My interview with Phillip Maisel – Melbourne 22 August 2018
Introduction to the Partisans’ Song : Phillip Maisel
At most Holocaust commemorations we sing the Partisans’ Song, Zog Nit Kein’mol, composed by Hirsh Glick. Hirsh Glick was my friend, and I was privileged to be the first, together with two others, to whom Hirsh read the words of the song.
My name is Phillip Maisel. I work as a volunteer at the Jewish Holocaust Centre where I am responsible for the testimonies’ department. I am a Holocaust survivor.
In 1941 I was managing a stationery store in Vilna when the Soviet Union occupied the city. At the same time Hirshke Glick was working in a similar store. I was 19; he was 21. Both of us were members of a Soviet trade union and we attended a compulsory weekly Communist indoctrination meetings at 8:00 pm each Thursday evening. Hirshke and I became friends, and after each meeting we would walk along the banks of the Wilia River where Hirshke, already well known for his work as a poet, would discuss his poetry with me.
The two of us were young, and wanted to build a new world.
Hirshke was a very interesting person. He was quiet, dreamy and always very introspective. He told me that he would compose complete poems in his head, as it were, and write them down only when they were finished– and then never change a single word.
In June 1941 the Germans occupied Vilna. In September they created the ghetto. In the ghetto I maintained contact with all my former trade union friends, including Hirshke. He, however, was sent to work at a camp called Rezsche, but brought back later to the Vilna ghetto after that camp was liquidated. It was then that he wrote the Partisans’ Song, Zog Nit Kein’mol.
He first read it to three of us – in a cellar located in Straszuna Street. I was present with my sister, Bella, together with Maishke, who had been the secretary of our trade union. We sat there and Hirshke read to us in the light of a candle placed on top of a box. He subsequently read the poem to fellow members of a literary society. The tune to which he then sung the words was composed by Russian Jewish composers, Dmitri and Daniel Pokrass.
On 1 September 1943, on the first day of liquidation of Vilna Ghetto I was deported to Estonia. I was attached to a mobile garage and was working as an automotive electrician for the Germans. The workshop travelled all over Estonia.. One day we were sent to a camp – Goldfilz – where I stayed for two nights and where Hirsh Glick was imprisoned. Even in camp he was respected as a poet. When we met, the first question I asked Hirsh was: “How can I help you?” His response was: “I need freedom.” When I replied that unfortunately I could not give him freedom, he asked me if I could by any chance give him a spoon. In camp, a spoon was a treasure. It enabled him to eat his soup, the main meal in the camp. I gave him my spoon which had a sharpened handle and which could serve as a knife.
During his captivity Hirsh continued to compose songs and poems. His death, however, was always shrouded in mystery. The historical records state that, In July 1944, with the Soviet Army approaching, Glick escaped, that he was never heard from again, and that it was presumed he had been captured and executed by the Germans, reportedly in August 1944. However, as a volunteer at the Jewish Holocaust Centre where I record Holocaust survivors’ testimonies, I interviewed a Mr Samuel Drabkin in 1993. He told me that he and his four brothers were in the camp with Hirshka. He described to me in detail how Hirshka perished. One night, he said, while returning from work to the camp, Hirsh and his fellow prisoners, among them Samuel Drabkin and his four brothers, noticed that there was a hive of activity in the camp and the Camp Commandant was drunk. Forty prisoners, including Hirsh Glick, entered a toilet block, climbed through the window, broke through the camp’s wire enclosure and escaped. Estonian guards fired at them, and of the 40 escapees, only 14 survived. Hirsh Glick, however, did not survive: Mr Drabkin’s brother saw him shot and killed.
It has been said that Hirsh Glick wrote the Partisans’ Song while the Warsaw Ghetto uprising was taking place. I believe, however, that the song was actually written for a specific partisan – a young Jewish partisan girl with whom Hirshke was in love. But no matter. Hirshke’s song – the Partizaner Lid – sung so long ago by Jews in the Vilna ghetto, has become the anthem of those of us who have survived the Shoah.
Zog Nit Kein’mol – es vet a poyk ton undzer trot: mir zaynen do! “Our step beats out the message: we are here!”
How ‘the keeper of miracles’ Phillip Maisel found his twin sister and his purpose
Phillip Maisel says surviving the holocaust was a miracle, but without a chance encounter that led him back to his twin sister, he would have been left with nothing to live for.
Phillip Maisel talking to students at Shalom Aleichem College 2017
My name is Phillip Maisel,
I am working at the Jewish Holocaust Centre,
as a volunteer.
where I am responsible for collecting testimonies –
life stories- from Holocaust survivors,
Jewish people who went
through such terrible experiences in the Holocaust over 70 years ago.
I am sure that some of your grandparents
and even great-grandparents, have spoken to you about their experiences at that time.
I also interview and video the children
and even the grandchildren of Holocaust survivors about how they have been affected
by the experiences of their parents and grandparents.
…..Two years ago your teacher, Freidl Mrocki,
brought a class of students from your school
to the Jewish Holocaust Centre
to hear me giving a talk about Hirsch Glick,
who composed the song Zog nit keinmol –
the Yiddish song which should know
and which is associated with the Holocaust.
It became the song of the Jewish partisans
the Jews who hid in the forests and fought against the Nazis during the war.
I am Holocaust survivor over 90 years old.
I was born in Vina in Poland.
I personally knew Hirsch Glick
and I had the privilege
to be one of four people who were first to hear
the song read by – Hirschka –
that what we called him
in a bunker in the Vilna Ghetto.
For those of who may not know what a bunker is –
a bunker is like a cellar or an underground shelter.
…..In 1939 the Second World War broke out.
The Soviet Troops occupied Vilna,
And in 1940 when I was 18 and Hirschka was 20
I was managing a stationery shop.
Hirschka was working in a similar shop
and we belonged to the same workers’ organisation which was called a trade union.
It was compulsory for all workers
to be a member of the organisation and to attend
a meeting at each Thursday night.
Hirschka and I became friends.
After the meetings he and I
often went for a long walk along Vilja River,
Hirschka was already well known
as a young, gifted poet,
and I loved to find out how he created his beautiful poems.
He told me that once something stirred his imagination he started creating a poem in his memory.
He would carry the poem in his memory for weeks
or even longer.
When he felt that the poem was perfect
he would put it down on a paper.
He would never change even one word after that.
….. We also used to discuss world affairs,
we were young
and we wanted to build a new, better world.
But in June 1941 the Germans occupied Vilna
and the persecution of Jews started.
In September they created a ghetto –
a special walled up area
into which the Jews were crowded.
While I was in the ghetto I was still able to maintain contact with all my friends from the workers’ organisation,
Hirschka, however, was sent from the ghetto to a working camp in Rzesza.
He was later brought back to the ghetto
and it was then that he wrote Zog nit kein mol
which, we call the Partisans’ Song
…..I would like to tell you a little about the partisans,
the young Jews who fought against the Germans.
…..The Jewish youth in the Ghetto
always wanted to fight Germans.
Five months after the creation of the Ghetto,
in the beginning of January 1942
the partisan movement was formed
it was called the FPO, the Fereinigte Partisaner Organization.
Many young resistance fighters
escaped from the Ghetto
to the Rudnitzka and Naroch forests, which were located
about 30 kilometres from the city of Vilna.
There they fought German patrols
and sabotaged German railway lines.
‘Sabotage’ means to destroy deliberately something belonging to the enemy.
We, in the ghetto, were always proud
of their bravery and courage.
…..Hirschka admired a young, beautiful girl
called Vitka Kempner.
Perhaps he was even in love with her –
but he never told me.
Vitka was one of the famous Jewish partisan fighters, known for her heroic attack on a German convoy.
She, and her group of partisans,
actually derailed a German army train,
killing many German troops,
and destroying a large supply of ammunition.
…..Her action ignited a spark of inspiration
in Hirschka’s rich imagination,
and he marked it with his beautiful song called
Sztil di nacht iz oigisternt,
which means the night is full of stars.
…..Life in the Vilna ghetto was terrible,
and the population faced a black future.
To hide from the Germans
Jews would convert the basements under their houses into bunkers with a hidden entrance.
On one occasion in our dark bunker, in Straszuna Street – Hirschka read to us two poems, he had just written –
Stiil die nacht iz oigisternt, followed by
Zog nit keinmol as du geist dem letzten weg.
Imagine a picture of four of us,
sitting on the wooden boxes,
in the darkness of the primitive bunker,
brightened only by the light of a single candle, Hirschka, Mejszke – my twin sister Bella and I,
listening to Hirschka’s poem.
