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Preserved in the Land of the Dodo

Ari Z. Zivotofsky and Ari Greenspan

Mauritius doesn’t have a long Jewish history, but it turned into an unplanned prison refuge for a shipload of Jews outrunning the Nazis. Fascinated, we dropped onto that piece of land jutting up from the Indian Ocean

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

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IT’S ALIVE Our guide, Jewish community president Owen Griffith, is a passionate conservationist trying to prevent more species from becoming extinct. His giant tortoise farm, responsible for 1,000 tortoises and 2,000 crocodiles, is reintroducing this almost extinct beast back into nature (Photos: Ari Z. Zivotofsky and Ari Greenspan)

B y now we’re never surprised when we discover Jews, Jewish history, and Jewish heroes in even the most far-flung places. So when we decided to add a stopover on the remote resort island of Mauritius when we were planning our trip to the emerging Jewish community of Madagascar, we knew we wouldn’t be disappointed. Plunk in the middle of the Indian Ocean, 705 miles from Madagascar and over 2,200 miles from South Africa, Mauritius — with its 1.4 million people — is indeed what you’d call out of the way.

Centuries before Jews came to the island, though, it was home to the legendary extinct dodo bird — a large, passive bird with short wings and a bulky body that prevented it from flying or fleeing in the face of danger. Before Mauritius was inhabited by island settlers, these birds had no experience with human predators, but once discovered by Dutch sailors in 1598, the dodo’s end was quick in coming. Dodo meat was considered a delicacy, rats and monkeys that escaped from the ships posed a threat to dodo eggs and chicks, while the pigs, goats, chickens, cats, and dogs that were introduced to the island made the dodo’s once peaceful life a daily struggle for survival. The last claimed sighting of the big bird was in 1662.

The legendary bird was not the only one facing the process of extinction, as the island at one time was replete with unique flora and fauna, many of which today have gone the way of the dodo. But there is still much to preserve on this magnificent hub of nature, and one of the leaders in that effort is a man named Owen Griffiths — who also happens to be president of the island’s 100-plus member Jewish community.

The grave of Karl Lenk, who refused to take a baptismal certificate and save himself; there aren’t too many of the Tribe here, but the Island Hebrew Congregation does meet for holiday services

We found out about Owen before heading out to the African coast, and he exemplified the Jewish trait of hospitality. From the moment we landed he took us around, showing us the historic Jewish sites and some of the island’s natural treasures. But the most interesting Jewish “site” on the island is clearly Owen Griffiths himself.

Tortoise Pace

Griffiths is a fascinating individual who’s willing to go to great lengths to help the Jewish community. His personal history starts with the early days of the Jewish settlement in Australia, where his great-great-grandfather was shipped as a petty thief at the time the British were using that distant continent as a massive prison colony.

In fact, all four of Owen’s grandparents were born in Australia. His great-grandfather, Abraham Reuben, was among the founders of the Hobart Synagogue, Australia’s first synagogue building. His maternal grandfather, Lieutenant Leo Rosengarten, was an officer in the Australian military, and Owen recently discovered an item about him from the Sydney Morning Herald in 1919. It seems that he’d gotten into a fracas with another officer over some lamb chops. They were hauled in front of Captain Cohen, a superior officer, for a quick trial. Captain Cohen is reported to have scolded Lieutenant Rosengarten by saying something to the effect of “if this had been over a piece of pork chop, I would have thrown the book at you, but seeing that it relates to lamb, I will let you off with a scolding.” (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 658)

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