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At 10, I fled the Nazis to live starving and alone in the woods. For two years, detection meant death

At 10, I fled the Nazis to live starving and alone in the woods. For two years, detection meant death

Maxwell Smart lost his family in the Holocaust, but was saved by his mother’s instruction to run. It was seven decades before he told anyone what had happened

By Chris Godfrey

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Maxwell Smart still feels at his safest when it rains. The 93-year-old first learned this as a boy of 10, alone in a forest, lying on a bed of leaves in a makeshift bunker, waiting out the Nazi occupation of Poland. For two years he hid in the forest, evading hunters. Detection meant likely death.

“It was a sport to kill a Jew,” he says. “[Your typical Nazi] is not going to go in the mud and get dirty and filthy; he is doing it for happiness, for enjoyment. So when it was raining, I knew I was safe.”

Smart is a Holocaust survivor. He was just nine when the Nazis took away his parents and younger sister, leaving him completely alone. He lost more than 60 members of his family in that time. But he did not talk to a single person about it for 70 years. “The Holocaust did not exist,” he says. “It was taboo in my house. My children didn’t know anything.

“After the war I could not allow myself to think about the torture of my past. I wiped it out,” he says. He changed his name – from Oziac Fromm to Maxwell Smart – and never looked back. The only hint at the atrocities he witnessed lay in the vivid, expressionist works he painted as an artist: the fir boughs he used to build shelter in the forest, the trees he would look up at while he was daydreaming.

Smart was born in 1930 to a Czech mother and Polish father. When he was a young child, the family moved from Czechoslovakia (as it then was) to Buczacz, a small city which was then part of Poland (now Buchach, it is part of Ukraine).

He remembers flashes of his prewar childhood: family dinners before shabbat; dressing up for synagogue; his uncle – a cartoonist for a newspaper – taking an interest in his art after Smart was praised for it at school. He and his younger sister Zonia were well looked after. His father ran a clothing store and “looked like an English gentleman – he never went out of the house without a fedora hat!”. About half of the 8,000 people who lived in Buczacz were Jewish.

After the second world war broke out, Buczacz came under Soviet occupation. The economy tanked and his father’s shop went out of business. Then, in July 1941, the Nazis seized Buczacz. A contact of Smart’s father offered the family safe passage into the Soviet Union – but his mother wanted to stay. They had a life in Buczacz and news of the camps had not made it there. “Nobody knew about the horrors the Germans created,” says Smart.

Jett Klyne as Max in The Boy in the Woods, the film telling Smart’s story

Under Nazi occupation, militias patrolled the streets, attacking Jewish people and businesses, destroying Smart’s synagogue. The Nazis were joined by the Ukrainians – who saw them as liberators. Smart often played with the neighbouring children, who were Ukrainian. One day, his mother went to see if they would be interested in buying some of the Smarts’ possessions in exchange for food. “The neighbour says to her: ‘You have no right to sell anything – anything that is Jewish belongs to the government.’”

One day a notice was given for all Jewish men aged 18-50 to register for labour. Smart’s father was ordered to the town square along with 350 others. His father told him he’d be right back. On the square, the men were separated into two groups: one for professional workers (doctors, lawyers, teachers); one for skilled tradesmen. The professionals, including Smart’s father, were taken to a nearby hill and shot. Smart did not find this out until many years later.

The families were told that their men would be released if they relinquished their assets. “I remember my mother went to borrow money to pay them off,” he says. “It was all just a story. They were already dead. They collected the money but I never saw my father again.”

Buczacz’s Jewish community was moved into a ghetto and forced into labour. On one trip home from shovelling wheat, Smart and dozens of others were taken away in trucks by armed guards. They were stripped and imprisoned for three days. “I remember being in jail without food, without water. I was creative: I took off my shoe, I pushed it out through the window to catch snow in the shoe to have some water. Everybody shared it.”

