The story of a photograph



In 1945, Rose Hill, on the island of Mauritius, wasn’t yet the large flourishing city it is today.  There was a sprinkling of one-storey buildings from the Town Hall to the Magistrate's Office.  Between Magasin Pacific and Nuckcheddie Bar, stood the façade of Hollywood Studio, my father’s shop.  From there one could see the seemingly endless, whitewashed wall of Dr. Duvivier's house. Beside it, the large courtyard of Cinema Hall was the scene of much activity. From every corner of the world came soccer teams, festival performers, dancers; as a young child just thinking of them would put me into a dreamy state of enchantment.  To the left of the Cinema, there was a car repair shop.  Its owner, Maxime Motet, a friendly and rather portly man was one of the most colourful characters in that small town. 

The buses didn't have a terminal then, so they dropped a flow of commuters right on Royal Road.  Those coming from Port Louis stopped at Pharmacie Idéale, those from Curepipe in front of Venkatasamy's hardware store.  A few blocks away, there was a strange, dark stone building that housed the train station and the post office.  It was here that I enjoyed the most thrilling pleasures of my childhood: watching trains go by.  I was fascinated by the power of engines.  I even inhaled with yearning the acrid fumes that spouted from the smokestack. Further south, before reaching the dykes, an ivy-covered, grey building sheltered in silence the telephone company.

At that time, we lived in a small house on Prince de Galles Street, not far from Smart, the tailor, and the taxi stand. My father François had an office on the right side of the verandah.  He sometimes worked there, touching up negatives.  But most times he sat there talking to his friends late into the night.  They talked about the war, about the victories of the Chinese army, those of Chang Kai-shek and Mao over the Japanese attackers.  They listened reverently to news from the BBC and France Libre, playing full blast the gigantic Philips radio that my father had just bought.  Dotted with colourful thumbtacks, a map of the world hung on the left side of the radio.  To the right, a map of China and Japan.  Above, a picture of Mao smiling by the caves of Yen-An.

In May 1945, the Allies declared victory in Europe.  The whole population was euphoric.  It was as if a load had been taken off their shoulders.  They could now breathe freely and rejoiced at the idea of eating proper food again.  People were celebrating all over the island.  Thousands of Allied Nations flags waved in the Mauritian sky while exploding firecrackers joyfully littered the pavements with red scraps.  All the churches performed religious services.  At night we huddled at the Champ de Mars to watch spectacular displays of fireworks put on by boy scouts from mountain tops surrounding Port Louis.

But something was wrong.  Even though I was soaking in all the jubilation, I could feel a ghostly shadow flickering on the happy face of my father.

One early August morning I went to his studio.  He was sitting on a bench with his friend Hugo Hornung.  They were both facing the camera.  My father held in his hand a small pump that he squeezed softly to activate the camera.  It allowed him to take photos without anyone behind the camera.

When he saw me, he explained that the picture was a memento of his friendship with Mr. Hornung, as the latter was soon leaving for Palestine.  I then understood why he was sad.

My father had tried to explain to me where his friend came from, that he was from Czechoslovakia, that his Jewish ancestors were from Palestine.  He went on about how people like his friend Hugo had fled Europe, where they had been living for centuries, because they were being persecuted by a man named Adolf Hitler.  He told me these people were tired of being oppressed, and wanted to live in a country they could call their own.  But it was all too complicated for a six years old child, and it was only much later that I understood the ramifications of what he was telling me.

Hugo Hornung arrived in Mauritius on the M.V. Atlantic on December 26, 1940.  His exodus started in October 1940 at Bratislava in Slovakia.  It brought him to the port of Tulcea in Romania where he embarked on the M.V. Atlantic with 1900 other Jews.  There were two other boats docked at Tulcea.  700 Jews boarded the M.V. Milos while a thousand went on the M.V. Pacific. The three ships set sail, loaded with 3600 passengers fleeing Nazi Europe, and seeking refuge in Palestine.

Unfortunately for them, the British Foreign Office and the British Colonial Office heard about it, and were waiting in Haifa.  Sir Harold MacMichael, the High Commissioner of Palestine, was waging a campaign against illegal immigration to Palestine.  The British army apprehended the three ships and the M.V. Atlantic was directed towards Mauritius.

Hugo Hornung was detained in a refugee camp in Beau Bassin.  There were a total of 1580 exiles, 849 men, 635 women and 96 children. 128 died during the typhoid epidemic and were buried at St. Martin cemetery. 

The camp was enclosed with barbed wire.  The residents could not circulate freely.  Men were separated from women.  Even married couples were not exempt from such a cruel fate.  My father met Hugo Hornung shortly after he arrived in Mauritius.  He often went to the refugee camp to see him.  My father eventually obtained permission from the camp leader to allow Hugo Hornung to come to our house, but on the condition that he was brought back before the curfew.

I remember those Thursday afternoons when Mr. Hornung shared our meals.  The atmosphere was festive.  My father was all smiles.  I could feel his elation.  Hugo Hornung was very grateful to my father for his warm hospitality.  He was also a photographer.  They were always talking shop during those visits at our house, and he taught my father the basic theories of photography.

Much later, after Hugo Hornung moved to Palestine and opened a studio in Haifa, my father started teaching me the same theories he learned from his generous friend.

Years passed.  We received some letters from our friend.  His business was doing well.  He was married.  But my father did not write back due to his limited English.  It was bound to happen.  We lost touch with our friend.

I was living in Canada for thirty years already when I received an e-mail from an Isaac Cohen.  He lived in the north of Tel-Aviv and had noticed my website on Mauritius.  He was interested in life on the island and wanted to know more about it.  We corresponded for a while, and then I thought of telling him the story of Hugo Hornung.  He was so moved by the story that he phoned a few friends in Haifa.  It took only three phone calls before he found the Hornung family.

Unfortunately Hugo Hornung and his wife had passed away.  But Isaac talked to Hugo’s son who remembered clearly his father’s stories about Mauritius.

I soon talked to Gabi Hornung on the phone.  It was such an emotional and joyful moment. The next day, I received by e-mail the famous photo taken on August 1945.  I had never seen it before.

Philip Lim

Graciously translated by Peggy Lampotang


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