“All right, pick a card,” Werner Reich said, fanning out a worn deck of cards in his Long Island home to demonstrate a trick he’d learned in an unlikely place: on the top of a bare wooden bunk in the concentration camp barracks at Auschwitz.
Mr. Reich is 89 now, but in the spring of 1944, he was a terrified, emaciated teenager crammed in with other starving Jewish prisoners as they watched their comrades being killed and awaited the same fate.
His bunkmate was Herbert Levin, a kind man in his late 30s. Mr. Levin was also a professional magician, known in his act as the Great Nivelli.
The teenage Mr. Reich knew him only as Herr Levin, German for Mr. Levin, and refrained from calling him by the inmate number tattooed into his forearm, a common mode of address among the prisoners at the camp.
Mr. Levin’s family had already been killed, but he managed to survive Auschwitz by performing magic for the camp’s guards. Interest in Mr. Levin has recently been rekindled with “Nivelli’s War,” an Off Broadway show produced by a children’s theater company at the New Victory Theater in Times Square. The last public performance is Sunday, and the final one for school groups is Thursday.
Both Mr. Levin and Mr. Reich survived the Holocaust and wound up settling in New York City, but they never met again after Auschwitz.
Mr. Levin worked the rest of his life as Nivelli the magician, his stage name derived from reversing the spelling of his last name.
When Mr. Levin died in 1977, Mr. Reich spied his obituary in a magician’s magazine, written by the Rev. William Rauscher, 84, who had met the magician. The article noted Mr. Levin’s time in Auschwitz and the prisoner number tattooed on his forearm: A-1676. This was close to the one on Mr. Reich’s arm: A-1828. Mr. Reich rolled up his sleeve on Wednesday to show the number, which is now faded.
“Well, so am I,” Mr. Reich said with a laugh.
His memories of Auschwitz, however, remain indelible. He still recalls the fatherly tenderness and an air of elegance that Mr. Levin displayed, as well as the dirty pack of playing cards he would use to practice tricks on the bunk’s cushions of straw and burlap.
Six men would sleep crowded onto one bunk, in a barracks not far from the gas chambers and crematories that incinerated corpses day and night.
“I can still hear the screaming and smell the bodies burning,” Mr. Reich said.
Amid the horror and depravity of Auschwitz, Prisoner A-1676 taught A-1828 some simple card sleight of hand, both of them in their striped uniforms on the bunk.
“It just stuck with me,” said Mr. Reich, who was replicating the trick not on a barracks bunk, but on a white leather sofa in his spacious ranch house in Smithtown, N.Y. “This man may have taken a minute to show me this trick, but I remembered it.’’
While Mr. Levin survived Auschwitz by currying favor with cards, coins and pieces of string, Mr. Reich made it through by being physically sturdy and incredibly lucky.
Scores of prisoners were sent to their deaths based on selections made by Josef Mengele, who was known as the Angel of Death because of his horrific experiments on prisoners.
Mr. Reich recalled being forced to strip naked and run past Mengele with other boys to display their physiques.
“We were running for our lives,” Mr. Reich recalled. “We tried to look bigger, stronger; we’d smile, do anything under the sun to look fit for work.”
With a casual wave, Mengele would send scores of prisoners to their deaths as he joked with German officers, Mr. Reich recalled, but he selected Mr. Reich and several dozen others for survival.
After two years of internment in several concentration camps and a 35-mile “death march” through the snow, Mr. Reich was 17 and weighed only 64 pounds when he wound up in another concentration camp, in Mauthausen, Austria, where he was liberated by American troops in May 1945.
He settled in London and met his future wife, Eva, a Jewish woman who had herself survived the camps. They raised two sons together before she died of cancer in December.
Mr. Reich spoke briefly of his history onstage after the opening-night performance of “Nivelli’s War.” But he said he was upset that the play depicted a magician character named the Great Nivelli without going into the character’s Holocaust story, or even referring explicitly to the Holocaust.
The play depicts Nivelli’s flashback to fleeing the bombing of Frankfurt as a child and relying on a mysterious stranger who, in turn, relies on magic tricks to help the two survive so the boy can reunite with his mother.
Mr. Reich called it “sacrilege” to invoke figures or elements of the Holocaust while whitewashing over the troubling parts.
The show’s director, Paul Bosco McEneaney, who is a founder of Cahoots NI, a children’s theater company based in Belfast, Northern Ireland, said he learned of Mr. Levin in 2011. He was so moved by his story of survival that he commissioned Charles Way, a British playwright, to write “Nivelli’s War” not as a historical show, Mr. McEneaney said, but rather as “a piece of theater telling the story of two characters who despite avowing their hatred for each other finally come to a new relationship, which has different meanings for both.”
Mr. Way named the Nivelli character after the real-life magician not out of an intention to detail his story, but rather out of “respect and honor” and to help show how an act of kindness can spark a friendship that might otherwise seem unlikely, Mr. McEneaney said.
The play, which has received acclaim during runs in England and Ireland, also touches on the plight of refugees around the world today, as well as the history of conflict between the Irish and British in Northern Ireland, he said.
The play’s few poignant allusions to the Holocaust are meant to prompt young viewers to inquire about real-life histories of people like Mr. Levin and Mr. Reich, Mr. McEneaney said.
Mr. Reich acknowledged that he is keenly sensitive to proper depictions of the Holocaust, and for 25 years he has kept a busy schedule speaking to groups about his experiences.
As a young man, Mr. Reich worked his way up from a factory worker with no education, getting a night-school degree at City College in Manhattan and becoming a structural engineer.
But he also spent his adult life passionately pursuing magic, which he attributed to what he had learned from the magician of Auschwitz. “We loved anything that could take us away from Auschwitz for even a moment, that could take our minds off our memories and the horror around us.”
Correction: May 5, 2017
An earlier version of a picture caption with this article misidentified the prisoner who survived Auschwitz by performing magic for the guards. He was Herbert Levin, not Werner Reich