The idea of a child in Auschwitz is so horrifying that I approached this book with great trepidation. This true story is told from the point of view of Werner, a ten-year-old boy imprisoned without the support of any family.
Kathy Taser however, has found the perfect balance between the actual horrors of the concentration camp and the humanity of a single individual. Since this is a picture book written for children, she does not go into great detail about the atrocities committed against the Jewish prisoners. Neither does she gloss over them.
“Wooden bunks lined the sides of the timber building. No pillows, no blankets, no mattresses – not even start – cushioned the bed.”
“As many as six men were crammed into each bunk.”
“The days were filled with endless hours of standing in lines outside, waiting to be counted. If the count was off the even one person, the guards would start all over again, and the prisoners would have to stand even longer. Many fainted it from exhaustion as the hours passed. When Werner and the others weren’t waiting to be counted, the guards ordered them to do push-ups – again for hours on end. Often Werner crawled back to his bunk, wondering if he would survive another day.”
Kacer shows that the prisoners will do anything to survive, even steal bread from a hungry child. But Levin, the magician, doesn’t judge. Neither does he give up his humanity. His talent is both a gift and a curse. The guards wake him up during the night and force him to entertain them with tricks, thereby depriving him of the few hours of sleep he is allowed. Levin realizes that the day he runs out of tricks is the day he will be killed. As long as he can keep entertaining, he has a chance.
Levin shares his bunk with Werner and offers the child hope and compassion. He breaks his biggest rule, “A magician never reveals his secrets” and teaches Werner a card trick. Werner survives the war and never forgets his friend Levin. In turn, he passes this affection and magic onto his sons. It is an inspiring story of how a gentle, good man showed kindness in the worst circumstances. It is a testament to humanity.
Jillian Newland’s illustrations are done in shades of gray similar to the photography of the time period. However, in one illustration of the prisoners being counted, the bright red band with the swastika on the arm of a guard stands out vividly. The next red we see is the deck of cards in Levin’s hands as he performs for those same guards. They are the only spot of color throughout the rest of the book until we reach the last page. Here Werner is shown with his two grandchildren in soft shades of green, blue, and warm brown.
The book ends with the historical facts on the lives of Werner Reich and Herbert Levin. It also summarizes<a the Holocaust.
Although it is a picture book, even older students would find this story interesting. When children begin to ask about the Second World War, this story of a ten-year-old boy can make it relatable and real.