By Sarah Farnsworth
For Phillip Maisel the stories of holocaust survivors are like watching lava bubbling up from deep inside. A burning trauma they need to release.
“Testimony is a process where people expose their inner life to the public and my aim as the interviewer is to get all the facts as close to the truth.”
For the past 25 years, the tech-savvy 94-year-old has been recording the stories of survivors in his own makeshift studio at the Melbourne Holocaust Centre. He’s helped by a small band of volunteers.
“If people survived, it was a miracle,” he said.
“When I want to convince people to give a testimony, I just tell them ‘You had the privilege to survive the Holocaust, you should talk for those that can’t do it anymore’.”
He’s recorded 1,600 testimonies. The longest runs for 10 hours.
“The fact that I was in the holocaust somehow makes it a bit easier. I can understand them and they can understand me.”
“When I’m interviewing I’m a machine. I am listening and recording it, but when I go home and start to think about it then yes, I feel pain.”
‘The last time she saw me’
In among the DVDs and tapes stacking up around him, is a story very close to his heart, that of his twin sister Bella Hirshorn.
Bella rarely talks about the holocaust. It is too upsetting. However, her love for her brother was made clear in her recorded 1993 testimony.
“I have two brothers. A twin brother who is the best thing that ever happened to me in my life. I am very grateful to my parents for him,” Bella said in the testimony.
Growing up in Vilna, then in Poland, the Maisel twins were inseparable.
“We would wear similar outfits. We were at school together, at home together, on holidays together,” Phillip recalls.
They also shared an unusual Yiddish accent. Not that they needed to speak much.
“We were very, very, close. We could communicate with just looking at each other.”
“Wherever I went, my sister went with me.”
When the Germans arrived in Vilna in 1941, their lives changed dramatically.
By September, Jewish families were being given 20 minutes to pack their belongings and leave their homes.
Phillip and his father were forced to move to the Jewish Ghetto, an area of Vilna where the Germans forced tens of thousands to live.
Bella managed to avoid the harsh and miserable conditions of the ghetto. Using fake papers, she hid in plain sight, pretending to be Polish.
“It’s extremely traumatic to live outside the ghetto and pretend that you are a Pole when you are a Jew,” Phillip explained.
Two years passed before Phillip was ripped from his sister completely. She watched on as soldiers, liquidating the ghetto, arrested her brother in the street and dragged him away.
“I was working for a German institution which could protect the Jews from being arrested and deported,” Phillip said.
“So I showed him my papers and [the solider] said ‘not today, no papers are valid’.
“My sister saw it and ran after me to the gate but unfortunately she couldn’t help me.”
“That was the last time she saw me in Vilna.”
Bella told a yet-to-be-aired documentary called Not Without You, about the day her brother was taken.
“My father was very, very upset and said I should have gone with him,” she said.
For years the twins struggled to survive, each not knowing what had happened to each other.
Phillip was taken from Vilna to a hard labour camp in Estonia, then to numerous concentration camps across occupied Europe.
At one point both twins ended up at the Stutthof Concentration Camp at the same time, but never knew the other was there.
A sad kind of freedom
Phillip was liberated in 1945 while on a death march.
“First I was very happy. I was free,” he said.
“But then I realised that I was somewhere in Germany … I didn’t know what had happened to my family. It was a very, very sad feeling.”
He was all alone.
He would later discover his father was killed at Klooga.
Yet a chance meeting with a man from the American-controlled zone of Germany returned hope to Phillip’s life. The man was looking for his own family when he struck up a conversation with Phillip.
“He said you have a very funny Yiddish [accent] and I know another girl who speaks with a similar accent. She is in my camp,” he said.
“I said to him I know her name. It’s my sister.
Phillip rode his motorbike the equivalent of 500 kilometres to collect his sister.
“[It was] one of the happiest moments. It gave me meaning, I didn’t have to think only about myself, I could care about my twin sister.”
Three million Polish Jews were killed during the holocaust.
Seventy-two years on, Phillip rings his sister every morning to ask how she is and tell her the weather forecast.
‘Tell the world what happened’
It was while struggling to survive in an Estonian work camp that Phillip made a promise he has kept to this day.
“The conditions in the camp were terrible, we were sure we had a very, very small chance of survival. We promised one and another if we are lucky to survive we must tell the world what happened to the Jews,” he said.
“When you ask me is it sometimes difficult to listen to the testimonies I am fulfilling something that I promised and this makes it a little bit easier.”
The survivor’s stories have been told and retold to Phillip over the decades. He says memories change and over time things become more important to those who survived.
He has also started to interview the third generation, to see if the trauma of the holocaust has affected the descendants of holocaust survivors.
At 94, Phillip can still be found filming at the Jewish Holocaust Centre.
He’d like to see his work publicly accessible one day.
“What is extremely important in this project is that it teaches people humanity,” he said.
“If the human race wants to survive we should be fully conscious of being human beings, we should love each other instead of hate and the result of hate is terrible.”