The Death Camp Magi­cians: A True Sto­ry of Holo­caust Sur­vivors Wern­er Reich and Her­bert Nivelli

William V. Rausch­er and Wern­er Reich
  • Review
By – December 16, 2015

When an Epis­co­pal priest named William V. Rausch­er and a Jew­ish sur­vivor named Wern­er Reich write a book togeth­er on mag­ic, the read­er can expect to read some­thing unique. This one does not dis­ap­point. The two met because Wern­er Reich was trac­ing what became of Her­bert Niv­el­li, a pro­fes­sion­al magi­cian who was his bunk­mate in the Birke­nau con­cen­tra­tion camp and had taught Reich some card tricks dur­ing their intern­ment. Their com­mon inter­est in mag­ic had so fas­ci­nat­ed a con­cen­tra­tion camp guard that Reich is sure it saved Nivelli’s life and, indi­rect­ly, his own. 

Assum­ing that there are many younger peo­ple today who no longer know much about the Holo­caust and Hitler, Canon William V. Rausch­er intro­duces it in the book with many archival pho­tographs, a his­to­ry of the Holo­caust and its vil­lains fol­lowed by phi­los­o­phiz­ing on the theme of evil. He also has some provoca­tive thoughts on how one needs an inner sense of divine dimen­sion to cope with drugs and oth­er evils of mod­ern soci­ety, and that he finds in Wern­er Reich’s tes­ti­mo­ny of his Holo­caust expe­ri­ences a vision of how to res­cue today’s youth from repeat­ing that hor­ror. Rausch­er then pro­vides a list of Jew­ish magi­cians from that Holo­caust peri­od. Fascinating! 

But the bulk of the book belongs to Reich. His book in a book” is titled: From Dark­ness into Light: The Auto­bi­og­ra­phy of Wern­er Reich.” Reich’s descrip­tion of his har­row­ing jour­ney through the Shoah is dyna­mite. Reich was only 16 years old when he was tak­en impris­oned in Auschwitz. His grip­ping account of how he spent his teenage years in three con­cen­tra­tion camps, where he encoun­tered cru­el­ty — but also where some­times kind­ness and mutu­al sup­port by pris­on­ers try­ing to con­vert hard­ship into humor, aid­ed the mir­a­cle of sur­viv­ing. Reich’s bunk­mate Niv­el­li enter­tained the SS guards with mag­ic tricks and taught some to his young bunk­mate. Reich­cred­its Niv­el­li for chang­ing his life and pos­si­bly for being select­ed as one not to be killed. He also want­ed to thank Niv­el­li for intro­duc­ing him to mag­ic. Canon Rausch­er helps Reich vis-à-vis Niv­el­li and invites Reich to write his Holo­caust expe­ri­ences for this book.

In his own book, Reich guides the read­er into the deep­est recess­es of what a teenag­er expe­ri­enced in those ter­ri­ble years of the Holo­caust. He limns the entire his­to­ry of Nazi influ­ence and take over of Ger­many, his home coun­try, and what hap­pens to him in three increas­ing­ly tor­tu­ous con­cen­tra­tion camps, as well as lat­er on a train when the Ger­mans are about to sur­ren­der. After lib­er­a­tion, as he wan­ders from coun­try to coun­try seek­ing a home and friends, if not fam­i­ly, one won­ders how he sur­vived. Mul­ti­lin­gual, he also address­es what hap­pened to him in var­i­ous coun­tries after the war, at times as painful as his days of incar­cer­a­tion; tru­ly a dis­mal time until deter­mi­na­tion to live again and find new friends start to make him whole again. Reich is not only a sur­vivor, he is also a fine author, his­to­ri­an, and might I say, lecturer/​speaker. This is a per­fect book to offer to those who know lit­tle about Holo­caust his­to­ry or mem­oir. It is an equal­ly per­fect book for those who val­ue good writ­ing and admire the courage and strength of those young peo­ple who despite all, sur­vived the camps. Each survivor’s sto­ry is dif­fer­ent, and Reich’s is one of the strangest. Despite his suf­fer­ing, he retained his wry sense of humor and deter­mi­na­tion to survive.

Relat­ed Content:

Mar­cia W. Pos­ner, Ph.D., of the Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al and Tol­er­ance Cen­ter of Nas­sau Coun­ty, is the library and pro­gram direc­tor. An author and play­wright her­self, she loves review­ing for JBW and read­ing all the oth­er reviews and arti­cles in this mar­velous periodical.

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