Cameron Stewart in Weekend Australian, 6-7 August 2022, where the title runs thus “Holocaust twins turning 100 are living proof miracles happen” …
Phillip Maisel says he has enjoyed two miracles in his life. The first was during the war when both he and his twin sister Bella survived the Nazi extermination camps of the Holocaust. The second was in Melbourne this week, when they both turned 100.
The twins as children in Poland before the war…. and now …The secret is staying positive’ … twins and Nazi extermination camp survivors Bella Hirshorn and Phillip Maisel get to celebrate their 100th birthday twice in Melbourne. Picture: Aaron Francis
Or did they? The letters of congratulation that these living treasures received from the Queen, the Governor-General, the Prime Minister and the Premier say their birthday is not until August 15. But that is an 80-year lie which Maisel told to the Nazis – a lie that was never corrected.
“When I was in the concentration camp I needed to hide my identity in case I escaped, so I changed my birthday from 31st July to 15th August. When we both came to Australia in 1949, I never bothered to change it back,” Maisel says with a grin.
So Phillip and Bella and their family celebrated their real 100th birthday last Sunday, July 31 – and now they will have to wait until Monday week, August 15, for it to become official.
There was also a third miracle in Phillip’s large life that could have been taken straight from the script of a Hollywood movie.
Having somehow survived a series of concentration camps, Phillip found himself stranded and alone in Germany in the months after the war with no knowledge of whether his family, including Bella, was still alive.
One day a man approached him and commented on his unusual Yiddish accent, saying he had just been at a displaced persons camp in another part of Germany where he had met a woman with a similar distinctive accent.
Phillip knew it was a “one in a million” chance that it was his twin sister Bella but he had to find out. So he took his 250cc motorcycle that he had bought from the Soviet Red Army in exchange for fuel and rode more than 150km across Germany to the camp in Landsberg to search for the girl with the strange accent.
Phillip Maisel and his twin sister Bella in 1945.
Bella, who had assumed Phillip was dead, says she was dumbstruck when her twin brother suddenly appeared in front of her. “I couldn’t believe it. We looked at each other and we couldn’t talk. I was just so incredibly happy,” she says. “Then after a while we started to tell our story.”
Their family in Vilna, which was then a part of Poland, had been ripped apart by the Germans who placed Phillip and his father in a Jewish ghetto.
Two years later, Bella watched as soldiers arrested Phillip and dragged him away. They never saw each other for the rest of the war. Bella was arrested and charged with being a member of the Polish underground and was thrown into a concentration camp. Phillip was moved to a series of concentration camps for years, narrowly escaping death numerous times.
They learned after the war that their father was put to death by the Nazis just one day before his camp was liberated.
After the war, Phillip and Bella moved together to Melbourne, where they had an uncle, and started a new life. They both married, raised families and were happy, but in 1992 Phillip felt an itch that he knew he had to scratch.
“In my concentration camp there were three of us who made a vow,” he says. “We promised one another if we survive even for five minutes we will tell the world what the Germans have done to Jews. And because I survived I could help fulfil the promise.”
So, at the age of 70, Phillip devoted four days a week for the next 29 years to recording the testimonies of Holocaust survivors at Melbourne’s Jewish Holocaust Centre.
He has recorded 1400 of them, adding richly to Australia’s understanding of what these immigrants went through before starting a new life here.
Phillip says he loved recording the testimonies so that future generations would understand the stories of Holocaust survivors, but he admits that sometimes the horror and the heartbreak of their tales got to him.
“When I would come home (from recording) I would often think about it and feel the pain of the person,” he says. “But there was one very important thing that made me feel better – they survived. That was a very positive thing.”
Despite the horrors of the Holocaust, both Bella and Phillip still believe that humans are fundamentally decent.
“I believe that human beings are good,” says Bella. “Unfortunately, during the war, the propaganda and the politics forced them and they lost sight of what was right.”
Phillip says: “In general I try to be positive but very often I am disappointed. Take Ukraine, for example. People are not bad but they can be misled so that even good people commit terrible atrocities. People have to be educated so that they are not willing to believe in false gods.”
Both Phillip and Bella admit that in the dark days of 1941 they could never have imagined in their wildest dreams that they would both survive the war, emigrate to Australia together and then live to see 100. “These are miracles,” says Phillip.
So is there a secret to their longevity and luck?
“Just be positive,” he says. “Always be positive.”
Cameron Stewart is an Associate Editor at The Australian, combining investigative reporting on foreign affairs, defence and national security with feature writing for the Weekend Australian Magazine.
Philip Maisel’s Oral History of Jewish Holocaust Experiences
- Fiona Harari: “Profound Testimonies: Aged Holocaust Survivors in Their Last Testaments,” 27 Janaury 2018, https://thuppahis.com/2018/01/27/profound-testimonies-aged-holocaust-survivors-in-their-last-testament/
- Zygmunt Swisrak: “Overcoming Hatte: A Lesson for Tamils and Sinhalese from A Holocaust Survivor,” 28 January 2018, https://thuppahis.com/2018/01/28/overcoming-hate-a-lesson-for-tamils-and-sinhalese-from-a-holocaust-survivor/
- https://mhm.org.au/ …. the Melbourne Holocaust Museum
- Michael Roberts:“Anguish as Empowerment …and A Path to Retribution,”22 March 2017, https://thuppahis.com/?p=24595&preview=trueWalia