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
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

Phillip (Falk) Maisel z”l and his twin sister Bella were born in Vilna, Poland, in 1922. They were part of an upper middle-class family, and had a brother, Josef, who was six years older. 

Their parents, Samuel and Slava, had grown up in Russia, but escaped the revolution and settled in Vilna, in North-Eastern Poland. Their father Samuel ran a profitable flax export business, together with four Jewish partners. Their mother Slava, a very educated woman, died when Phillip was only ten years old. 

Vilna had a population of 200,000 people. With 60,000 Jews, Jewish life in Vilna was influential. Phillip’s family was moderately religious. Phillip was sent to a French kindergarten and then attended a private Jewish gymnasium. In his last two years of schooling he was sent to a Polish government school, where he experienced strong discrimination. This prompted him to work hard and he became the best student in his class. 

In July 1940 Phillip received his matriculation. At this time, Vilna was the capital city of Lithuania, having been granted to them by the Soviet Union at the start of the war. In August, the Russians annexed Lithuania and immediately started to prosecute the bourgeoisie and intelligentsia. Phillip’s father was stripped of his business. Phillip was concerned about applying to university because in the eyes of the Russians he did not belong to the correct class. Instead he found work in a paper shop. 

Phillip Maisel (front right)  with his mother, father, older brother, and twin sister Bella.

Phillip worked there until the Germans occupied Vilna on 24 June 1941 – a few days after they had attacked the Soviet Union. Phillip’s father maintained the view that he’d rather eat dire bread under the Germans than cakes under communism. Phillip and his sister tried to escape to Russia. When they found that the Germans were already ahead of them, they returned to Vilna.  

On 1 September 1941 the Germans established a ghetto in the poorest part of Vilna. Phillip recalls, “Lithuanian policemen came and ordered us to move into the ghetto – with twenty minutes notice.” 

They could only take what they could carry. They didn’t bother with suitcases – they just took bed sheets and threw in their possessions. Phillip wanted to take his stamp album and books, but his father overruled him. When they arrived at the ghetto the gates were shut, and thousands of people were waiting outside. Somehow Phillip, his father and sister climbed through a window into the ghetto. They found accommodation in a room with twenty people and shared a small kitchen with a dozen families. The people outside the gate were shot. 

“In the ghetto, it was life-saving to have a job that was important to the Germans. So my father decided that I should get a job as a motor electrician.” This decision subsequently contributed to Phillip’s survival.  

Two years after the ghetto had been established, it was liquidated. Despite attempts of resistance, Phillip and the resistance group were surrounded by Estonian troops, who were collaborating with the Germans. They were marched to the train station and pushed into wagons, 80 people per carriage. They were taken to a camp in Estonia where the Jewish Blockältester called for an auto mechanic. Phillip raised his hand. “Can you change a tyre?”, he asked. Phillip hesitated. “Of course you can”, the Blockältester said and in so doing helped Phillip to survive. From then on, he worked in a German mobile garage repairing vehicles of the German army.  

Whilst life in the camp was horrific, the job in the garage provided an escape from the daily horror: sometimes the Germans left a bit of food on the table, or satisfied drivers gave him some bread. One deliberately kept his newspaper wide open so that Phillip could read it. 

01 — Phillip and his twin sister Bella after the war. 02 — Phillip and Bella on Phillip’s motorcycle after the war.

In August 1944 when the Russian army advanced, Phillip was sent to Stutthof concentration camp in near Danzig. Upon arrival, the prisoners were stripped naked, shaved and disinfected and had to run to a big building. The man running next to Phillip asked: “Will they gas us now?” Phillip, not sure what was going to happen, said: “No”. He did not want to upset the man. Unfortunately, at this point Phillip lost the last family photographs he had, which were hidden in his boots. 

The prisoners were sent to Dautmergen near Stuttgart, a terrible camp where Phillip worked as a labourer. The death rate at the camp was enormous due to starvation, exhaustion, and maltreatment. Phillip was lucky enough to be told to work in a garage again, and the garage requested that they relocate to a different camp. He ended up in Frommern, a camp for German, Belgium, Dutch and French political prisoners, where the food rations and treatment were better. 

In April 1945 the Frommern prisoners were taken on a “death march”, led by the SS who wanted to escape the advancing French army. After several days of walking, they could hear the sound of artillery and suddenly their guards disappeared. In Oslach, a little city in Southern Germany, they were greeted by the French army and given bread, cheese and tins of beef. 

Excitedly, Phillip walked zig-zag across the street– tasting his new found freedom. This excitement was quickly followed by anxiety and depression and the daunting questions such as: What happened to family and friends? What to do next? Where to go? 

Phillip found out that his father had died in September 1944 in Klooga concentration camp, Estonia. He and all the other inmates of the camp were killed in a very cruel way because the Germans were not able to evacuate the camp before the Russians arrived.   

Phillip’s twin sister Bella, who had managed to escape from Vilna Ghetto, had survived. She had survived on false Aryan papers. In 1944 she was arrested under suspicion of working for the Polish underground. She was sent to Stutthoff concentration camp, and, after a forced march was liberated by the Soviet army.  


Phillip’s brother Josef, who had been living and studying in France before the war because of the discrimination against Jews in Poland, survived as an officer in the French army. 



The fact that his siblings survived gave Phillip’s life a new purpose. While Bella began studying medicine in Tübingen, Phillip worked for the United Nations Refugee Relief Association (UNRRA) interviewing refugees trying to get assistance. Bella and Phillip contemplated a move to France, but with the Cold War looming in Europe they contacted an uncle in Australia. 

They arrived in Sydney on 19 January 1949. They were met by their uncle and travelled by train to Melbourne. Within a few days, Phillip secured a job as an auto mechanic. In 1951 he started his own business – a garage that repaired taxis. Later on, he bought a taxi licence. 

In 1956, Phillip married an Australian Jewish girl, Miriam. They had two children, Michelle and Yvonne, and three grandchildren, Robert, Jason and Nathan.  

Phillip became a volunteer at the Melbourne Holocaust Museum (previously, Jewish Holocaust Centre) in 1990. He became the head of the Testimonies Department in 1992. Being one of the few thousands of Vilna Jews who survived the Holocaust, he felt that he had a responsibility to record and preserve the facts for future generations.