Herbert Nivelli (1906–1977) was a professional magician who survived the Nazi death camps during the World War II Holocaust by performing magic. Frequently ordered to perform for his Nazi captors, he was spared the worst of the daily abuse suffered by concentration-camp inmates, although he lost his entire family to the gas chambers. Following the war, he moved to the United States, where he continued to perform magic into his elder years.
Six million Jewish citizens of Germany and surrounding countries were killed by the ruling Socialist German Worker's Party (Nazi) during a planned extermination known as the Holocaust (1933–1945). Most of these murders occurred in concentration camps, to which Jewish families were transported and imprisoned. Talented musicians and performers were sometimes spared and were forced to entertain their Nazi captors. Herbert Nivelli was one of these; he had been a famous magician who had performed in the best theaters in Germany. Although his captors promised to spare his family if he performed for them, they did not keep their promise. Nivelli is remembered for his elegant showmanship, his kindness to a young fellow captive, and his graceful return to the stage after being liberated.
Nivelli the Magician was born Herbert Levin in Berlin, the capital of Germany, to Jewish parents on September 9, 1906. Nivelli's interest in magic developed during childhood, and when he grew up, he shared that interest by opening a magic shop, one of six he would operate during his lifetime. He also became a talented magician, and at the height of his popularity during the 1920s and 1930s was performing in the best theaters in Germany. He created his stage name, “Nivelli” by spelling his real last name backward and adding “li” to make it sound Italian. His shops flourished, as did his magic act; at one point he became the youngest member of the Berlin Stock Exchange, so successful was his business.
On January 30, 1933, Nazi party leader Adolf Hitler was named chancellor of Germany, promising to restore national pride and bring back the prosperity that the country had enjoyed prior to World War I. Like much of the world, Germany suffered a financial depression beginning in the late 1920s. Germany's problems were exacerbated by the fact that its wartime adversaries—primarily Britain and France—had exacted heavy financial reparations as a result of the destruction wrought during the Great War. Hitler promised to set things right and restore Germany as a strong and proud nation. He also envisioned the true German people to be Aryan, a “master race” that excluded dark-complected people such as Jews. Hitler built up the armed forces, created a secret police called the Geheime Staatspolizei or Gestapo, as well as the paramilitary Schutzstaffel or SS. He also successfully indoctrinated children through Nazi youth groups, which reinforced his ideology and built prestige through their use of rituals, rewards, and distinctive uniforms.
Tapping a tradition extending back to the time of Christ, Hitler promoted the idea that Jewish people, descendants of the followers of Moses and Abraham in ancient Palestine, were to blame for the world's problems. Now ruling as a dictator and adopting the title of Führer (leader), he announced that loyal German citizens should not do business with Jewish shopkeepers nor interact socially with Jews. To be easily identified, Jewish citizens were required to wear armbands featuring a bright, yellow Star of David, the symbol of their religion.
By 1933, Nivelli was married and a father, and he realized that Germany was not a safe place for Jews to live and raise a family. He was now almost 30 and had a lot to lose by leaving the country. He was a popular performer and attracted big crowds in upscale theaters, and his magic shop was very lucrative. The German government, although openly anti-Semitic, placed no restrictions on Jewish citizens wishing to leave the country, and many Jews were now emigrating. For reasons of safety, he decided to move with his parents, wife, and child to another country, out of Hitler's reach. The Levin family chose Czechoslovakia and relocated there months later.
The Nazi army invaded Poland in September 1939, annexing several small adjacent countries in the process. One of these countries was Czechoslovakia. As they did elsewhere, the new Nazi overlords rounded up local Jews and segregated them in ghettos, walled-in urban neighborhoods that quickly became overcrowded and lacked sufficient food and water to sustain residents. The stronger Jews living in these ghettos were often taken away for forced labor, and disease and starvation became a growing menace.
Meanwhile, the Nazi government had established several concentration camps, large prisons where they could detain their political opposition and other “enemies of the state.” A few thousand people occupied these camps until 1939, when Germany went to war on its neighbors and began persecuting Jews and other groups in earnest. By 1942, the camp population had reached 80,000, most of them Jews and many who would die from harsh treatment and disease. A formal program of extermination would soon be aimed at Jews in particular; to be herded into a railroad cattle car and sent to a concentration camp, which they were by the tens of thousands, was now a horrifying possibility for Jews living in and around Europe.
In 1940, the Levin family were rounded up, together with their Jewish neighbors, and transported to a fort in Terezin, Czechoslovakia, that had been converted into a concentration camp. When the SS guards realized that Herbert Levin was none other than the famous Nivelli, they ordered him to perform magic for them. He had an old, worn pack of playing cards in his pocket and showed them some card tricks. He also used bits of string and coins to entertain the officers.
