Werner Reich: He Learned Magic in Auschwitz

From a New York Times obit by Richard Sandomir headlined “Werner Reich, Who Learned Magic in Auschwitz, Dies at 94”:

In the Auschwitz barracks where starving, emaciated, dying men were crammed six to a bed, Werner Reich’s closest neighbor was a gentlemanly German Jewish man in his 30s named Herbert Levin, who had been known before World War II as Nivelli the magician.

One day in early 1944, Mr. Reich, then 16, returned to the barracks from a work assignment, climbed to the top of his three-tier bunk and watched Mr. Levin shuffle the dirty deck of cards that prison guards had given him so that he could entertain them — a bit of protection against being sent to the extermination camp’s gas chamber.

“And I couldn’t understand it, you know — having a deck of cards in Auschwitz was like finding a gorilla in your bathroom,” Mr. Reich recalled in a TEDx Talk in 2020. “And then Mr. Levin turned to me and offered me the deck and said, ‘Pick a card.’ So I picked a card, and he performed a card trick for me.”

To a teenager who had never seen a card trick, he said, it was a “miracle.”

Mr. Levin explained the trick, and Mr. Reich replayed the instructions in his mind for the rest of his time at Auschwitz — a distraction that helped him survive its horrors — and then through a 35-mile death march in snow and ice on the way to the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria. Only after he was liberated and found his way to England several years later did he buy a deck of cards and perform the magic on his own.

“And it worked,” he said. “It worked beautifully.”

Mr. Reich, who became an engineer after his immigration to the United States, never lost his love of magic, performing close-up tricks with cards and coins for small groups of other magicians, at temples and at his sons’ birthday parties.

He died on July 8 at his home in Smithtown, N.Y., on Long Island.

Werner Reich was born in Berlin on Oct. 1, 1927. His mother, Elly (Dux) Reich, was awarded the Iron Cross for her work as a nurse for Germany on the eastern front in World War I. His father, Wilhelm, was an engineer.

The Reich’s comfortable life was shattered in 1933 when the Nazis came to power and Wilhelm Reich was forced out of his job as an engineer because he was Jewish. They fled to Yugoslavia, where Mr. Reich died of natural causes in Zagreb in 1940.

When the Nazis invaded the country in 1941, Werner’s mother sent him and his sister, Renate, into hiding with different families. Werner lived for about two years with a couple who were part of the resistance movement until Gestapo agents arrested him.

So began his life as a prisoner, including in a police station in Graz, Austria, where he looked out a window and spotted his mother in the prison yard. It was the last time he saw her before she was presumably murdered.

At the Theresienstadt concentration camp in what is now the Czech Republic, one of his jobs was to exterminate vermin with the cyanide-based pesticide Zyklon B, which the Germans used in gas chambers. At Auschwitz, when he and other prisoners ran naked past Dr. Josef Mengele, who would decide who was fit enough to work and who went to the gas chambers, they tried to appear robust enough to avoid being selected for death.

“We were running for our lives,” Mr. Reich told The New York Times in 2017 for a profile about him. “We tried to look bigger, stronger. We’d smile, do anything under the sun to look for work.”

He survived Auschwitz, the death march in frigid conditions (frostbite led to the amputation of parts of the toes on his right foot) and a final few months of imprisonment in Mauthausen before United States Army troops liberated the camp on May 5, 1945.

He was 17. He weighed 64 pounds.

Mr. Reich returned to Yugoslavia and, after two years, fled to England, where he became a tool and die maker and met his future wife, Eva Schiff. She was among the 669 Czech children, mostly Jews, who were rescued before the outbreak of World War II in 1939 by Sir Nicholas Winton, a British stockbroker, who used bribes, forgery and secret contacts with the Gestapo to bring the children to Britain by train and boat.

He and Miss Schiff married in England and emigrated to the United States in 1955. After earning a bachelor’s degree at City College in New York, he worked as an engineer at Nabisco and the Hills supermarket chain.

Over the last 25 years, Mr. Reich spoke to schools, synagogues and other groups about his Holocaust experience. To students, he delivered an anti-bullying message.

“He said good people did nothing, whether a friend or a country,” David Reich said of his father in a phone interview. “He said if you see someone bullied, stick up for them. Do something.”

In addition to David, Mr. Reich is survived by another son, Mikal, and four grandchildren. His wife died in 2016. His sister, Renate Romano, survived the Holocaust, immigrated to the United States in 1948, and died in 1999.

Mr. Levin’s card trick stayed with Mr. Reich the rest of his life.

“We loved anything that could take us away from Auschwitz for even a moment, that could take our minds off our memories and the horror around us,” he said.

In England, he immersed himself in magic. He bought a deck of cards, then some magic tricks and books, and still more tricks and books.

“There’s a very, very thin line between a hobby and insanity,” he joked during his TEDx Talk.

Mr. Reich never saw Mr. Levin after Auschwitz and did not know that he had also emigrated to the United States, resumed his magic career and lived in Rego Park, Queens.

Mr. Levin died in 1977, but Mr. Reich did not learn of the death until nearly 30 years later, when he read an article in The Linking Ring, the monthly magazine of the International Brotherhood of Magicians, to which Mr. Reich belonged.

The Rev. William V. Rauscher, a retired Episcopal rector and magician, wrote the article and later collaborated with Mr. Reich on his autobiography, “The Death Camp Magicians” (2015), which also told Mr. Levin’s story.

“He was a fairly good magician,” Mr. Rauscher said of Mr. Reich. “He’d visit me, pull out some cards and coins and do tricks on the coffee table.” He added, “Other magicians thought he was fascinating because of his connection to Nivelli.”

Mr. Reich never forgot Mr. Levin, nor the gift of a simple card trick that provided a frightened boy with a momentary escape and a touch of humanity.

“It isn’t the value or the size of a gift that truly matters,” Mr. Reich said in the TEDx Talk. “It’s how you hold it in your heart.”

Richard Sandomir is an obituaries writer. He previously wrote about sports media and sports business. He is also the author of several books, including “The Pride of the Yankees: Lou Gehrig, Gary Cooper and the Making of a Classic.”

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