The massive abstract painting, with a cascade of colour streaming through the darkness, was a striking stage backdrop at the recent Canadian Friends of Tel Aviv University (CFTAU) gala in Montreal.
The work of art, called Power and Victory, which is roughly three metres wide and more than two metres high, was made by the honouree, Holocaust survivor Maxwell Smart, in 1972.
The work was one of his first. It expresses his triumph over the tragedy that befell him when he was just a child. Smart, 88, a native of Buczacz, Poland, hid in the forest for two years, starting when he was 12 years old.
He was among the only 100 Jews of what was an 8,000-member community to survive the Shoah. His parents and sister, his only sibling, did not.
The theme of the black-tie dinner, which was held at the Montreal Science Centre on Aug. 26 and attended by over 550 guests, was “Never Again.”
The certificate presented to Smart cites his “successful life’s work as an artist, author and businessman,” as well as “his indomitable spirit” and philanthropy.
With his wife Tina by his side, Smart said he had agreed to the tribute because of Tel Aviv University’s (TAU) dedication to “stopping the scourge of anti-Semitism, racism and xenophobia, not only for the Jewish people, but all people around the world that are facing terrible atrocities.”
Smart recently released a memoir called Chaos to Canvas, which chronicles how he made it through the war and rebuilt his life in Canada. Eventually, he was able to lessen his business responsibilities and devote himself to his first vocation – art.
“He (God) chose me to live, so I could share the unbelievable suffering people went through during the war, and in particular me,” said Smart, although he only did so late in life at the urging of others.
Smart shared his honour with the extremely poor Christian farmer and his wife “with the hearts of gold,” who were the only people who helped him in the woods, as well as the 10-year-old Jewish boy who joined him for a short while in the crude bunker he had built. The boy’s death still haunts him.
Smart, who was born Oziac Fromm, related his story in a compelling, dramatic voice in a video made by the Azrieli Foundation, which was screened beforehand. He poignantly remembers his mother pleading with him to flee, as the family was rounded up.
The evening, which celebrated CFTAU’s 45th anniversary, also honoured Irwin Cotler, who received an honorary doctorate from TAU, which was bestowed on him by its president, Prof. Joseph Klafter.
God chose me to live, so I could share the unbelievable suffering people went through during the war.
– Maxwell Smart
Cotler said his lifelong human rights advocacy can be traced to the three months he spent in Poland in 1962 as a student, which included a visit to Auschwitz. His subsequent association with prominent Montreal Holocaust survivors, such as the late Lou Zablow and Aba Beer, also had a tremendous influence on him.
Cotler warned of the danger of indifference to mass atrocities that are happening today, specifically the “ethnic cleansing of close to a million” Rohingya people in Myanmar. He said it could have been prevented, but the world failed to act.
“Over four years ago, we called a press conference on Parliament Hill, to sound the alarm of impending atrocities, but no press came. Coverage only began after the atrocities started,” he said.
Cotler was an honorary gala chair, along with Father John Walsh, a Catholic, and retired Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, who was unable to attend.
The keynote speaker was Dina Porat, head of TAU’s Kantor Centre for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry, holder of the Alfred P. Slater Chair for the Study of Contemporary Anti-Semitism and Racism and chief historian at Yad Vashem. She emphasized the uniqueness of anti-Semitism within the spectrum of racism.
The honouree was introduced by his grandson, Brandon Smart, 24, who described his zayde as a “fighter of a magnitude not fully appreciated even in his book.… I am inspired by all he has achieved in the shadow of the Holocaust.”
I am inspired by all he has achieved in the shadow of the Holocaust.
– Brandon Smart
Israeli Consul General David Levy’s greeting was personal. He earned his undergraduate and master’s degrees, as well as law degree, at TAU. He also met his wife Maya there.
Klafter stressed that TAU, which is in the midst of a US$1-billion ($1.3-billion) fundraising campaign, is among the most innovative universities in the world. It ranks ninth globally in producing graduates who have gone on to create successful venture capital companies. TAU has the first university-based venture capital fund in Israel and its Spark Tel Aviv initiative, which works with outside partners to commercialize scientific discoveries, is now collaborating with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to speed up clinical applications of new therapies.
In the audience were two TAU engineering students of Ethiopian descent, who are interning in Montreal at Hypertec, an information technology company.