The German guards enjoyed Nivelli's act so much that they gave him special treatment, ensuring that he had sufficient food and sleep as well as less-strenuous work than his fellow prisoners. However, they would awaken him at all hours of the night, poking him in the ribs and demanding a performance. After Nivelli acquired some cups and balls, he mystified his SS audience with further trickery, and the guards insisted that he teach them how to do magic.
In 1942, SS Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich was put in charge of German-controlled Czechoslovakia. Nicknamed “the Hangman,” Heydrich was tasked with molding the Czechs into German citizens using whatever means he deemed necessary. When he was assassinated by British Army Special Ops later that year, Hitler ordered the arrest and execution of thousands of Czechs. Together with the other prisoners at Terezin, Nivelli and his family were herded into a railroad car and spent several days in transit without food or water.
They arrived at one of the biggest and most notorious camps, Auschwitz-Birkenau, where gas chambers had been perfected as a method for exterminating hundreds of people at a time. The men and women were promptly separated, as were their children. Heads shaven, they were given striped prison uniforms, tattooed on the wrist with identification numbers, and sent to separate barracks. Nivelli, now prisoner No. A-1676, slept in a men's barrack, sharing a burlapand-straw mattress with five other men. One was a very frightened 16-year-old named Werner Reich. Looking back on this event years later, Reich recalled, in interviews, the terrifying sounds and smells of camp life. He remembered, most fondly, the kind and fatherly Herr Levin, who took an interest in him and taught him magic tricks.
As in Terezin, Nivelli was once again singled out to perform for prison guards, this time realizing that good performances ensured his very survival. Building rapport with his new guards, he also asked that they look out for the other members of his family, who he assumed were still alive. He was treated slightly better than most other prisoners, and he was assured that his family would be spared. In fact, the other members of the Levin family met their death in the gas chambers of Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Nivelli was eventually transferred to Sachsenhausen, a camp established in a factory building in Oranienburg, Germany. He remained there until the end of the war, standing among a group of 3,000 prisoners who were liberated by the Soviet army on April 22, 1945. Once again, Nivelli was lucky: some 33,000 prisoners had been evacuated from Sachsenhausen only days before, in an effort to elude the approaching Russian army. Of these, little more than half had survived. Meeting their Soviet liberators at the camp, the emaciated inmates looked half-dead, and Nivelli could only walk with the help of improvised crutches. His fingernails and toenails had dropped off from malnutrition. Yet he was determined to survive.
Eventually returned to Berlin, Nivelli was welcomed back by those friends who still survived, including many in the magic community. Although the loss of his family was hard for him to bear, the combination of rest and adequate food allowed him to regain his health in six months. His magician friends supplied him with handmade wooden props, allowing him to once again perform his magic act.
In 1947 Nivelli gave his final performance in Germany, staging it at one of the most glamorous venues from his youth, Berlin's Shifferbauerdam Theater. He called his show “Laughter and Crying,” donning a brightly colored harlequin costume and fashioning the performance as a fairy tale. On the Magic Detective website, Dean Carnegie quoted a contemporary German newspaper as characterizing Nivelli as “one who has laughter in his heart because fate has been good to him, while also in his heart and mind he cries, because of all the memories imprisoned in his mind from behind the electric wire barricades.”
By 1954, The Nivellis were known and respected on the North American magic circuit, playing to large crowds at conventions and other venues across the country. Their earnings provided a comfortable living and enabled Nivelli to invest in real estate. An elegant, petite man, he appeared on stage in a topcoat and wide-brimmed hat, in classic style, with Lottie as his assistant. He died on May 3, 1977, two days after his final performance before 1,500 people at a Shriner's convention in Pennsylvania.
In 1970, while performing at a magic convention, the Nivellis met an unusual admirer, Episcopal priest and amateur magician William Rauscher. Rauscher was impressed by their act and corresponded with Nivelli regularly, writing his obituary after his death. Werner Reich was now living in New York City, and when he read that obituary, he recalled his benefactor at the Auschwitz death camp. Reich and Rauscher met and eventually honored their late friend with the biography The Death Camp Magicians.
Rauscher, William V., and Werner Reich, The Death Camp Magicians: A True Story of Holocaust Survivors Werner Reich and Herbert Nivelli, second edition, 1878 Press, 2015.
Huffington Post, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/sandi-bachom/werner-reich-and-the-magi_b_3037452.html (December 12, 2017), Sandi Bachom, “Holocaust Survivor Werner Reich on Magic, Laughter, and ‘The Great Nivelli.’”
The Magic Detective, http://www.themagicdetective.com/2011/05/holocaust-conjurer.html (May 23, 2011), Dean Carnegie,“The Holocaust Conjurer.”
New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/05/nyregion/auschwitz-magician-nivelli-war-play.html?_r=0 (May 5, 2017), Corey Kilgannon, “An Auschwitz Magician's Greatest Trick: Holding the Horrors at Bay.”□