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The Magician of Auschwitz

by Kathy Kacer; Gillian Newland (illus.)

In The Magician of Auschwitz, readers are introduced to a young Jewish boy named Werner. Separated from his family and sent to a concentration camp, he is totally alone in a world he no longer recognizes. Taking the top bunk in a packed barrack, Werner finds the lower bunk occupied by a sad-looking older man, Levin, who seems out of place. Immediately, the boy fears for him. One night, Werner is awoken by camp guards demanding that Levin perform a series of card tricks. Awed by his bunkmate’s sleight of hand, Werner befriends him and begins to look forward to the nightly magic shows. Soon, Werner realizes that Levin’s performances are keeping him alive.

It is very difficult to explain the Holocaust to children, but Kacer excels at it, and knows her subject well. Her parents were both Holocaust survivors, and Magician, based on a true story, is the author’s 17th book for children about this dark time in history. She writes tenderly about the friendship between Werner and Levin, and honestly about the conditions at Auschwitz, including only as much historical detail as is necessary to tell the story. It’s a skilfully executed example of gradually providing context without overwhelming the reader. An afterword offers more information for those who want to delve deeper.

Gillian Newland’s haunting illustrations feature an appropriately muted palette dominated by light grey, muddy brown, and greyish indigo. Paired with Newland’s realistic style, the colours give the impression of looking at old photographs. The effective use of bright red draws the reader’s eye to important details such as the guards’ Nazi armbands and the deck of cards Levin uses to perform his magic tricks (a nod, perhaps, to the film Schindler’s List)

The Magician of Auschwitz tells of friendship in the face of terrible conditions. It is a wonderful springboard for discussion about the Second World War and the atrocities committed during the Holocaust, and should be considered an essential purchase for every public and school library.