performed in local weddings and at the Rose Hill concert hall.  

In Geneviève Pitot’s preface to her book, The Mauritian Shekel, she wrote: 

“I was just ten years old when the refugees arrived in Mauritius in December 1940. Eighteen months later, when the strict detention regimen had been relaxed, school was privileged to have an art teacher, Mrs Anne Frank, who came from the camp at Beau Bassin. For us, her students, she was Madame Frank. After about a year, her lessons ceased abruptly, because the camp was again tightly closed – for security reasons. I never saw her again.”

Geneviève Pitot, The Mauritian Shekel: The Story of the Jewish Detainees in Mauritius, 1940-1945

Hadassa - Zina, the baby daughter of a Jewish couple among the exiles in Mauritius during the Second World War.
The Mauritius Exile Collection, The Ghetto Fighters House Archive, Israel.

Babies Born

1943 - 1945

In 1943, 15 babies were born in the camp. This was a direct result of the ease in “family life” inside the camp since late 1942. By August 1945, an additional 45 babies were born, making the long imprisonment ever so slightly happier for the camp community.

A group of Czech volunteers to the British army, from among the Jews detainees in Mauritius during the Second World War.
The Mauritius Exile Collection, The Ghetto Fighters House Archive, Israel.
A farewell party for young people among the detainees who had volunteered to serve in the British Army’s Czech division.
The Mauritius Exile Collection, The Ghetto Fighters House Archive, Israel.

Joining the Allied Forces

June 1942 - April 1943

Since their arrival in Mauritius, about 90 young Jewish-Czech men tried to join the British army’s Czech division to fight the Nazis. In February 1942, they received official permission to depart for the Middle East and 85 of them were declared fit for service. In April the first group of volunteers left for South Africa, then Egypt en route to British Mandatory Palestine.  

On 6 December 1942, an additional 45 young Jewish-Czech and Poles received an order to prepare for an immediate departure. However, the Czechs’ departure was cancelled and only the Poles left for the Middle East, via South Africa, on 3 April 1943.

The Cayeux family sailing in their boat in Belle Mare with a group of Jewish detainees.
Courtesy of Lorraine Lagesse.
Young women among the illegal immigrants to Mandate Palestine exiled by the British to Mauritius, touring the island.
The Mauritius Exile Collection, The Ghetto Fighters House Archive, Israel.

Restrictions ease


In June 1943, a new privilege was introduced to the detainees: permission to take part in a holiday camp. The detainees were divided into groups of 60 people each, and from 4 June to 21 October 1943, each group was sent for a week’s holiday outside the camp. There, the refugees enjoyed a sense of freedom – they slept in tents in a compound about 50 kilometers away from the Beau Bassin camp, while enjoying the beach, walks in nature, and sport.

The Jewish refugees detained in Mauritius, when they arrived in Haifa in late August 1945.
The Zionist Archive, Jerusalem, Israel.

Leaving Mauritius

11 August 1945

On 21 February 1945, the British Governor of Mauritius informed the detainees that they would be allowed to leave the island and enter British Mandatory Palestine. Only on 11 August 1945, however, six months later, the refugees were actually permitted to leave the island.

In 1946, the South African Jewish Board of Deputies acquired ownership of the St. Martin Jewish cemetery in Mauritius, where 128 Jewish refugees, who died of malaria, typhus and other causes during their detention, were buried. As the detainees left, the site and the story was all but forgotten.

Memory and Memorialisation

The Beau Bassin Jewish Detainees Memorial & Information Centre.

Since the late 1980s, some important commemorative efforts have begun. In August 1988, the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) held a ceremony for the unveiling of two plaques at the St. Martin Jewish Cemetery as tribute to those in Mauritius who devoted much time and effort in looking after the cemetery. In 1999 a reunion of 50 former Jewish detainees and their families was held in Mauritius. The memorial service was led by Rabbi Silberhaft (spiritual leader of the African Jewish Congress and representative of the SAJBD) and the late Mervyn Smith (then president of the SAJBD), and held outside the Jewish cemetery. The first significant research on this history was published in 1998 in the book The Mauritian Shekel, by Geneviève Pitot, a native Mauritian who lived in Germany and who had a close relationship with one of the Jewish detainees on the island. In 2014, Pitot’s book was translated into Hebrew by Anat Avraham, whose father, Jacob Eilon, had been one of the refugees in Mauritius. Other efforts included the traveling exhibition, “Boarding Pass to Paradise”, of Israeli art-exhibition curator Elena Makarova, that toured several European and Israeli venues between 2005-2008. The documentary “In the Shadows of Beau Bassin”, produced by the South African independent filmmaker, Kevin Harris was screened in 2007. A vast archival collection containing photographs, documents, memoirs, letters, and artwork, was deposited in the Ghetto Fightersʼ House Archives in 2008. The Beau Bassin Jewish Detainees Memorial & Information Centre was opened in November 2014.