Nivelli - Magician Of The Holocaust
By William V. Rauscher
Success and suffering are vitally and organically linked. If you succeed without suffering, it is because someone else has suffered before you; if you suffer without succeeding, it is that someone else may succeed after you.
A one-day magic convention in 1970 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania provided me with the opportunity to meet Herbert Nivelli and watch his act.
When I met him that day, Nivelli was in the cold dressing area changing his shirt. But he didn't complain - he didn't appear to mind the obvious discomfort. Nivelli exuded a kind of European charm, and both he and his wife Lottie, who worked as his assistant, were gracious to me. During our conversation he took off his shirt, and I noticed a tattoo on his arm. I said nothing, but immediately recognized the marking. This was Nivelli, the Concentration Camp magician. On the night of that performance I don't think anyone in the audience saw the tattoo, or even suspected it was there.
Nivelli was a very special man who could truthfully say, "Magic saved my life. I fooled the Nazis." But Nivelli never mentioned his background. That night, no one in the audience suspected that the gentleman who appeared before them in a white tie and tails had been forced, over and over again, to perform pocket tricks for the Nazis. After their daily torture sessions, sadistic murders, and body burning in the gas ovens of Germany's feared Concentration Camps, they demanded he entertain them!
That night in Philadelphia, in the midst of one hundred magicians and their friends all proving their magic to one another, Nivelli and his wife Lottie entered the dealers' area. A gentleman pushing a cart with Nivelli's props followed behind. They had driven themselves by car from Rego Park, New York.
Nivelli was short in stature, and dressed in a continental style. He wore a long topcoat, with a wide brimmed hat tilted to the side. Lottie, his wife, was slim and frail. The audience had no idea that years before their special guest performer was a German Jew, who was once the youngest member of the Berlin Stock Exchange until the rise of Hitler.
The conditions for performing at this Philadelphia "Magic Convention" were terrible. The room had no stage. The storage room dressing area was unheated. It was winter and a snowstorm was on the way.
Nivelli and Lottie's act was charming, well timed, sophisticated, and with a touch of comedy. Lottie assisted her husband as he performed a series of Manipulations - Canary in Orange, Lemon and Egg, Shooting Through a Woman, and the Substitution Trunk. These performers were different; they were appealing. However, when they did the trunk trick, Lottie had difficulty moving the heavy unit into place. She had more trouble trying to get up to the top of the trunk after sealing Herbert in a cloth bag and locking him inside the trunk. Some of the audience thought their routine was a comedy, and began to laugh. But their performance was not funny. When Herbert and Lottie accomplished their quick change of one person for another, the audience stood in sincere appreciation for their talent, then applauded, and finally cheered. Suddenly this demanding audience recognized an outstanding talent, and decided they loved the performers!
Herbert Nivelli was born Herbert Levin in Berlin on September 9, 1906. In 1933 Nivelli fled from Germany and settled in Czechoslovakia. From his youth he had been interested in magic, and in time opened seven magic shops. When he decided upon a career in magic, he reversed the spelling of his name to create "Nivelli." But World War II would have a profound effect on his life and magic.
A farewell article in a 1947 German newspaper announced Nivelli's departure for America. The faded clip did not list the name of the paper or the month in which it appeared but the article was entitled "To Appear and Do Magic." Nivelli had heard this unusual order over and over again from the Nazis: "You are hereby summoned to appear and do magic."
Bored after their daily cruelty, the Nazis always assured Nivelli that his family would be spared if he obeyed their commands to entertain them. But Nivelli's parents, his wife and his nine-year-old son were later burned in the gas ovens. Eventually Nivelli was moved from Auschwitz along with 1,000 other prisoners and sent to Schwarzheide, where he was ordered to do "bone work." Once again his magic worked its wonders -- Nivelli conjured for his life.
The final paragraph of the German article says, "Now Nivelli says goodbye to Berlin, his birthplace, to go to America -to freedom - to start a new life again."
