Hillel Phyllis

Phyllis Hillel  

Phyllis Hillel (left) was born in Hackney, the daughter of Pinkus Nirenstein, a grocer who ran a store in Victoria Park Road. When her parents registered her birth at Hackney Town Hall in 1915, they wanted to call her ‘Sprinzer’, a Yiddish name, but the clerk could not spell it and gave her the name Priscilla instead.  

Her family were all Communists, and she fought Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts at the battle of Cable Street.

The chance to change a name she never liked came in World War II. She opted to work on farms with the Land Army. While waiting in line to volunteer, she saw names being written down, and decided to change hers. But she had yet to decide on a new name when she reached the front of the queue, so she said the first one that came into her head: `Phyllis’. It was a name she didn’t particularly like either, but it stuck.

Tragedy hit her family in the first months of the war whilst Phyllis was away working on a farm in Lincolnshire. One of the first German bombs to land on London scored a direct hit on her family home in Mornington Crescent, which the family had moved to in 1935.  Pinkus, who worked at the Manetti Street synagogue off Charing Cross Road, had converted the home’s coal cellar into a shelter and it was there that they hid as the bombers roared overhead. In total, 11 people died in the blast. 

Left: The Hillel house entered mythology due to the bus that was thrown at it during the explosion.

Phyllis’ mother, Sophie, was ill that fateful weekend and had gone to stay with her sister in Brent. But her father, Pinkus Nirenstein, his 19-year-old son, Philip, his daughter, Freda, as well as her fiancé, Morris Wolkind, were killed; whilst Phyllys’ 16-year-old brother David was dug out after being trapped for 10 hours. The two rescue workers who saved him were awarded the George Cross for their efforts.


Deeply traumatised by the loss, Phyllis returned to London and was then evacuated to Bedford. Although she had never driven before, she was asked to deliver milk, given a three-hour driving lesson and then let loose on the roads with her own van and delivery round.


However, she was soon to return to the Land Army in Lincolnshire, where she was one of only two Jewish girls working in the Land Army in the area at the time. The other was her friend, Neema Serota, with whom she learnt the rudiments of animal husbandry, helping out during the lambing season. It was a new and interesting experience for a young woman who had been brought up in the hard times of the East End in the 1930s.


While stationed in Lincolnshire, she met her husband-to-be, Max Hillel, a fellow Communist and East Ender. The son of a kosher dairy owner, he had been conscripted and stationed in Lincolnshire, where he heard of two Jewish girls working on a farm.
He cycled 12 miles to introduce himself and the pair married soon after.

But their time together was at first interrupted by the war. Max served in the 8th Army, fighting through the desert against Rommel, and then took part in the D-day landings. Because he was able to speak German, he was in the unit that was the first to reach and liberate the concentration camp of Buchenwald, an experience he carried with him for life.

After the war, the couple eventually settled in Brookfield Park, Dartmouth Park, and continued to be involved in politics. Phyllis devoted her time to reading and music, being involved in reading groups at Kentish Town library, working as an assistant to her husband, who was an optician, bringing up her family and helping at Fleet Primary School in Gospel Oak. Phyllis became known for her untiring work as a volunteer there.  

She died aged 91 in 2006, having spent more than two decades helping teach hundreds of children to read, in her own time, and becoming known as the school’s unofficial grandmother. In 2004, she was honoured by being awarded an Exceptional People In Camden award in recognition of her selfless work with young people.


Source: Camden New Journal 14th December 2006




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