TORONTO — When Toronto Holocaust survivor, Martin Maxwell was 14 years old, he was only weeks away from his high school graduation.
Holocaust survivor Martin Maxwell, right, accepts an honorary high school graduation certificate from The York School’s upper school principal, David Hamilton.
Maxwell, now 86, and his brother, Leo, were rounded up by the Nazi SS officers, but they were miraculously freed because of a “letter of passage” obtained from a German soldier who had employed Leo at one time. Their two sisters died in a concentration camp.
Shortly after that, Maxwell, an orphan, fled from the Nazis in Austria following Kristallnacht in November 1938. He came to England where he was adopted by a British family.
In 1942, he joined the British army. He took part in the D-Day invasion of Normandy in June 1944, and later the same year, he fought at the battle of Arnhem in Holland, where he was wounded and held as a prisoner for seven months.
The decorated veteran came to Canada in 1952 and made his home in Toronto where he has a successful health and beauty business.
Maxwell, a volunteer speaker for UJA Federation of Greater Toronto’s Sarah and Chaim Neuberger Holocaust Education Centre, has reached out to thousands of students and groups, sharing his story of survival and overcoming obstacles, encouraging tolerance and respect.
For many years, Maxwell didn’t talk about his painful past. But when a friend asked him to fill in for a Holocaust speaker who was unable to come, Maxwell says he was finally able to talk about his past without reliving it.
During Holocaust Education Week last November, Maxwell was the guest speaker for students and staff at The York School on Yonge Street south of St. Clair Avenue, where his topic was “My Personal Testimony: From Kristallnacht to Liberation.”
The staff and students were so moved by Maxwell’s presentation that when they learned he had never had the opportunity to graduate from high school, the school decided to present him with an honorary secondary school graduation certificate.
At a recent school assembly his wife, Eleanor, son Randy and granddaughter Carly were there to see him receive his certificate.
He told the students it’s important to try your best and treat people with dignity. “It’s not the falling down that counts, but the getting up,” he said. “I receive this honorary degree, not only for myself but for my two little sisters and the million and half children who died in the Holocaust, and the other children who never had a chance to live long enough to go to school and graduate.”
The graduation diploma “recognized Martin Maxwell for his courage and perseverance. He is a lifelong learner who exemplifies the ideal of The York School and the International Baccalaureate Programme.
“He contributes to his community by helping people to understand diversity and conflict by encouraging them to pursue world peace.”
At the graduation ceremony, David Hamilton, York’s upper school principal, said, “There are so many life lessons that Mr. Maxwell taught us that morning that we truly felt we owed him so much.”