Herbet Nivelli, forever marked with Tattoo #A1676, did start a new life, and succeeded. He immigrated to America in 1947 under the displaced persons quota. According to this report, before leaving for the United States, Nivelli appeared at the Schiffbauerdamm Theater. On the billboard outside of the theater was a sign announcing, "Laughter And Crying." Once inside the theater, the public watched a fairy tale. They saw a man who had exchanged his Auschwitz Concentration Camp garb for a colorful bright Harlequin sequined costume. The paper described 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."
Nivelli's magic would once again sustain his life. In 1948 he married Lottie, the sole survivor of a large German family. Lottie's failing health had ended her professional career as a concert singer and pianist. By 1954 Nivelli's reputation as a fine magician was established in the United States, and his name appeared on the bill at the New York Palace. Once again this performer had another reason to give thanks for his magic skills.
In his final years Nivelli was a frequent performer on cruise ships. His last show for a 1,500 member Shrine Convention in Lancaster, Pennsylvania was on May 1, 1977, two days before his death. He was survived only by Lottie - all of his other relatives had died years before. Even his sister, Hettie, who had also immigrated to this country, predeceased him.
In a July 1948 issue of Conjurors Magazine, Bruce Reynolds quoted Nivelli, who spoke about his experiences as a Jewish magician in Nazi Germany:
"When the S.S. found out that I was "Nivelli, the Magician" whom many had seen in leading theaters throughout Germany, they sought me out and commanded that I entertain them.
"With practically nothing in the way of magical apparatus or gimmicks, just a dirty pack of playing cards, I had managed to keep some string and coins (the Germans lent me these), I put a slip-shod act together that was good enough to keep me constantly on call. And I mean, constantly ... for these devils would come to my bare wooden bunk, at all hours of the night, prod me in the ribs, and demand that I get up and "do some tricks." All right. I did it. And it saved my life. Also made my life much easier, for the next day they would let me sleep longer and not give me rough work to do. I also had special food.
"Then I added thimbles to my repertoire and some cut up sponge. With this sponge, I fashioned the little pellets and with some cups, did the cups and balls. Then they began to insist that I teach them these tricks. So that when I was not performing, I was teaching magic.
"Then came the terrible tragic day for me. It was the time Heidrich, their Galetier in Vienna was killed. All Jews were arrested. Many killed. Others shipped off to a more terrible concentration camp. For four days and four nights, I was locked up in a cattle box car with scores of others; all jammed up together like sardines in a can. No food, no water. And I landed in the horrible Auschwitz Camp. All to die in gas chambers including my own wife and child. Six million Jews met his ghastly death.
"Again, magic saved my life. The word got around that I was Nivelli, the Magician. Finally, in the Concentration Camp near Berlin, I was rescued.
"But by that time, through lack of food and vitamins, I was so weak I could only walk on sticks. improvised crutches. My fingernails and toenails had dropped off. I was the first man to come back from the Camp alive, to Berlin. There I was given proper food and clothing. Some friends in magic gave me some more tricks. All made of wood by their own hands. I started all over again. Six months later I was performing on the stages of Berlin, where I had achieved fame before the war. I got to America on the Displaced Persons quota ... and praise God. This wonderful country. These wonderful, wonderful people. I am now living in New York City with my sister Hettie. We are so happy. We are so, so busy playing dates in theaters. And I have just come back from Atlantic City where I was honored to have been chosen to play on the bill at the great convention of the Society of American Magicians."
Somehow, in some way, Nivelli's personality had been preserved. Not through bitterness, not by hate, but as a gentleman magician, who more than ever appreciated his art.
Nivelli had finally found freedom. Not only had magic saved his life, it also opened new doors, brought new friends, and once again proved its eternal qualities. Because of his magic, Nivelli survived the Holocaust.
To my knowledge, Herbert Nivelli never billed himself as anything but "Nivelli," but he is one magician who deserves the title, THE GREAT NIVELLI.
I feel privileged to have known him, corresponded with him, and admired him. He was successful, despite terrible suffering. He was a gentleman who endured the worst and became the best. His business abilities allowed him to invest in real estate and provide for his wife. He was an intriguing man, and perhaps more magicians should have known him better, and learned from his wonderful example.
Auf Widerschen, Nivelli.