Wrong Card, Right Card
Let me tell you about a little card trick. It’s one that pretty much every magician — professional or amateur — does in their own style. There are more versions of “Wrong Card, Right Card,” in the world than there are ice cream flavors. I do a poor version of it myself. You ask someone to pick a card. Call it the seven of hearts. You take the card, hold it up and then, in some form, put it face down on the table. You flip it over. It’s no longer the seven of hearts. It’s the eight of clubs or jack of spades or two of diamonds.
You then go to the top of the deck … or someone’s pocket … or inside a grapefruit.
There is the seven of hearts.
It is, when done right, a little miracle.
A couple of years ago, my friend Joshua Jay — one of the great magicians in the world — asked me to come to Atlanta. He was doing something special there. He was interviewing someone on stage at the William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum. I brought my wife, Margo, and younger daughter, Katie, along.
Josh was interviewing a man named Werner Reich.
If the name doesn’t sound familiar, don’t worry: Werner was not an especially famous man. Yes, there have been stories written about him; if you Google his name you will find some of those. You may even find his marvelous TED talk called How the Magic of Kindness Sustains Us.
Werner was a Holocaust survivor. He was 15 years old when he was first arrested by the Gestapo and sent to a labor camp. He spent most of 1944, at age 16, in the Auschwitz concentration camp. By that point in the war, there were no illusions about Auschwitz; a million Jews had already been exterminated there. Werner learned from the others that he likely would spend six months there. And then, he would be killed.
Timing, however, altered his fate. The tide of the war had shifted toward the Allied forces. Werner and tens of thousands were not executed at Auschwitz but instead sent on a death march from Poland to Austria. Many died along the way. Werner survived. When Mauthausen, a concentration camp in Austria, was liberated by U.S. soldiers in May of 1945, Werner Reich weighed 64 pounds.
Not long afterward, he moved to England. And one day, he walked into a store and bought a deck of playing cards. He was ready to perform “Wrong Card, Right Card.”
It was, he told us, the first time he’d ever attempted the trick.
It was also the millionth time he’d ever attempted the trick.
Some years ago, I would guess it was in the 1980s, there was some sort of Nazi demonstration in Cleveland. My grandfather Usher, a Holocaust survivor himself, was among the protestors there, and he saw a man with a sign by his side.
“Why don’t you hold up the sign?” my grandfather asked angrily.
“I’m afraid,” the man said.
“Give it to me,” my grandfather said, and he grabbed it and held it up high. “Never again,” it read. A photographer snapped a photo of the moment, and my grandfather was on the front page of a local newspaper with those words above his head. I still see the look of pure determination on his face.
I thought about my grandfather when we met Werner. He was a small man … but utterly fierce. He never wanted anything about the Holocaust to be unstated or concealed. After Werner retired, he began to work with troubled teenagers who had drawn swastikas on walls or committed various antisemitic crimes or promoted the lies about the Holocaust never happening. He told us about some of those conversations. He showed those kids the number the Nazis had tattooed on his arm. He described to them the unbearable smell of the cattle cars that took him and others to Auschwitz. He spoke with them about the family members he lost.
He plainly and vividly explained to them the cruelty, the unthinkable human cruelty that he endured, cruelty he could not even have imagined before.
Werner thought he got through to some of those kids. He knew that he did not get through to all of them. That’s why he kept going.
Werner Reich could never come up with an analogy that quite captured what it felt like to see a deck of playing cards at Auschwitz. Sometimes, he compared it to seeing a gorilla in your bathroom. Other times, he said it was like finding a rainbow in your soup.
“We were stripped of everything,” he said. “Our hair was shaven — even our pubic hair. We had absolutely nothing. Underwear. Shirt. Pair of pajama pants. Jacket. A grotesque cap we had to wear. A number. A tattoo. There was nothing. The bathrooms had no toilet paper. There was nothing.”
Nothing. And so no words can quite describe the overwhelming surprise and bewilderment and wonder he felt when he climbed to the third tier of the bunk beds and saw one of his bunkmates, a nice man he knew only as Herbert Levin, shuffling a deck of playing cards.
“Let me show you something,” Mr. Levin said after seeing the thunderbolt look on Werner’s face. “Pick a card.”
And with that, Mr. Levin performed a card trick called “Wrong Card, Right Card.”
Werner’s brain could not keep up with all that was happening before him. None of it made sense. It was like stepping out of a nightmare and directly into a dream. He had never seen a card trick before. “It was like watching someone perform a miracle just for me,” Werner would tell us.
And then, Mr. Levin did something that magicians never do. He said: “Let me show you how it works.” He did not ask. He just showed the secret of the trick, which builds around one specific move that, when done right, is all but undetectable.
Many years later, Werner discovered that Mr. Levin was a magician and magic shop owner who went by the name The Great Nivelli. It is hard to understand how there hasn’t been a movie made about Nivelli; he survived the war by performing card tricks for Nazi guards (that’s why he was allowed to have the playing cards). When the camp was liberated by American soldiers, he performed card tricks for them, which eventually led to him and his second wife emigrating to America (both of their families. including Levin’s first wife and son, had been sent to the gas chamber). Once in America, the Nivellis traveled the country and even the world performing what one newspaper called “unusual feats of magic, laced with comedy.”
Back to Werner: He never again saw a deck of cards in Auschwitz. But in his mind he did. Every day. He practiced the trick with a deck in his mind. With empty hands. He practiced it during the long and hard days while wondering if he would survive until the evening. He practiced it during the long and terrifying nights when he could not sleep and wondered if he would see morning. There were days when that magic trick was the only happy thing anywhere in his mind, and so he practiced it and practiced it, again and again, until it felt real to him, almost as real as the horrors all around him.
When he bought that deck of cards in England, after the war, it was the first deck he’d ever owned. He pulled the cards out of the box, mixed them up and asked a friend to pick a card. He then put the card on the table, turned it over, and it was the wrong card. Werner then pulled out the right card.
“It worked beautifully,” Werner would say.
For the rest of his life, Werner Reich would perform magic.
When Werner met our daughter Katie, he did not teach her a card trick. Instead, he taught her a sign language hand signal. He was wearing a lapel pin with a drawing of a hand — thumb out and index finger and pinkie straight up in the air.
“What’s that?” Margo and Katie asked.
“It’s the sign for ‘I Love You,’” Werner said.*
*If you look closely, you can see the three letters I L and Y in the sign. The pinkie is the I. The index finger and thumb form the L. And the pinkie and thumb make a Y.
Then, Werner told Katie a story. He was speaking at a school for the deaf in New York City, and he was telling his story to small children. He did not know if the story was getting through, did not know if they were old enough to understand or if the translator could even convey the words he was saying.
Then, as he finished, there was silence. And he looked out at the children and saw them, all at once, lift their arms up in the air and sign to him: “I love you.”
Werner Reich passed away this weekend. He was 94 years old. I think about his life now, think about how he turned hate around, how he never lost faith in people, how he saw the worst but hoped for the best, and mostly how when we were saying goodbye, Katie signed to him, “I love you.”
And how Werner signed, “I love you” right back to her.
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