Books & Literature

Book Review: The Keeper of Miracles, by Phillip Maisel

the keeper of miracles

BIOGRAPHY: For more than 30 years, Phillip Maisel has worked selflessly to record the harrowing stories of Holocaust survivors. But, for Phillip, confronting and overcoming trauma is also personal. A Holocaust survivor himself, he too has unthinkable stories of triumph and tragedy, cruelty and hope.

A powerful first-hand account of a story that should never be forgotten.

Born in August 1922, Phillip Maisel is approaching his 99th birthday. In his nearly 100 years of life, he’s experienced events that few people could imagine.

Phillip was born in Vilna, modern-day Lithuania. The Germans arrived to occupy the city following the outbreak of the Second World War and established the infamous Vilna Ghetto in 1941. Along with the other Jews of Vilna, Phillip was forced to live there against a backdrop of starvation, illness, and unspeakable cruelty for two years. After the liquidation of the ghetto, he was sent to several labour and concentration camps where he worked tirelessly for the Nazis, enduring multiple atrocities.

In 1945, Phillip was liberated while on a Death March. Together with his twin sister Bella, he moved to Australia in 1949 and started a new life. For more than 30 years since, he’s been recording the stories of other Holocaust survivors and their descendants at the Jewish Holocaust Centre in Melbourne

The Keeper of Miracles chronicles Phillip’s story with clean and elegant writing. The chapters detail his experience during the Holocaust, emigration to Australia, setting up a life here with his family, and also his role interviewing and recording more than 1000 testimonials from other survivors. They reveal the moving events of his life as well as the many lessons he’s learned.

In one of his most touching recounts, he remembers the fact that his Nazi oppressors were people too. He never succumbed to hatred of his fellow human beings, no matter how abysmally they treated him. This exploration of empathy makes a book with such grave content an inspiring and uplifting read. As we see the many dangerous and difficult situations that Phillip survived, the reader takes away the sense that they might survive anything too.  

Phillip shares many interesting perspectives that we don’t always see in other books about the Holocaust, such as the small miracles that were alive in the compassion of people he encountered. He believes that miracles were present, too, in those who survived against the odds. 

He also addresses the reason why survivors tend to remember the Holocaust differently—the memories are authentic to the way each individual person experienced them. They weren’t learned or rehearsed, but really lived. This personal explanation helps readers who come from a completely different set of circumstances to start to grasp the tragic reality of one of history’s darkest hours.

The Keeper of Miracles is important for people from all walks of life. History teachers and their students, sceptics, activists still fighting bigotry today—we can all benefit from a first-hand account of a story that should never be forgotten. And Phillip’s role as the Keeper of Miracles may bring a sense of solidarity and comfort for those personally touched by the Holocaust.

Above all else, the book highlights the importance of preserving and sharing history. While nothing can erase the pain from the past, recording these accounts is a tribute to the strength of those who survived. It’s an homage to those who didn’t. And it helps to arm future generations with the tools they need to recognise when history is repeating itself. Sharing these stories is vital if we are to prevent the same evils from occurring.  

Reviewed by Vanessa Elle
Instagram: @vanessaellewrites

Distributed by: Pan Macmillan
Released: 27 July 2021
RRP: $32.99

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