In the fall of 1940, some 3,500 Jews from Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Germany—many of whom had spent the previous two years in Dachau, and were released on the condition that they would leave Europe—made their way to the Romanian port of Tulcea, on the Black Sea. There they boarded three ships bound for Palestine, but Britain had other plans. Robert Philpot writes:
In October 1940, the colonial secretary, George Lloyd, requested the governor of Mauritius, [an island in the Indian Ocean then under British rule], to accommodate 4,000 Jewish refugees he believed were heading for Palestine. In some respects, Lloyd’s attitude was unsurprising: just a year before, the British government’s White Paper had set strict limits on the number of Jewish migrants who would be allowed into Palestine.
But enforcement of the quota wasn’t his only concern. The refugees, Lloyd warned the Mauritius governor, should be held in a camp, behind barbed wire and kept under constant guard. . . . The commander of British military forces in the Middle East similarly warned that it was unlikely that the Nazis would not attempt to plant agents among the refugees.
The British government was, however, not entirely at one in its approach and there was an undercurrent of disquiet. The prime minister, Winston Churchill, attempted to soften Lloyd’s orders that the refugees be held behind barbed wire, warning him: “We cannot have a British Dachau.” But Churchill’s request—that the Jews be treated as refugees and not criminals—was effectively ignored.
In December, despite the Haganah’s desperate attempts to interfere, 1,580 of the refugees—temporarily being held in a prison in Haifa—were sent on the seventeen-day oversea journey to Mauritius:
In Mauritius itself, the ground had been prepared. Detainees at the central prison of Beau Bassin were removed to free up space for the refugees. . . . The first eighteen months of the refugees’ time in Mauritius were particularly harsh. They could not leave the camp and there was little by way of family life. Indeed, their detention, combined with the authorities’ insistence the refugees would never be allowed to enter Palestine, proved devastating for some. Although unrecorded on any official documents, a number of refugees died by suicide. In total, 128 refugees did not survive their time on Mauritius, and are buried at the St. Martin Jewish cemetery on the island.