Canadian holocaust survivor reunited with baby he saved from Nazis when he was just a child

Canadian holocaust survivor reunited with baby he saved from Nazis when he was just a child

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All he knew for sure until the filming of this documentary was that his effort to save a baby girl from certain death cost the life of his dearest friend

The title of Cheating Hitler, a new documentary about three Holocaust survivors and their stories of reunion and reckoning with people who played a role in their survival, comes from a comment by Rose Lipszyc, 90, who lives in Toronto and is active in Holocaust education.

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Years ago in Poland, her mother ordered Rose to run from a Nazi roundup of Jews, after which Rose survived the war as a labourer in Germany posing as Polish Catholic. In the film, Rose says she imagines this brought some comfort in her mother’s final moments in a gas chamber at Sobibor extermination camp, to know that she “cheated Hitler of a child.”

Maxwell Smart, 89, a Montreal businessman and painter, also cheated Hitler of a child.

But while Lipszyc has always known she herself is living proof that her mother’s life-saving gamble was a success, Smart has always been burdened with uncertainty.

I felt that God listened to my cries

All he knew for sure until the filming of this documentary was that his effort to save a baby girl from certain death cost the life of his dearest friend, Yanek, for which he suffered a lifelong guilt.

“I have no idea what happened to the baby,” he says in the film’s opening sequence. “It would be nice to know what happened.”

Maxwell Smart and Yanek Arenberg were both young Jewish boys living feral in the woods around Buchach in western Ukraine, site of some of the war’s most horrific atrocities, with Jews buried in mass graves. One scene in the documentary shows the crew finding several bullets on the forest floor near Fedor Hill, a notorious execution site.

Maxwell was a little older than Yanek. Aged 11, Maxwell was a mature boy with a self-sufficiency instilled by his mother. Like Rose’s mother, she had told Maxwell to run from the trucks that had previously taken his father away, so he did, crossing a bridge and never seeing his mother or sister again.

For months he lived alone, sleeping in crude bunkers cut into the earth, eating mushrooms off old trees where he could find them and grass when he could not, and hiding from the mercenary gangs of Ukrainians patrolling the woods on behalf of the Nazis.

“I became like a sort of animal, a human animal,” he says in the documentary.

Holocaust survivor Maxwell Smart in the Hall of Names at Yad Vashem WorldHolocaust Remembrance Centre in Israel. Handout/Cheating Hitler

Finding a companion in Yanek gave him a sort of hope, and a way forward through despair. “He was my life,” Smart said. “He was my person that I needed.”

“It was unbearable to be alone, to look for food, to beg, it was terrible,” Smart said in an interview. “But when I found Yanek, somehow I felt that God listened to my cries, that God listened to my sobbing at night.”

They had lived together for perhaps six months in the woods when they heard the gunshots and commotion of a mass execution happening nearby. Emerging later from their bunker into the silent woods, they found seven dead bodies in the snow, fresh blood all around. Then, in a memory that forms the dramatic heart of the documentary, Smart recalled seeing movement from the other side of a river. There was another body, someone for the boys to help.

Yanek was reluctant to get wet. Already weak from malnutrition, a midwinter soaking in a river could be fatal. But Maxwell urged him, grabbed his hand, and took him along through the water.

There they found a woman who had been shot in the back, and still wriggling in her arms was a baby girl, uninjured and warm.

Yanek Arenbrg, far left, and his family before the Second World War. Handout/Cheating Hitler

They took the child to their bunker, but knew they could not care for it. A Christian farmer who had been secretly helping them said he could not take a baby, but told them there was another group of Jews in hiding several kilometres away through the woods. So leaving the baby with Yanek, Maxwell ran for it.

By some astonishing fortune, the group he met included the baby’s aunt, who reclaimed the child. They returned to their own hiding place, telling Maxwell they would return for him, but never did. Yanek, meanwhile, had started shivering with an infection he could not kick.

Smart’s guilt enters the story at this moment, because although he convinced the Christian farmer to go find some medicine, Smart left Yanek in their bunker as he accepted a few days shelter at the farm, helping with the animals and sleeping in a warm barn. By the time he returned to the bunker with a package of food, it was empty. Yanek was dead on the ground a few metres away. He and the farmer entombed him in the bunker, as the ground was too hard to dig a grave.

For decades, Smart’s story of survival was taboo in his own home. But after his first wife died, he remarried and his new stepson asked why he would not write about it.

“I didn’t want to relive the horror of my life,” Smart said in the interview. But his recognition that his memories will not outlast him unless they are written down led first to his memoir, Chaos to Canvas, and eventually to his starring role in the documentary, which premieres on History on Remembrance Day.

The film offers a coda to his life that has transformed his grief and guilt over Yanek’s death.

With just the details of Smart’s story, an Israeli Holocaust researcher, Natasza Niedzielska, found the memoirs of a woman whose story matched up. This woman had written a book of her time hiding in the woods near a riverbank outside Buchach. It recalled her escaping across a river from the posse that killed her mother, who stayed in the river with her baby sister in her arms.

Presented on camera with the news that the baby girl is alive, Smart flushed red as tears came.

“If this baby is alive, it would just clear my conscience that (Yanek) didn’t die for nothing,” Smart said.

Soon after, in Haifa, he reunited with Tova Barkai, the baby girl, who is now elderly and non-communicative because of a disability, but has grown children of her own.

Looking her in the eye, and holding her hand, Smart said: “I feel better, and I don’t feel as guilty. It’s true. Yanek died. He’s a hero. He saved you and you have children.”

“It is a sad story,” he said later in the interview. “But it happened, and I am happy today for Yanek.”




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