In the main square of Krakow, packed with May Day tourists, a solitary performance artist stood vigil beneath the medieval clock tower. Dressed in a black robe, her head shaved and her face devoid of expression, she stood there—a gaunt and somber figure, mutely holding up a placard bearing a big question mark. Before her, affixed to an easel, a statement in Polish and English addressed the war in Ukraine. “The canvas is wrapped in gauze to reflect shared pain and trauma,” it read. “With a question mark, into which you can put the most disturbing questions: ‘How is this possible?’ ‘Will it end?’ ‘What will happen next?’”
I’d come to Poland with an American magician, Bill Herz, who was performing shows for Ukrainian refugees. Herz and his wife, Gwenn, had seen the plight of families fleeing Ukraine and felt called to help. And so, to the flood of aid flowing into Central Europe—of arms, food, medical supplies, and money—Herz was adding the Mouth Coil, the Hat Tear, the Human Xylophone, and other illusions. These were nonessential goods…and yet every show produced an audience of captivated kids raucously laughing as mothers in the back of the room aimed cellphones, taking pictures to send back to their husbands in Byrdansk and Kharkiv and Mariupol. Look, those pictures said, our child is happy, our child is laughing, our child is safe.
Bill Herz is a droll court jester: always a quip or a joke, or a piece of sly advice that sounds like a joke (“How can you guarantee late checkout at a hotel? Go to the front desk and say, ‘We ate in your restaurant last night, and my wife’s stomach is upset.’ Guaranteed!”). Yet the trip itself—the mothers we were meeting and the stories they were telling us about the assault on their country—was anything but funny. A woman from Dymer, near the Belarussian border, described helicopters firing, rockets flying “from morning to night,” and the streets of her town on fire. Another recalled the outbreak of war on February 24 in Kharkiv. She and her family hauled mattresses, water bottles, and food to the basement, hiding for the next two weeks as bombs rained down and she explained to her four-year-old son that their city was being attacked “by a bad man with fireworks.” She described the fear they felt—how it steals your breath, paralyzing your muscles and freezing you “like a wax figure.”
Bill’s tricks delighted the kids, and his sleight-of-hand never failed to evoke clucks of astonishment when he worked the crowd afterward. I was as baffled as his audiences. See enough magic tricks and you almost can’t help thinking that something uncanny is happening. Bill scoffs at illusionists who encourage people to believe that their magic is real. “It bothers me when someone truly believes that I can read minds,” he told me. I wondered why. He had explained that even very young kids could appreciate magic, since all you needed was a capacity for basic object permanence. Yet that phrase contains sharp ironies for the Ukrainian children, whose world now includes almost nothing permanent. After one show, Bill stood looking out at the room of milling children. “It’s important to me, when I do magic with kids, that no one leave the room actually thinking I have the power to move things around through space.” Especially these kids, he seemed to imply. Their lives had vanished, and it would be cruel to let them think someone might be able to put them back, just like that.