The sound of each word
possessed some magical power.
It lifted our spirits. It inspired us,
and it gave us hope that we needed so badly.
It gave us hope that we still had a chance
to survive against all odds.
…..Later, a tune was added to Hirschka’s poem,
which has become an anthem.
The tune was composed by two Russian brothers, Dimitri and Daniel Pokraz.
…..Unfortunately Hirschka’s anthem – his hymn –
did not reach the Jewish fighters
in the Warsaw Ghetto,
where on the 19th of April 1943,
an uprising against the Germans took place.
…..The Germans, after putting down the Warsaw uprising and liquidating the Warsaw Ghetto,
started to liquidate other Ghettos, deporting
and in many cases, murdering the Jews.
On the first of September 1943, German and Estonian troops entered the Vilna Ghetto and started to liquidate it.
…..Our attempts to fight them were unsuccessful.
…..Hirschka and I were deported to two different
hard labour camps in Estonia,
The Germans had found shale rock in Estonia.
Shale rock is a rich source of mineral oil
It badly needed by the Germans for their war efforts,
so Jews were deported to Estonia
to mine the rock, and to extract oil from it.
…..I was forced by the Germans to work in their mobile garage as an automotive electrician.
I worked in a mobile garage,
which went from place to place,
repairing cars and trucks in many hard labour camps
.….One day, we arrived to work in the Golfilz camp, where unexpectedly… I saw Hirschka again.
…..After embracing him, I asked him a simple question:
“Hirschka, how can I help you?”
After few long seconds of silence
Hirschka answered slowly
“I need freedom badly ……. and a spoon!”
My thoughts raced back to the day in the bunker in the Vilna Ghetto.
for which he so strongly inspired us to fight.
I was deeply touched by the fact
that he did not ask for food
but was moved even more by the word freedom,
that sacred word – freedom.
…..His request for a spoon, however, brought me back to reality.
In the camp where everybody was starving
and waited for the camps’ main meal,
a spoon was essential,
The soup was served in a round metal dish
and every smallest bit of food,
which could be scraped from the dish,
was extremely, extremely precious.
I immediately gave Hirschka my spoon.
I could always get another one at work in the garage.
…..Before I left, Hirschka told me, that during his captivity he was well respected by other prisoners
and that he was still composing his poems.
….But most importantly, I noticed, that in his sad, dark eyes, he still had his typical Hirschka’s, dreamy look.
.….And that was the last time I saw Hirschka.
…..Much later I found out
that the official records state that that in July 1944 while the Soviet Army approached the camp,
nothing was ever heard about him again.
It was presumed that he was captured
and executed by the Germans in August 1944.
….In 1993 I recorded an interview at the Jewish Holocaust Centre with a certain Mr Samuel Drabkin While interviewing Mr Drabkin, .
I was able find out the true story about Hirschka’s death.
Mr Drabkin told me that he, and his four brothers, were imprisoned in the same camp as Hirschka.
One day, in August 1944,
when Hirschka was returning from work,
he and his fellow prisoners
noticed a commotion in the camp.
….The camp commandant was drunk,
So 40 prisoners decided to escape.
They ran to the toilet block,
climbed out through the window,
cut the camps wire fence,
jumped over a ditch filled with water
and ran to the near forest.
The Estonian guards noticed them and started to shoot.
From 40 escapees, only 14 survived.
…….Hirschka was not one of them.
Mr Drabkin’s younger brother saw
Hirschka being shot and killed.
Hirschka has left us an unforgettable legacy.
His famous Partisan Hymn
was translated in many languages
and it is sung all over the world
by many people who desperately fight for freedom – like us, who fought for freedom in the Vilna Ghetto
74 years ago.
…..And today, on the other side of the globe,
in the distant Melbourne,
where I have the privilege, to address you,
it is also sung at your Sholem Aleichem College,
in mame loshen, Yiddish,
the same language in which Hirschka Glick wrote it.
…..I dare to imagine how proud Hirschka would be
if he would have known
the new generation of our Jewish people,
are still proudly singing the Partisan Song ,
heeding the message of his song –
ZOG NIT KEINMOL AS DU GEIST DEM LETZTEN WEG –
and following his prophecy
ES VET A POIKTON UNSER TROT…….
MIR SEINEN DO!