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Holocaust Survivor Werner Reich on Magic, Laughter, and 'The Great Nivelli'

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"I'm happy to be in Auschwitz, if I wouldn't be happy I'd still be in Auschwitz, might as well be happy"

-- Werner Reich, Auschwitz-Birkenau, 1944

In 1944, the year I was born, Werner Reich was a teenager in the Nazi death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau, and under the supervision of the infamous Josef Mengele, a.k.a. "The Angel of Death."

Werner was one of the "Birkenau Boys," a group of 96 kids arbitrarily singled out by Mengele to be kept alive as slave laborers. Five thousand naked boys ran in the yard before Mengele as the SS officers told him a joke. If the joke was funny and he laughed, you ran straight to your death. If the joke was not funny and he got bored and looked up, you were spared. The selections in the death camps were unspeakable and random. Ninety-six survived out of 5,000. Spared, it seems... because of a bad joke.

They are the last eyewitnesses. They are our most precious resource. The importance of preserving these oral histories is essential, which is why Steven Spielberg's documenting 55,000 survivor interviews for his Shoah Foundation is such profound work. It is through the telling and sharing of these stories that humanity heals.

I once knew a Shoah interviewer; to the best of my recollection these are the four questions. I urge you to get out your iPhones and record any of these folks you may know and put them up on YouTube. Do it now!

1. What was life like before?
2. What happened?
3. What was life like after?
4. In 100 years, what would you like people to remember?

This week are the Holocaust Remembrance Days (Yom HaShoah). It is the solemn occasion, marking the 70th year of the murder of six million Jews, and the uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto.

Simply put, my meeting with Werner changed my life! When I am in my travails and in need of hope, I think of this day we spent with Mikal, Ella, Carl, Eva and Werner. Since Werner is a great "punner" and loves a good laugh, we would email endlessly about the healing of humor and laughter and he would send me articles like,"Humor as a defense mechanism in the Holocaust." I'm not sure what made me ask the question, "Was there was any laughter in Auschwitz?" He said a remarkable thing which has gotten me through some dark nights of the soul.

"We laughed more than you night think, we had joke-telling sessions practically every night. First we would talk about the components of food in great detail, and we would tell jokes."

I asked him if he remembered any of the jokes and he repeated one in German which he translated. "I'm happy to be in Auschwitz, if I wouldn't be happy I'd still be in Auschwitz, might as well be happy."

Werner has taught me how to survive the unsurvivable... with humor. He has devoted his entire life to this day, traveling and speaking about his experiences in the Holocaust with his PowerPoint presentation, of which he is quite proud. His mission: to teach children what happened, so it won't happen again.

Several years ago, I had the great honor of filming 70 survivors in Newport Beach on a joyous day, when survivors shared their stories to the teens at Congregation Shir Ha-Ma 'a lot they were asked what one thing they would like to have remembered by the young people and they all had the same message. "Never again... never forget and forgiveness."

There was one last remarkable story Werner told us -- about how he learned magic. As my father was a magician, I was intrigued when he told me it was from his bunkmate in Auschwitz-Birkenau. A talent with coins and a deck of "dirty cards" his bunkmate also shared with their Nazi jailers, and which most probably saved both their lives.

Unbeknownst to the teenage Werner at the time, he was none other than, Hebert Nivelli, "The Great Nivelli" known as "The Magician of the Holocaust." But to him it was a man named Levin.

After the horrors of the war, Werner and his wife Eva, settled in Great Neck, Long Island. He became a magician himself, entertaining at the local temples and Hadassah's. One day he was reading in the Linking Ring magazine...

"I was reading the obituaries, no, I was not looking for my own name, and I see Herbert Nivelli had died and that he had been in Auschwitz and was known as The Magician of the Holocaust and I noticed his number was close to mine. It appeared, Nivelli's Tattoo was #A1676 and mine is #A1828."

And he realized, "That's the guy, the very guy..." who was his bunkmate, Herbert Nivelli, the Magician of the Holocaust and that his name was Levin. Nivelli spelled backwards.

Werner recognized the man who saved his life, by his tattoo!

"Why didn't you know his name?" I asked. "Because, at that time in Europe, children did not address adults by their first names."

I am profoundly grateful to Mikal Reich for introducing me to his father Werner and beautiful mother Eva, who was herself, a member of the Kinder Transport. At one point, Werner was telling the story of the Death March and how cold it was and he actually lost his toes because of it, and they came upon a barn and he sought warmth under the body of a horse, I believe.

From the other room Eva corrected him... "It was a cow!"