Phyllis Hillel (left) was born in Hackney, the daughter of Pinkus Nirenstein, a grocer who ran a store in
Her family were all Communists, and she fought Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts at the battle of
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
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
However, she was soon to return to the Land Army in
While stationed in
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
After the war, the couple eventually settled in
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
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