September 06, 2014

The Magician of Auschwitz

by Kathy Kacer
Illustrated by Gillian Newland
Second Story Press
32 pp.
Ages 7+
For release September 5, 2014

Yesterday, Second Story Press added a unique title to its auspicious collection of Holocaust remembrance books: The Magician of Auschwitz by Kathy Kacer, illustrated by Gillian Newland.  As befits a picture book recounting any event that would take place in one of World War II's most horrific concentration camps, The Magician of Auschwitz is dark and sombre in tone and atmosphere, both in its text and its graphics.

A young boy, Werner, is delivered to the Auschwitz concentration camp, alone, separated from his mother and sister.  In the cramped barracks and overcrowded bunks, Werner learns quickly enough that only the strong will survive. This makes him even more curious about Herr Levin, a gentle, soft-spoken, middle-aged man with whom Werner shares the uppermost bunk.

The physical and emotional hardships of the days at the concentration camp are only accentuated by the dark nights of fear-filled sleep.  When guards come in the night and demand that Herr Levin do his magic, Werner anxiously watches as his bunkmate performs card tricks for the guards' entertainment.  There are more nights when they are awoken and Herr Levin works his magic, with cards, string and coins.  And, though Werner believes Herr Levin will benefit from his entertaining acts for the soldiers, Herr Levin makes it clear that, "This is not a game, and it is not a show." (pg. 16) He was performing for his life.

Kathy Kacer's notes, titled How it Happened, explain the real story behind The Magician of Auschwitz.  In Auschwitz, Werner Reich, the young boy, met Herbert Levin, a man who had been the well-known magician Nivelli the Magician.  There the gentle man shared his tricks with Werner and his compassion and strength of spirit in a horrific situation.
"Someone had cared about him and given him some hope.  There was enough real magic in that for Werner to hold on to." (pg. 24)
Kathy Kacer emphasizes the connection between the boy and magician and their unique relationship based in respect and magic while in the camp.  But the details of their later lives, very separate but still connected, complete their stories so appropriately. And Gillian Newland touches upon the heart of their relationship, a sliver of brightness, amongst the dark grey-browns of the heartless concentration camp, where survival is everything. There are few splashes of colour in the camp, only the playing cards and a swastika armband.  The power of both is clear. Only in a final illustration of an older Werner Reich with his two sons do warmer tones of orange, olive and turquoise appear.  The message in the words and the illustrations are quite clear.  From the darkness with few lights of hope came brighter lives, though still muted by earlier events that stole much family, hope and life from so many. The Magician of Auschwitz is an important book of accepting hope wherever possible in the most hopeless of situations and from the most surprising of sources.

A touching book trailer for The Magician of Auschwitz may be viewed here.

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