The town of Buczacz, Poland, in the early 20th century

In one Gestapo raid at the apartment his family shared with others in the ghetto, his grandfather was shot in the head right in front of him. “I could not really associate myself, a nine-year-old boy, with death,” he says. “I knew old people died, but I didn’t even think that it was possible to kill. It’s only when I saw that in front of my eyes I realised they were murderers.”

The family were imprisoned and the next day, they were violently herded into trucks. His mother told him to run.

“I was angry,” says Smart. “I said: ‘What do you mean you don’t want to take me? You are my mother.’” He followed her until she pushed him away and boarded the truck. “This saved my life,” he says.

Smart knew he would be shot if he ran, so he removed his Star of David armband and walked away until he reached a bridge, where he saw a German officer walking towards him. “He takes out the gun, points it at my head and he says to me: ‘Tell me the truth, are you a Jew?’” Smart denied it and somehow the officer believed him. “I am not a religious man,” he says. “But I believe it was a miracle.” He never saw his mother and sister again.

I’d chew it and chew it – I would not swallow it. Do you know how tasty bread is when you’re hungry?

Smart’s aunt and uncle paid a nearby farmer, Jasko Rudnicki, to hide the boy – he picked him up and hid him in the back of his truck covered in straw. Rudnicki was poor. He lived in a mud hut in a secluded forest with his wife, Kasia, and their two boys. He’d taken Smart in exchange for payment but “he treated me like a son”.

Before long, someone found out that Rudnicki was harbouring a Jewish boy and reported him. The police arrived and told Rudnicki that if he confessed, he would be spared. If not, they would kill him and his family. “Jasko answers him: ‘I am not hiding any Jews.’ Just think about the enormity of what he said. Who in his right mind puts his family in such jeopardy for a Jew?” Rudnicki pretended to help the police look round the home, but they left empty-handed.

This, alongside the news that Smart’s aunt and uncle had been found and killed, convinced Rudnicki it was no longer safe to hide Smart. “He said: ‘I love you. But I can’t keep you. You have to go to hide in the woods.’” Before saying goodbye, he taught Smart basic survival skills: what to eat, what not to eat, how to trap a rabbit. He lent him tools so Smart could build a bunker, and showed him how to make a fire.

The forest posed two major challenges: detection and starvation. Smart had encountered other Jewish people hiding in the woods and “99% of them were caught only because of hunger” when they strayed into areas looking for food. Berries, mushrooms and leftover carcasses from predators could only sustain Smart for so long. “I needed Jasko very badly,” he says, and would still sometimes risk visiting him to get a glass of milk and some bread. “He saved my life,” he says. “You have to understand: most people didn’t have Jasko.”

Sometimes Smart would make one slice of bread last a week. “I’d chew it and chew it – I would not swallow it. Do you know how tasty bread is when you’re hungry?”

Smart largely avoided detection from patrols of Ukrainian collaborators, but there were some close calls – he was caught by a local policeman, who wanted to hand him in for a reward (“sometimes a bottle of vodka. Sometimes you got some clothing”). The policeman tied Smart to his horse-drawn sleigh and dragged him for 20km, stopping only to brag in front of his girlfriend. She took pity on Smart and untied him.

What scared Smart the most was not the cold, the pain, the Nazis or hunger. “It was loneliness.” To pass the time he’d often paint the forest in his mind. “I think I invented abstract expressionism long before it become popular. In my imagination, I was free.” He would speak angrily to God – “Why did you create me a Jew? For what purpose?”. And then, “He sent somebody to be with me.”

David Kohlsmith as Janek and Jett Klyne as Max in The Boy in the Woods

One night, Smart awoke to see a small boy, Janek – no more than 10 – wandering through the bushes, starving and trembling. He had been hiding in the forest with his parents. His father went to get food and never came back. Then his mother left and never returned. “I gave him a slice of bread,” says Smart. “I took care of him.”

Janek and Smart spent six months holed up in the same bunker. “He was so clever,” says Smart. “His father was an accountant. He was good with numbers.” They would give each other long maths puzzles to solve. Smart would do his working using charcoal on a rock; Janek did his in his head. “How could he calculate in his brain so fast!”

