Maxwell Smart knows all too well what it means to be a child separated from his parents. At age 12, his mother and father were taken from him forever and he was left to fend for himself, running for his life for two years.
At 88, Smart, a successful businessman and accomplished artist, has finally published his memoir, Chaos to Canvas – a painful recollection of surviving the Holocaust and making a new life in Montreal.
Looking back after so many years, Smart writes: “I remember when I was in hiding, when I was in the woods, alone, in the cold, hungry, dirty, my only dream to have a slice of bread and to survive to the next day and not be killed.
“I remember clearly arguing with God because I had nobody to argue with, not even anyone to talk to, and feeling like I was going crazy.”
The panic has never really left him, nor has the nagging question of why he survived.
Maxwell Smart is the name he adopted soon after coming here in 1948, as he thought that it sounded Canadian and would help him forget the past. He also knew he was smart, having had the ingenuity to stay alive till war’s end and then, while still a teenager, quickly improving his material circumstances.
Oziac Fromm was born in 1930 in Buczacz, Poland (now Ukraine), a town whose prewar population was 60 per cent Jewish. Only about 100 of its 8,000 Jewish residents are believed to have survived.
Besides his parents, Smart lost his only sibling, a younger sister, and 62 members of his extended family.
His boyhood was idyllic, even after the Soviets took control of the area in 1939. That changed abruptly two years later, when the Germans occupied the area. The situation was especially perilous when fiercely anti-Semitic Ukrainian forces moved in.
Evading deportation at his mother’s behest, Smart fled into the forest. The only people who helped him over the next two years were an extremely poor farming couple, the Rudnickis, who had two young children.
Smart is eternally grateful for their kindness and the risk they took – his one redeeming memory from a terrifying and degrading time – and regrets that he was never able to locate them after the war.
For much of the time he was on his own, he lived in a rough bunker that he dug himself, which he says made him feel like an animal – always on the lookout for marauding Ukrainians. It was not an exaggerated fear, as, on one occasion, he witnessed a massacre in the woods.
I remember clearly arguing with God because I had nobody to argue with, not even anyone to talk to.
– Maxwell Smart
Staring up at the heavens was a kind of saviour for him. “I would dream and detach myself from reality,” he said. “I imagined I was travelling in space and time.”
After comfortably settling in Montreal, he was finally able to express that sense of oneness with the cosmos through his painting.
After the war, Smart wandered around Europe, making money on the flourishing black market, especially in currency exchange. He ended up in a displaced persons camp, unsure of where to go next. He thought of Palestine, but then heard of a war orphans rescue operation that was organized by the Canadian Jewish Congress.
Not only were many Canadians ambivalent about the Jewish refugees, but Smart found a condescending, unsympathetic attitude among Jews, as well. They did not want to hear about what he had gone through and appeared embarrassed by the woeful newcomers.
Smart eventually found a kind family, the Safrans, to live with, and, at 21, married their daughter, Helen.
They bought a modest house in Chomedey, Que., and raised two children. In time, he went into commercial real estate and prospered. Life was as good as he ever could have dreamed.
We would like to pay tribute to his exemplary heroism, survival and remarkable success, despite the unimaginable horrors he experienced.
– Sharon Fraenkel
But his happiness came to an abrupt end when he was widowed at age 54 and was once again relegated to feeling alone in the world.
He did find contentment again when he married Tina Russo 10 years later. And, after a time, he devoted himself to his painting. In 2006, he opened Galerie d’Art Maxwell, to exhibit his hundreds of canvases.
“Something in my psyche compels me to paint,” wrote Smart. “In a way, I feel that through my art I have accomplished what Hitler and his killers wanted to destroy.”
Chaos to Canvas was published by the Azrieli Foundation, as part of its Canadian Holocaust survivor memoirs series. The preface was written by Carol Zemel, a York University professor emerita of art history and visual culture.
On Aug. 26, Smart will be honoured by the Canadian Friends of Tel Aviv University, at a gala dinner at the Montreal Science Centre.
“We would like to pay tribute to his exemplary heroism, survival and remarkable success, despite the unimaginable horrors he experienced,” said the group’s executive director, Sharon Fraenkel.
Funds raised will support the university’s Kantor Centre for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry and the guest speaker will be its director, Prof. Dina Porat, who is also the chief historian of Yad Vashem.
Smart accepted the tribute because he believes education is the best tool to combatting anti-Semitism and racism. “Hatred kills,” he said, “it created my past, and this should never happen again.”