This month we celebrate the 100th birthday of a man that holds a very special place at the Melbourne Holocaust Museum, Phillip Maisel OAM.
As a survivor who has dedicated over 30 years of service to directing MHM’s Testimonies Department, CEO Jayne Josem describes Phillip as ‘‘a wonderful colleague, who worked tirelessly on his mission to record as many survivor accounts as possible. We were all in awe of him and wish him Mazal Tov on this very special occasion!”
Phillip retired from MHM last year, but for his birthday, we are thrilled to be honouring him and all he has achieved over his 100 years.
Phillip’s Holocaust Experience
Born on 15 August 1922 in Vilna, the then capital of Lithuania, Phillip grew up knowing a lot about Jewish culture even under Soviet communist occupation.
In June 1941, Germany attacked the Soviet Union, and Soviet forces withdrew from Vilna; Phillip and his twin sister, Bella, tried to escape but had to return.
On 1 September 1941, Phillip and his family were taken to the Vilna Ghetto, in the poorest part of the town.
The Nazis began to issue people who worked outside the ghetto with certificates which became a way to survive extermination. To save his life, Phillip’s father got him a job as an auto-electrician.
After two months, Estonian troops liquidated the ghetto, and Phillip was arrested and sent to Estonia, where he was incarcerated in six labour camps between 1943 and 1944. He was sent to Stutthof concentration camp in Germany in August 1943, followed by Dartmergen and Frommern camps.
Phillip attributes his survival over this period to his valuable capacity as an auto-electrician as well as the small acts of kindness he encountered. As an auto-electrician, Phillip would work in a garage during the day and sleep at the camp at night, sometimes even acquiring food from grateful drivers.
In April 1945, Phillip was taken on a death march. He was liberated by French troops on 27 April in Oslach, Germany.
Watch Phillip’s testimony:
Phillip’s Work at MHM
“This is my responsibility and my privilege: to be a custodian of their memories, to be able to pass their stories on to the next generation – for me, this will be the greatest miracle of all,” – Phillip Maisel OAM.
In 1990 Phillip became a volunteer at the Melbourne Holocaust Museum (then JHC). From 1992 – 2021 he was Director of the Testimonies Department. He has recorded over 1000 video testimonies of fellow Holocaust survivors.
Phillip’s voluntary work for the MHM has been at the core of preserving the voices of the Holocaust for future generations. Our survivors are the very essence of the organisation, and Phillip’s work has been vital to ensuring their memories are passed on.
In 2021 Phillip published his memoir ‘The Keeper of Miracles’, describing his experiences throughout the Holocaust and what led him to dedicate his later life to recording the atrocities. This profoundly moving and inspiring memoir reminds us never to underestimate the impact of human kindness.
The Dynamic Duo
Interestingly, Phillip is not the only Holocaust survivor turning 100; he shares this birthday with his twin sister Bella. Phillip and Bella share a unique bond, partly due to their relationship as fraternal twins and somewhat consequential of their shared experience as Holocaust survivors.
Phillip describes his relationship with his sister as very protective.
“We were very, very, close. We could communicate with just looking at each other.”
When Phillip was arrested in the ghetto, he was separated from his sister. He believed he had lost her, and it was not until after the war they reconnected in a rare stroke of fate. In September 1945, while Phillip was working in American-occupied Germany, a stranger commented on his unique Yiddish accent. He told Phillip he knew of only one other with a similar accent, whom he had met in a refugee camp in Lansberg. Phillip was sure this was Bella and rode 250 miles on his motorbike to Bavaria to reach her.
Phillip recounts in his memoir the moment he saw Bella “For some time, we just held each other in the middle of the camp and wept for joy.”
Twins with different birth dates
Interestingly, Bella and Phillip celebrate their birthdays on different days. Bella celebrates hers on 31 July, whereas Phillip is adamant he will turn 100 on 15 August.
This occurrence may seem strange to some, but this inconsistency is relatively common among Holocaust survivors, culminating from the Nazi’s destruction of Jewish records throughout World War Two.
Jewish people’s belongings were often taken from them upon arrest, with many unable to recover vital information about their birth certificates.
We wish Phillip and Bella all the best for their 100th birthday celebrations. We will be forever grateful to Phillip for his amazing work at the Melbourne Holocaust Museum.
We invite you to join us in celebrating Phillip’s birthday with a special screening of an interview held by Dr. Stephen Smith MBE, former executive director of USC Shoah Foundation in Los Angeles, as the pair discuss Phillip’s work, his legacy, and the lessons of survivor testimony.
Donating to our Testimonies Department is a great way to ensure Phillip’s work is carried on for generations to come.