One morning, they awoke to the sounds of screaming and gunfire. Silence fell. They waited a few hours, then went to investigate. A nearby bunker had been discovered and the dead bodies of its inhabitants lay by the river. The boys took some of the shoes and clothes for warmth, then Smart spotted movement on the other side of the river. He realised that one of those killed had been holding a baby – which was still alive. He told Janek they had to go and save it.

“He said: ‘Don’t go into the water, it’s freezing.” But Smart persevered, dragging Janek with him. They retrieved the baby, then Smart went looking for someone to give it to. He eventually found a nearby group of Jewish people hiding, including the baby’s aunt. By the time Smart returned, Janek had a fever. He died days later. “For 80 years I was guilty,” says Smart. He begged me not to go into the water. I made him sick and he died because of me.”

For a 2019 documentary, Smart met the baby he saved – a woman named Tova. “I’m happy that the girl that we saved is alive and she has a family,” he says. “Janek became a hero. He is a hero.” He takes a long pause. “But am I still guilty? I think I am.”

Despite everything Smart went through in the forest, he never gave up. “My mother told me to save myself. She said, ‘If you don’t save yourself, you have no more family.’ I lived like a rat. I ate bark. I ate worms. I ate half rabbits that were cut and abandoned in the woods. But I never gave up on life.”

A few months after Janek’s death, Smart managed to visit Rudnicki, who told the boy that he was free, that the Nazi occupation was over. Smart asked Rudnicki to take him back to Buczacz – but fighting between the Soviets and Nazis raged on in the city. Rudnicki wanted Smart to return and live with him, but Smart had found a group of Jewish people and decided to travel eastwards with them. He said goodbye to Rudnicki and never saw him again.

In the years since, Smart has tried to get Rudnicki the Righteous Among the Nations honour, for those who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. But, as he was the only witness to Rudnicki’s courage, he is ineligible.

Smart in 1949, in Montreal Photograph: Azrieli Foundation

Smart drifted across Europe for many years after the warEventually he secured passage to Canada as part of its War Orphans Project, which resettled about 1,000 Jewish under-18s. “I was a total reject of society,” he says. As well as the general distrust of immigrants, most of those looking to adopt the war orphans wanted someone younger – Smart was nearing 18. Even the Jewish community weren’t forthcoming: some were worried that the influx of immigrants threatened their jobs, and most just didn’t want to know about his past. “‘Holocaust survivor’ was a dirty name,” he says. “When I got married I was 20 years old. I couldn’t take the loneliness any more. And who do you think married me? Another Holocaust survivor’s daughter. Nobody else wanted to touch me.”

Smart says he was “angrier after liberation than while hiding”. As a result: “My drive for life was so powerful. I had to make something out of myself.” He worked as a shipper for $18 a week, coming home each night then studying for as many courses as he could at the Jewish Community Centre. He became a successful businessman and rediscovered painting, culminating in the opening of his gallery in Montreal in 2006 (he now has two).

Today, the anger has gone. “I am very optimistic,” he says. “Life is going to be beautiful!” He has a “beautiful family”: his wife, Tina (whom he married in 1994 after his first wife, Helen, died in 1984), and his children, Anthony, Faigie and Lorne. “I made myself into something more than just nothing. I created something out of nothing.”

It took until just a few years ago for Smart to talk about the Holocaust. He was approached by the director Rebecca Snow, who was making a documentary about survivors called Cheating Hitler. She told him that of the 8,000 Jews who lived in Buczacz, fewer than 100 survived. “I am one of the 100 and I kept it a secret,” he says. “I should remember. I have to remember. I have to tell it to the world.” Smart took part in the documentary and began writing his memoir after its release. (Snow has also made a follow-up film, The Boy in the Woods, based on Smart’s experiences.)

“It was horrible,” he says. “I relived every moment of the Holocaust. I see the killing, I see the murder, I see the hunger … I didn’t want to, but I think it has to be done. And it has to be told and told again. Not to be forgotten.”

 The Boy in the Woods is available to stream on Apple TV+