The Keeper of Miracles
Pan Macmillan, $32.99 hb, 214 pp
Not many people create an archive. For almost thirty years, Phillip Maisel led the testimonies project at Melbourne’s Jewish Holocaust Centre (JHC). Maisel’s memoir is his story of surviving the Holocaust and becoming ‘the keeper of miracles’.
Maisel’s Holocaust story is crafted in simple yet eloquent prose, ‘in a language I am still perfecting’ (a native speaker of Lithuanian, Polish, and Yiddish, Maisel began to learn English on the ship to Australia in 1949). He relates appalling details of racism and ideology that are familiar yet shocking. With his Jewish classmates in Vilna, he must sit on the left of the classroom so the teacher knows to mark them down; though the Soviets who annexed Lithuania in 1940 were not anti-Semitic, Maisel is ruled ineligible for higher education because his is a wealthy family. Once the Germans invade, Maisel lives the everyday trauma of the Jewish ghetto and Nazi labour camps. He describes the ‘senseless orderly cruelty’ of camp guards who force prisoners to stand for hours in snow and rain as they count the roll, and then count again, ‘while all around you your friends are collapsing’ and dying. He recalls the terrible moment when, after the joy of reuniting with his brother and twin sister after the war, he learns that their beloved father was one of 2,000 Jews massacred by the Nazis the day before their camp was liberated. This ‘greatest tragedy of my life’ is also ‘one of my biggest regrets’: the last conversation he had with his father was a bitter disagreement about the merits of communism.