Irv Barowsky’s life today is far removed in years and distance from his childhood in Poland.
Even after World War II broke out in 1939, the then 10-year-old boy, his parents and siblings continued their everyday routine – until 1941.
With Germany’s continued march on Poland, Hitler’s Third Reich eventually positioned itself to practice its sorcery on Polish Jews, in an effort to make them disappear.
More than seven decades have passed, but Irv’s memories are vivid: the enclosed Jewish ghetto in Wilno and later, the single-file evacuation that separated the elderly and infirm to the left – and certain death – and all others to the right.
“That’s when we were separated – my parents and my brothers,” Irv said.
After falling ill en route to Buchenwald Concentration Camp, guards dispatched Irv’s older brother Mischa to the crematory. Irv would remain incarcerated at Buchenwald until Allied Forces arrived in 1945, liberating the camp.
Seventy years later, the nearly 82-year-old longtime Los Altos resident basks in the warmth of surprised expressions, huge smiles and how-did-he-do-that? wonder.
Irv Barowsky is a magician.
Meals, magic, tricks in timing
Thursday-evening diners at Maltby’s Restaurant & Tavern immediately recognize his kind blue eyes and combed-back gray locks, but more eye-catching is Irv’s tie sporting cards from a playing deck. So when Irv asks patrons to pick a card on his tie – any card – they can’t be too surprised when he whips out a deck of cards from his pocket and instructs them to pull said card from the deck. The card is replaced, the deck shuffled and Irv turns away, asking them to retrieve the card yet again.
The request stumped Los Altos resident Bruce Telkamp while dining last week with his wife, Diane, and children Audrey and Max. When Irv turned around, it was the rest of the family who saw the card on Irv’s forehead. It took Bruce a little longer to figure out, but he erupted in laughter when he looked up and realized his search through the deck was futile.
Irv’s biggest conundrum is approaching people at the right time. He doesn’t want to interrupt businessmen negotiating a deal or young couples who have eyes only for each other. And he tries never to intrude when people are eating. So he watches customers peruse their menus, order and wait for their entrees.
“But when a soup or salad comes, that throws me,” he said.
The Telkamps have ordered their dinner. Irv borrows a napkin from the table and unfolds it to reveal – nothing. An intrigued Max watches as Irv pulls a red-silk kerchief from the napkin.
“I think I saw that. I think I saw how he does that,” Max said.
Examining the paper napkin, Max is dashed not to find the suspected holes in its center. He’s still trying to figure out the trick when Irv bids them a nice evening.
Food server Ignacio Lopez said customers really enjoy Irv’s entertainment.
“He’s a really nice guy,” Lopez said. “He’s beautiful with people, especially with the kids – they’re always asking for him. It’s bad when he takes a night off.”
After seeing several of Irv’s magic moves, owner James Maltby invited him to perform once a week 10 years ago – offering to pay him for his services. Irv grabbed the gig but declined the dollars, though he does enjoy a meal on the house occasionally.
“My reward is in the reactions and the responses,” Irv said. “And nine times out of 10, someone will say, ‘How did you do that?’”
Tools of the trade
It’s not an occupation anyone would suspect of an engineer who retired 10 years ago at the age of 71. In fact, most people would suspect an engineer – a retired one, at that – to fill his time tinkering with stuff in a toolshed.
“Or that he’s reserved,” said Irv’s wife, Rosel. “No, not Irv. He’s definitely a people person.”
Approximately 30 years ago, well into his engineering career and many years from his retirement, Irv said his two daughters gave him a magic kit for Father’s Day.
It didn’t come with a hat and rabbit – “Just little gimmicks,” Irv said – but it did pique his curiosity about magic. He started checking out books on magic from the library, renting videotapes and hiring a personal coach. But it was a class about magic he attended at De Anza College that hooked him on becoming a Houdini – of sorts.
When the Palo Alto chapter of the Society of American Magicians accepted Irv as a member 21 years ago, it signaled he was a serious performer.
“I think their main concern is that you really have an interest and desire to perform,” Rosel said of Irv’s accomplishment. “They don’t just want people coming to learn how the tricks are done.”
It’s magic rule No. 1: Never give away a trick’s secret.
“The people who do this for a living – if the audience knew how it was done, they wouldn’t pay to see them,” Irv said.
Rosel described the magic tricks that Irv learns as a combination of timing and compound moves.
“Like rubbing the top of your head and your tummy at the same time,” she said.
But he can do it.
So it’s not surprising that Irv enjoys making magic with music and teams up with local musicians to entertain visitors at the Mountain View Senior Center Friday mornings. With his Casio digital saxophone in tow, accompanied by Anna Maggiora at the piano and Phil Houseman picking the banjo, the trio plays melodies that evoke memories – “Moon River,” “Sunrise, Sunset,” “Never on Sunday” – as well as waltzes, tangoes, line-dancing jingles.
“Some people go to the gym, some people go to the dance floor,” Rosel said. “We’re talking people in their 80s and 90s – some married, some not. This gives them a way of fitting in socially.”
If there’s a social bond between the dancers, there’s camaraderie among the musicians, who have memorized the music. Hearing Maggiora play the piano – flawlessly – no one would suspect she is blind. Hearing the gentle strum of the banjo in the background, no one would suspect Houseman is 90 years old and retired from the U.S. Air Force. And hearing Irv on the sax, no one would suspect a person who had experienced such tremendous tragedy could make such beautiful music – and magic.
The smiles from seniors and other visitors kicking up their heels on the dance floor to the trio’s big-band tunes gives the Barowskys the pleasure of knowing they are spreading happiness. It’s a lifetime far removed from the years and miles behind in Irv’s past – a past he remembers but a place he doesn’t dwell.
“There are two different personalities that survived the Holocaust,” Rosel said. “There are survivors who can’t forget and those who can’t forget but move on. For Irv, life went on.”
But no magic can erase mankind’s malice of that time, and it makes Irv that much sadder when people try to erase the Holocaust from history, claiming it never happened.
Every so often, teachers call and ask if students studying those years can interview him about his experiences. It’s a story that won’t put a smile on students’ faces or bring joy to their lives, but it’s a story that should never fade.
The mystic Haja Doudat
Several years ago, someone told Irv he needed a business card. It got him thinking – Irv Barowsky doesn’t conjure images of a mysterious magician. But Haja Doudat does.
And Haja Doudat did the trick.
Between the magic gigs at Maltby’s Thursday evenings and appearances at Harry’s Hofbrau in San Jose Sunday evnings, Irv and Maggiora volunteer making music magic at the Rose Kleiner Avenidas Center in Mountain View every second Friday of the month, The Forum Retirement Community in Cupertino on the fourth Saturday and their weekly stints at the senior center.
And if that isn’t enough to keep him busy, Irv teams up with fellow volunteer musicians Margie and Aldo Bin to perform twice monthly on Tuesdays at the Los Altos Sub-Acute & Rehabilitation Center.
Irv also volunteers his magic for annual charity fundraisers such as the Arthritis Foundation, Relay For Life and the Red Cross.
“It keeps me off the streets, which is a plus,” Irv said.
But Rosel knows he’d stay out of trouble if he had half as many gigs.
“It’s not so much keeping him off the streets,” she said. “As we get older, it’s feeling you’re a viable individual and contribute to society instead of being a couch potato. Life has been good – it’s time to give back.”
But it’s just a little more than that, too. It’s a gift he offers – his gift for sharing stories and providing people a little entertainment.
“It brings smiles to their faces,” Irv said.