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Report On Business Michal Hornstein: Philanthropist changed the face of Montreal

Michal Hornstein died on April 25 at the age of 95.

Natacha Gysin

About a week before her father died, Sari Hornstein took him on a nostalgic driving tour of Montreal, his beloved adopted city, pointing out familiar spots steeped in memories and made better by his entrepreneurial acumen and philanthropic spirit.

They drove past the Duc de Lorraine pastry shop on Côte des Neiges – one of the first he visited as a new immigrant from Europe – for his favourite mille-feuille pastry and where he and his wife celebrated a recent wedding anniversary with a decadent breakfast.

They moseyed along Sherbrooke Street then up to Queen Mary Road, where they stopped for cappuccino and croissants.

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One building on their route was particularly meaningful – the new pavilion at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts on Bishop Street scheduled to open Nov. 5 and bearing his name.

The Michal and Renata Hornstein Pavilion for Peace is the product of one of many generous gifts this extraordinary couple gave to the city's art, education and health-care sectors over the past six decades. During that last drive through the city, however, it was clear Mr. Hornstein would not live to see the opening of the new pavilion.

"He saw this process unfold, knowing that it would come to fruition and that helped him to pass peacefully," Sari said. "He'll be there in spirit."

Michal Hornstein died at home nine days after that drive, on April 25 at the age of 95, leaving his wife, Renata, to inaugurate the building this fall without her beloved partner of more than 70 years.

Mr. Hornstein was a brilliant businessman who grabbed life with both hands and lived it to the max – and it was a life filled with "horseshoes and brass balls," his son Norbert Hornstein said.

Born Sept. 17, 1920, in Tarnow, Poland, and raised in Krakow, Mr. Hornstein was the second child of Moshe Itzhak and Rikel (née Honig) Hornstein. He graduated from that city's business school and was 19 when Germany invaded his country. He was captured by the Nazis and loaded on to a train headed for the notorious concentration camp Auschwitz. But before the train reached its destination, a gutsy Mr. Hornstein jumped off and spent the rest of the war hiding in forests in Czechoslovakia, living in Budapest and finally, taking refuge in a safe house in Bratislava in 1944.

There he met Renata Witelson, another Polish Jew nine years his junior, who was fleeing persecution. After the war, they moved to Rome and shared a villa with Renata's three aunts and uncles. They married in 1947 – a ceremony to which Mr. Hornstein arrived a few hours late because he was negotiating a business deal.

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"He was opportunistic in the best sense of the word," his daughter, Sari, said. "He grabbed opportunities whenever they came along."

During their five years in Italy, the couple began collecting art because, as Renata Hornstein tells it, their walls were empty.

"At the time, my father was the kind of guy for whom if one is good, 10 is better," Sari said. "Mom was more: 'I would rather have one that is of the finest quality than to buy 10.' So they compromised and got 10 of the best quality."

Both Norbert and Sari credit their mother with having the eye for art and their father for having the business acumen to pay a fair price. Together they made a formidable couple, amassing a collection of art that they chose to donate in order to share their passion with others. Perhaps their most notable single gift, worth about about $75-million, was a collection of 70 Old Masters paintings given to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in 2012.

Their marriage succeeded through compromise and recognizing each other's strengths, Renata Hornstein said in an interview via Skype.

"I was the the neck and he was the head," she said.

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From his youth as an Orthodox Jew in Poland, to a successful entrepreneur in cosmopolitan Montreal, Mr. Hornstein travelled vast cultural, as well as physical, distances.

"Orthodox Jews are not inclined to look at pictures," his son, Norbert, a professor at the University of Maryland, said. "So the whole idea that he should become an art collector constituted a long journey for him emotionally, culturally and intellectually."

After five years in Italy, the couple immigrated to Canada, settling in Montreal, where Mr. Hornstein established his own real estate development company, Federal Construction Ltd.

They had their two children, Norbert and Sari, and lived in a duplex on Lacombe Avenue, near the University of Montreal. As a father, Mr. Hornstein was strict and had high expectations of his children but they knew they were loved unconditionally. He was brutally honest and called a spade a spade, they said.

Sari Hornstein remembers one particular moment in her life when she was coming to terms with the possibility that her son might have autism.

"My father and I talked and he said, 'I don't think he's going to snap out of it. Be prepared,' " she recalled. The diagnosis was later confirmed.

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"Dad saw things clearly as they really were and encouraged others to see them that way, too."

The children were sent to summer camp along with an itinerary of their parents' travel schedule and addresses of where to send camp news. And while the elder Hornsteins weren't sporty, they made sure their children learned to ski and attend hockey games like their friends.

Despite their parents' horrific early years in Europe, Norbert Hornstein says none of that trauma was passed on to the next generation, which has often been the case with Holocaust survivors.

"It was horrible, but they were non-victims," he said. "It was sort of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid more than Shoah.

"They were not in concentration camps, they weren't starved to death, they were running and were always one step ahead and succeeded."

The couple gave generously to several of Montreal's hospitals, including the General, the Jewish, Hôpital Notre-Dame and the Heart Institute, as well as to Concordia and McGill universities and the University of Montreal.

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Clarence Epstein, senior director of urban and cultural affairs at Concordia, credits Mr. Hornstein as the pragmatist needed to bring money to the arts. Mr. Hornstein, in one of his many speeches, told a joke about a journalist asking the director of a literary museum who deserves to take credit for the museum's existence. The director replied, "Shakespeare, Molière and Schwartz. Schwartz wrote the cheque."

Mr. Hornstein and his wife are perhaps best known for putting the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts on the map – donating close to 420 works of art, as well as providing funds to purchase another 23 works. They also helped pay for the restoration of the 1912 pavilion on Sherbrooke Street which was named after them in 2000.

The new Pavilion for Peace, set to open this fall, will be the fifth building in the museum complex, housing the collection of works by Dutch and Flemish masters donated by the Hornsteins in 2012, as well as the largest educational complex in a North American art museum.

Mr. Hornstein served on the museum's board of trustees since 1970.

In a statement after his death, the chairman of the board's museum said they had lost a wise adviser and great patron.

"For many years, we have had the extraordinary good fortune of benefiting from the generosity of Mr. and Mrs. Hornstein to enrich our national heritage," Brian Levitt said. "Without their incredible magnanimity, the museum would never have been able to even imagine acquiring such valuable works."

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Mr, Hornstein received the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2012, was promoted to officer of the Order of Canada in 2013 and named a grand officier of the Ordre national du Québec the same year.

He loved dark chocolate, well-tailored suits, Madama Butterfly and scalding hot soup. By all accounts, he had a wicked sense of humour, was a crack negotiator and emanated charisma and power. He could always tell when someone was trying to con him and always expected the worst, but was happy when things turned out well, his son said.

He helped out friends when he could, expecting nothing in return.

"Isn't it nice to think there are pockets of people like this in the world all over the place?" he said. "There are some that are bigger and some smaller but they're having this huge and wonderful impact on the world in which they live and they're making it a better place for the people around them or at least a more interesting place."

Mr. Hornstein leaves his wife, Renata; daughter, Sari; son, Norbert; and three grandchildren.

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