Werner Reich somehow emerged victorious from the Nazi death camps, despite the unspeakable horrors he both suffered and witnessed.
“He was a great, loving man, who basically befriended anybody he would meet,” said his son David, of Smithtown. “He was never ‘Woe is me, everybody feel pity for me,’ he was never like that.”
“To my father, humor was the greatest power,” his son Mikal said in a eulogy.
Reich died at his home in Smithtown on July 8 after a brief illness. He was 94.
Happily married for more than six decades, Reich was a successful industrial engineer — earning his degree after a decade of night classes at City College of New York.
He was tireless in his commitment to keep the world from again descending to the horrors of the Nazi era, recounting his experiences to countless children and audiences on Long Island and around the nation and globe.
At Auschwitz, a kind bunkmate who was a magician showed a card trick to Reich, who was just 15 when the Nazis captured him because he had been developing photos for Yugoslavia resistance fighters.
“The trick he showed me stayed with me, enabled me to go around to schools and try to make this world a little bit better,” Reich says in a TED talk watched by more than than 2 million.
“So if you know somebody who needs help, if you know somebody who is scared, be kind to them,” he said. “Give them advice, give them a hug, teach them a card trick; whatever you are going to do is going to be hope for them, and if you do it at the right time, it will enter their heart and be with them wherever they go.”
Reich also became an expert magician and sometimes enlivened his talks with a bit of magic.
During his life, he fought “against all forms of hate,” said Jane Fossner Pashman, director of UJA-Federation's Witness Project. “He had endless optimism for the future and never stopped speaking to students locally and internationally about how to make this world a better place.”
Andrea Bolender, chairman of the board of Holocaust Memorial & Tolerance Center of Nassau County, recalled Reich as a “’magical’ human who created an approach for students and adults to better understand the consequences of permitting hate to spiral out of control.”
Meryl Menashe, coordinator of the Irving Roth Professional Development Institute at Nassau's Holocaust center, distilled what Reich taught her: “Don’t be a good person that does nothing; be a good person that does something. Help a friend. Hugs.”
Reich also was quite a chef; pupil- and holiday-pleasers ranged from lemon mousse to latkes. Bolender said he often brought homemade Viennese crescent cookies; Pashman said he taught her daughters to make them.
Mikal underscored the power of his father's sense of humor: “ … By laughing at things, there was no evil that could not be defeated.” For Reich, “laughing uncontrollably with family — any of his families — is when he felt fully alive. And safe from any horrifying nonsense that might come along.”
Family fled Germany for Yugoslavia
Reich was just 6 years old, he says in the TED talk, when he, his parents and sister fled “Jew-hating Germany,” for Yugoslavia, where they lived happily for seven years.
When the Nazis invaded Yugoslavia in 1941; Reich said he was beaten repeatedly, and “dragged” through prisons before arriving at Auschwitz.
Reich was one of very few — less than 100 out of 5,000 — Joseph Mengele, the SS physician known as the “Angel of Death,” selected to transfer instead of gassing.
The approach of Allied troops led the Nazis to march 60,000 Auschwitz prisoners, with 15,000 dying on the way, to rail cars — open though it was January — to Mauthausen in Austria.
Reich, 17, weighed only 64 pounds when the camp was liberated on May 5, 1945.
Seventy-five years later, he wrote in Newsday: "Sure there was a happy atmosphere in the camp, but the liberation did nothing for us or our condition as the American troops had no food or medications and we were all starving, diseased or dead. And the war was still going on.”
Returning to Yugoslavia, where he spent two hard years without family or friends, he managed to reach England, where he found work as a laborer and tool and die maker. Marrying the love of his life, Eva, a Kindertransport survivor, the couple in 1955 joined his sister Renate in New York City. After moving to Bayside, Queens, Reich and his family settled in Smithtown around 1970.
After becoming a widower in 2016, Reich reconnected with a friend from his teens, Chava Mendelsson, of Ross-on-Wye in England, becoming a couple.
Reich, honored by the state Assembly and Suffolk's legislature, worshipped at the Temple Beth David in Commack and belonged to the International Brotherhood of Magicians, according to the podcast platform, Spreaker.com.
Reich also is survived by four grandchildren, a niece, Karen Ziegler, of Washington Heights, and a nephew, Robert, of Manhattan and Westport.