JEWISH STARS: Owen Griffiths

FLIC-EN-FLAC, Mauritius — Owen Griffiths is an interesting man. As president of the Island Hebrew Congregation of Mauritius, he oversees every aspect of community life on the south Indian Ocean island from religious needs to kosher food stocks to looking after a stray photographer like me.

Owen Griffiths, President, Island Hebrew Congregation, Mauritius

Owen Griffiths, President, Island Hebrew Congregation, Mauritius

“Thanks for your interesting mail,” he wrote me on October 18, 2012 in response to my photo permission request. “I will be happy to help. The main ‘Jewish’ sites in Mauritius are the prison where detainees were held during the war, the Jewish cemetery, and the Jewish center at Forest Side. I would estimate that 2 full days will be enough for you to cover this.”

In fact, we covered all of that in one relaxed day criss-crossing the island. More precisely, I did not photograph the prison (I didn’t even attempt to secure permission). One little bonus was photographing an old chapel adjacent to the St. Martins Jewish Cemetery that is slated for development as a Jewish museum. I also met Rabbi Laima Barber who works on the island as a member of Chabad (though Chabad barely has a footprint in the sands here).

Owen first landed on these shores more than 26 years ago from Sydney, Australia. He says that “his great-grandfather was sent [Down Under] for being the “receiver of stolen goods”, a la Fagin, also referred to as “The Jew”, in Oliver Twist. There is a family legend that Fagin was based on his great-grandfather…” (from: The Travelling Rabbi: My African Tribe, by Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft, p. 314, Jacana Media 2012, South Africa).

One of the great perks of my Jewish photo travels is meeting fascinating people like Owen. While he clearly takes great pride in his duties as president of the 100-member community, he leads a double, even triple life. As a zoologist and environmentalist, he is also the owner/operator of Nile Crocodiles and Snails, La Vanille Crocodile Park and Bioculture Ltd. Mauritius. There are wild boars, monkeys, deer, and most incredible of all, giant tortoises, known as ‘Darwin’s tortoises’. In 2006, he started breeding the big turtles on the nearby isle of Rodrigues (controlled by Mauritius). Moreover, he breeds Mauritian macaque monkeys which are used for medical research (mainly in the US, the UK, and Japan, even a few to Israel) (ibid).

Needless to say, Owen’s banter kept me not only informed during our day out together, but entertained. He schlepped me literally from one end of the island to the other (at times in torrential rain) and even treated me to lunch in China Town in Port Louis, the capital.

From December 1940 through to the end of World War II, some 1,670 Jewish refugees arrived from Poland, Austria, Germany, and Czechoslovakia. As they were considered illegal immigrants when their ship tried to land in Haifa, they were exiled to Mauritius, a British colony at the time. But paradise did not await them. Families were split and the men incarcerated in Beau-Bassin Prison (built in Napoleonic times when the island was under French rule). Detainees were, however, treated fairly as they were considered neither prisoners of war nor enemies of the state. The South African Jewish community provided these people great assistance and support. In fact, to this very day, the South Africa Jewish Board of Deputies oversees the Mauritian Jewish community, and more specifically, with the personal support of the Travelling Rabbi, Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft.

I left Mauritius in no doubt that Owen will continue to be caretaker-in-chief not only of the current Jewish community, but of the community’s predecessors and history as he brings the Jewish Museum of Mauritius to fruition.


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