Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Magician of Auschwitz by Kathy Kacer, illustrated by Gillian Newland

The Magician of Auschwitz tells the story of  young Werner Reich who met a remarkable man while imprisoned by the Nazi's at Auschwitz. Werner was taken to a concentration camp called Terezin and then onto Auschwitz were he met  Herr Levin. Werner shared a bunk with Levin and struggled to survive the exhausting work on little food and sleep. One night the barracks was roused by the guards shouting at Levin to wake up. Once awake, they demanded he perform magic tricks for them. Levin spent hours that first night performing card tricks for the camp guards. Werner thought these tricks were wonderful and told Herr Levin that perhaps this would mean he would receive extra food. But Levin told Werner that the magic was likely the only thing preventing him from being shipped out to be killed. He would spend hours many nights entertaining the guards. 

One night weeks later, Werner, who was always hungry, hid a piece bread while he slept only to awake the next morning to discover it had been stolen from him. He was very very upset and was on the verge of giving up. But Herr Levin told him that he should not be too hard on the person who stole the break, telling him that this person was just trying to survive like everyone else.To ease his mind Herr Levin showed him one of his tricks and then taught Werner that trick. Herr Levin showed Werner that someone cared about him and that gave him hope. After surviving the concentration camp, Werner never lost his love of magic and did perform tricks.

After telling the magician's story through Werner Reich's eyes, there is a section titled How It Happened that tells who Herr Levin was and what happened to both him and Werner after the war. Herbert Levin was a famous magician who performed in Berlin. His stage name was Nivelli. Nivelli along with his wife and son were sent to Auschwitz where they eventually perished. Nivelli survived the camp and rebuilt his life as a magician, moving to the United States and eventually remarrying. There are plenty of photographs of Nivelli and also Werner Reich both as a young boy, with his sister Renate who also survived and as an older man. 

Where It Happened tells about Hitler coming to power in 1933 and how this led to the Jewish Holocaust and World War II.

The picture book portion is beautifully illustrated with Gillian Newland's watercolour paintings. Based in Toronto, Newland's artwork effectively captures some of the darkness of Auschwitz with the dark pallette of greys, whites, browns and blacks. At the same time she shows the humanity of the people in the camp.

Kacer was introduced to the story of Nivelli the Magician by Jon Freund who also helped her contact Werner Reich.

Below is an interview with Werner Reich who recalls his time in Auschwitz and discusses Nivelli the Magician.

Book Details:
The Magician of Auschwitz by Kathy Kacer, illustrated by Gillian Newland
Toronto: Second Story Press 2014

No comments: