A photo of a man in a blue suit jacket holding a giant playing card

Photograph by Peter Ross

Sometimes in life, calamity is the mother of invention. When Russia invaded Ukraine last winter, Bill Herz ’79 and his wife, Gwenn, saw the news footage of Ukrainian refugee families, the children in particular, and wanted to help. Simply giving money didn’t seem like enough. Herz—a professional magician with a long and glittering career—found himself musing aloud: How about doing magic shows?

A plan took shape. An Amherst friend connected Herz with John Banka, a Polish American working for a Warsaw-based real-estate investment firm. Banka became the local point person, working with nonprofits and government agencies to set up more than a dozen performances in a 10-day whirlwind tour of schools, libraries and gyms across Poland. I had gotten to know Herz through an Amherst Zoom group, and in March, when he mentioned a possible plan in the works, I impulsively pledged to go along and chronicle the trip.

And so there I was, in late April at a Warsaw hotel, meeting him and Gwenn and their two adult children, Zack and Dana. From the first night, it was clear there was significant hilarity in store. Over dinner at an Indian restaurant, Bill and Dana, who is also a magician, talked about how people respond to magic tricks. “People like to be astounded,” Dana said, and grinned. “But mostly, they want to know how it’s done.”

As she talked, she placed a coin under an inverted glass, then draped the glass with a napkin. She slid the glass around on the tabletop, and I expected that at some point she would slyly dump the coin over the edge. And then—wham!—suddenly the whole glass was gone.

“I don’t know you well enough to go crawling around under the table,” I joked.

“Be my guest!” she said.

Bill, meanwhile, was doing a coin roll on his knuckles and keeping up a lively patter. The two were working together in well-oiled tandem, like the father-daughter scam team in Paper Moon. A couple at the next table craned to look, fascinated. The waiter arrived, bringing more rice.

“Thank you,” said Bill, “and is this for us, too?” Leaning over, he reached into the waiter’s pocket and pulled out the drinking glass.

Amazement rippled, as father and daughter slyly grinned. “OK,” I said, “how did you do that?”

“It’s our job,” Bill said with a shrug.

“Yeah,” Dana echoed. “It’s our job.”

A man pulling a ribbon out of his mouth in front of a classroom
The shows took place in schools, gyms and libraries across Poland. In the “mouth coil” trick, kids pulled a 30-foot rainbow from Herz’s mouth.

Bill Herz’s prestidigitation traces to his childhood outside New York City, and a magic set he got for his 8th birthday. He fell in love with doing tricks, and by high school he and a friend were polished entertainers on the Larchmont, N.Y., birthday circuit. At Amherst he built a reputation for feisty illusionism—once doing a pickpocketing demo during a Hadley Arkes class in the Red Room (“I took his watch”), and on another occasion finagling a final-paper exemption from Jim Maraniss in exchange for a magic trick. Things tended to vanish when Herz was around. As a member of the vaunted prankster group Rubber Chickens, he engineered a heist of the
Williams College football jerseys before the Homecoming game; another time it was the silverware from Valentine before Parents’ Day. (After delicate negotiations, President Bill Ward—another magic aficionado—agreed to ransom the hostage cutlery in exchange for three kegs of beer.)

Amherst fed the fledgling magician’s dreams. A classmate was Tony Peck ’79, son of Gregory Peck. One Parents’ Weekend at the Lord Jeffery Inn, Herz ended up impressing the elder Peck’s wife, Veronique, with a card trick. Months later, he got a surprise phone call from the actor. He and Veronique were throwing a party for a few friends. Would Herz like to come perform? Cadging plane fare from his brother, Herz flew out to L.A., only to find that the “few friends” included Frank Sinatra, Johnny Carson, Jack Lemmon, Michael Caine, Lucille Ball and Fred Astaire.

Herz felt pure panic, but the tricks went well, and the evening was a success—until Gregory Peck took a seat at the piano and turned to him, saying, “Bill, one rule at our party is that everybody sings.” Herz, who calls himself “100 percent tone-deaf,” protested to no avail. And so the young magician sat in a roomful of Hollywood superstars and sang a duet, “Tea for Two,” with Atticus Finch. “It was truly a surreal moment. I was horrible, but they all cheered.”

After Amherst, Herz went to Cornell, where he earned an MBA and a master of management in hospitality, hoping to go into the restaurant business. But he bailed on those plans and decided to do magic instead, scrambling for work at clubs and parties.

Things tended to vanish when Herz was around. Once, it was the silverware from Valentine.

Setting his sights on performing in the corporate world, he talked his way in and began landing gigs. Fuji. John Hancock. IBM. “I’d go to planning departments, to directors of sales and marketing, and say, ‘Look, this meeting is deadly. I can add life, I can keep people awake, I can tie in a message.’ And they’d say, ‘OK, let’s try it.’”

He engineered memorable stunts, like the time he made IBM CEO Lou Gerstner suddenly appear, out of nowhere, at a senior management meeting. The CEO loved it—“he was totally pumped”—and hired Herz again and again. “IBM basically paid for our house,” Herz says with a laugh. Dubbed “The King of Corporate Magic,” he began winning glowing reviews in the financial press, with The Wall Street Journal calling him “a modern-day Merlin.” In 1988 he and Gwenn founded Magicorp Productions, a company that orchestrates performances and represents magicians for corporate events worldwide.

Herz is clear-eyed about his own abilities as an illusionist. While nimble at sleight of hand, he doesn’t have the chops of the highest-flying stars he represents at Magicorp. “I’m no virtuoso pianist. I’m the saloon guy who can play all the songs and keep people entertained.” But, in combining magic with the business of magic, he fashioned a career that had him performing at the highest echelons of the corporate, entertainment and political worlds. Herz’s audiences have included five U.S. presidents and, at one point, all of the Supreme Court. Go to the Magicorp website and you can see the list of luminaries he has wowed, from Joe Biden to Jay Leno, Tom Brokaw to Beyoncé.

And now, Ukrainian refugees. Over 10 hectic days in late April and early May, the Herzes performed 15 shows across Poland for children and their mothers. The venues varied widely. A forlorn orphanage in Łódź. A huge gym in Kraków, its mammoth windows looking out on a meadow rife with dandelions. In Gdynia, it was a big science museum where kids raced about in a colorful chaos of exhibits; in Gdańsk, a steamy botanical garden in a glossy office and retail complex.

Whatever the venue, the show followed the same basic format, with Bill and Dana weaving their tricks around a friendly father-daughter competition, their banter translated by their Ukrainian interpreter, Anya. “My name is Bill, and I’m a magician,” Bill would begin, followed by Dana: “My name is Dana, and I’m a better magician!” Each Herz contributed. Zack ran the video camera, music and bubble machine. Gwenn managed props and entertained kids with hand puppets.

The roster of tricks included some runaway favorites. Like Die Box, in which Bill would place a large die inside a rectangular cube with two square compartments whose flaps and doors he opened one at a time, purporting to show that the die was nowhere inside—but only after first sliding it audibly to the side he wasn’t showing. “See?” he’d say. “It’s not here!” The sneaky action elicited howls of laughing protest from kids who then went silent when he would finally open both compartments at once, and the die was gone. In another crowd-pleaser, the Mouth Coil, he and two volunteers tore up sheets of paper, wadded them into balls and stuffed the balls in their mouths. Audiences tittered as the two kids, following his command, pulled sodden lumps from their mouths—then erupted in amazement as Bill, assisted by the kids, pulled from his own mouth no sodden lump, but a 30-foot-long rainbow chain of paper.

Every show ended with kids romping around—dancing, playing with beach balls and hula hoops and scarfing down the candy that Dana magically produced in a covered bowl, with a wave of a wand. Mothers stood watching the melee, taking photos with their phones. “You just know they’re sending those back to their husbands in Ukraine,” Bill said.

In quieter moments after a performance, kids would linger, some helping the Herzes break down the show; for children abruptly torn from their homes, the prospect of a mother and father and their own kids clearing off a table seemed to exert a gravitational pull.

I did interviews. At Junior Space, an all-Ukrainian school hastily set up in the center of Warsaw, students approached and proudly recited well-practiced English for the visiting Americans.

One girl introduced herself, brightly smiling. “I am 13 years old. My city is called Berdyansk. My parents cannot leave Berdyansk. It is next to Mariupol.”

I asked her what happened in her town. “It is occupated,” she said.

Was it hard to be away? I asked. What did she miss most? “I miss my parents,” she said. “And my dog.” She showed me a photo on her phone; in return I showed her one of my family’s bloodhounds, wearing sunglasses. Kids crowded round, displaying dog photos and oohing and aahing in the universal language of pet love.

A man in a classroom talking to a group of children
Herz at a show in Łódź with interpreter Anya Chernega. In 10 days the Herz family entertained 1,000 people.

We were seeing these children in a particular context: fun. That was why the Herzes had come, after all—to spread some laughter around. But you could see cracks in the hilarity. It might be a child who sat amid the merriment silently swaying, or a mother with a far-off gaze. A grade-school teacher in a town outside Warsaw described a clear difference between children who left Ukraine early in the war and those who left later. The later ones, she said, had trouble focusing or even talking. Touch one on the shoulder and he might flinch.

Nearly all Ukrainian men were required to remain in the country to assist in the war effort, and the family ruptures had been sudden and jarring. “Our kids have mothers only,” a young English teacher named Dasha told me at Junior Space School. “No fathers here.” Her own 11-year-old brother, Alex, was one of the students, and when I asked him what he liked to do for fun, he avidly declaimed, “My hobby is to watch cartoons! I also like tennis!” With a big grin, he mimicked a two-hand backhand. When he wandered off, Dasha spoke in a lower voice: “My brother and I are here alone—our parents are still in Odesa. Here in school, the children are excited, but at night we talk to my mother on the phone and Alex cries a lot. He wants to go home.”

Mariupol, Odesa, Kharkiv: once mere names in the headlines, these places now evoked harrowing stories of survival. A mother from Dymer, near the Belarus border, told us of helicopters firing daily on the town, rockets flying “from morning to night” and the streets on fire. Another woman recalled the outbreak of war in Kharkiv. She and her family hauled mattresses, water bottles and food to the basement and hid there for two weeks as bombs rained down and she told her 4-year-old son that the city was being attacked “by a bad man with fireworks.” She described a paralyzing fear—fear so bad it froze you “like a wax figure.”

We were seeing these children in a particular context: fun. But you could see cracks in the hilarity.

Other stories were heartrending. In Łódź, where Bill and Dana performed at an orphanage sheltering 40 Ukrainian kids, we met Tatiana, a 25-year-old social worker who escaped eastern Ukraine along with many of the children. In halting English, she recounted how in 2014 the Russians briefly captured her hometown. She’d been 17 then, and in school, when tanks banged through the streets. “After a few days, Ukrainians push them out. But now they try again.” When the current fighting began, she had fled with her mother and brother. And her father?

“He is not here,” she said quietly. “He went a different way.” Her blue eyes radiated intensity. “He believed the propaganda. Now he is with the Russians.”

It was hard to fathom how brutally divisive the war is. After the orphanage show in Łódź, the Herzes listened in as our interpreter, Anya, spoke with Tatiana. Anya, who worked as a freelance web designer and had fled Kyiv when war broke out, had had a Russian boyfriend in high school who subsequently moved to St. Petersburg to begin a career as a dentist. They’d stayed in touch, and when the war began, she sent him stories about Russian misdeeds—including accounts of children being killed. He rebuffed her, and they broke off contact.

“Putin has lost his mind,” Anya said now. “And now he convinces Russians of propaganda, so they lose their mind too.”

Gwenn Herz mentioned reading about how people in Russia believed that anyone daring to speak Russian in Ukraine risked being beaten or even killed.

“This is absurd!” Anya said heatedly. “Tatiana and I, we spoke Russian in our families. We spoke Russian at school. We still speak it!”

Would that change? Bill asked. Would Ukrainians abandon the language?

Both women nodded. “It will change,” Tatiana said. “It is already beginning.”

Anya had spoken about going to Russian schools all her life, reading Dostoevsky, Gogol and, above all, Tolstoy. It was sobering to contemplate the fiendishness of an aggression that had divided Ukrainians not only geographically but within families and even within themselves—separating them from the language of their childhood, so that a 20-year-old who sighed over Anna Karenina now found it tainted. It was the ultimate divide-and-conquer.

Before one show in Warsaw, an organizer cautioned me not to use any last names in anything I wrote or specify the building where the refugees were staying: So rife was fear of Russian perfidy, in this age of digital monitoring, that even magic shows were enwrapped in secrecy. Rumor, conspiracy theory and propaganda, fed by fear and anger, had created a vicious circle, in which war generated demonization, which in turn fueled more war.

Meanwhile, Poland had stepped in as savior. The flowers in every Warsaw sidewalk planter; a balcony wrapped in the Ukrainian flag; clothing, sneakers, face paint, even hair dye: The whole country was decked out in blue and yellow. These symbolic gestures adorned a colossal effort of material support. We were agog at how much Poland was doing, taking in 3 million Ukrainians and giving them housing and health care, feeding them, schooling them, entertaining them with cultural events, organizing blood drives for war victims back home.

At the show in the science center in Gdynia, the city’s deputy mayor, Katarzyna Gruszecka-Spychała, described a metropolitan area with 800,000 Poles—and 100,000 Ukrainian refugees. It was “a really big number,” Gruszecka-Spychała said—one that created big challenges. The first was housing. “Our citizens have opened their homes, but this is not a long-term solution.” Education was another problem. How to incorporate several thousand children into Gdynia’s schools? Many of the refugees, furthermore, had been traumatized and needed counseling. “Some no longer want to use the Russian language, so we are trying to hire psychologists who speak Ukrainian—refugees who are psychologists by training. But many of them have their own trauma. It’s very complicated.”

The Polish generosity is rooted historically in a sense of shared predicament. Over the centuries, Poland has experienced military aggression so severe that for long periods the country vanished from the map of Europe, gobbled up by Russia and Germany. In Gdańsk we visited the Museum of the Second World War, where one room displays documents from the notorious 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, in which Hitler and Stalin agreed to conquer Poland and divide it up—the exhibit squeezing visitors into a narrow corridor between Soviet and Nazi flags emblazoned on towering walls. Another room contains a millstone from a village in Ukraine where, in the 1930s, the
Soviets forcibly collectivized all farming, spurring a famine in which 3 million Ukrainians starved to death—a weaponization of food that prefigures the grain crisis of today’s war.

There were other unsettling parallels. In the run-up to World War II, both Hitler and Stalin had scorned the very existence of the Polish state, calling it an “unreal creation” and “ugly offspring” of the 1919 Versailles treaty. Similarly, in scoffing at Ukraine’s nationhood and subsuming it within the idea of “Ancient Rus,” Putin was attacking not merely the territory of Ukraine but its identity. While we were in Poland, reports surfaced of Ukrainian children being shipped to Russia for adoption, and Ukraine’s human rights commissioner charged the Russians with war crimes against children. “When they kill children,” she said, “it means that they do not want our nation to be in this world.”

The attack on Ukraine threatened not simply destruction and death, but something even more drastic: obliteration, through precisely the kind of national vanishing that Poles knew all too well. One young Polish woman at Gdynia recounted how acutely her grandparents remembered both World War II and its long aftermath, when the country languished under oppressive Soviet rule. “They told us about what happened. So we know.”

The fact that such existential threats are built into the national muscle memory of the Poles made their generosity no less impressive. A Ukrainian woman I interviewed shook her head in wonderment at all that was being done for her and her children.

“The Polish people,” she said, “have the biggest heart in the world.”

A man with a red backpack standing in front of a city fountain

One of the Herzes took this photo of Rand Cooper in Warsaw, at a memorial to the poet Adam Mickiewicz.

The tour proved grueling. Setting up shows and breaking them down; packing and moving everything; checking into a different hotel every other day; scheduling trains and taxis and vans; connecting with local organizations. Bill Herz was exhausted. One night in Warsaw I suggested going around the corner from our hotel to a restaurant for pierogi. “How far around the corner?” he asked.

We spent a lot of time on trains, skimming past vistas of birch forests and sun-swept farmlands where giant wind turbines stood sentinel. There was plenty of family fun during these rides. The Herzes are big in the kidding and teasing department. “Rand,” Dana asked, “did you know Dad before he was bald?”

“I was always bald,” Bill said.

Zack told the story of how they goofed on their mom by telling her that Bill was going to get hair implants. “Then he got a, you know—”

“A hairpiece,” said Gwenn. “Bright orange. It was godawful.”

They asked about Bill’s Amherst fraternity, and I told them what I remembered. “Your dad’s frat was the football frat, and there were all these huge guys—”

“And one little guy,” said Zack.

“The court jester,” Bill said.

In the Herz family gestalt, Gwenn is the take-charge person for logistics; Zack is the diplomat and Dad-scold; Dana is entertainer, commentator and nonstop energy source. And Bill is at the center of it all, the family engine—making things happen, but also sometimes idling quietly within his own thoughts.

“Dad lives in Billy World,” Dana said. “He’ll be walking along, and he’ll just totally miss something that happened right there—something big, like, you know, an explosion. And he’ll say, ‘What explosion?’”

“I’m not always the most observant,” Bill conceded.

On one trip the train was crowded, and as we approached our stop and Bill went to fetch bags from the overhead rack, he had to maneuver around a big dog, parked in the middle of the aisle, whose owners showed no particular interest in moving him. It was one of those situations where you feel some minor mutual resentment. The couple was playing cards, and leaning over, Herz took the deck and quickly did a couple of tricks. The man and woman marveled. Situation defused.

I commented admiringly on the quick thinking.

“It’s my job,” he quipped.

Anya was sitting nearby. “I just remembered a dream last night,” she said. “I dreamed, ‘My name is Bill, and I’m a magician.’ ‘My name is Dana, and I’m a better magician!’”

Dana laughed. “We are in your head!”

We spent a lot of time on trains, skimming past vistas of birch forests and sun-swept farmlands.

The final stop on the Herz Family Magic Tour was Kraków. It was May Day weekend, and the lovely city—the only major Polish city not bombed to rubble during World War II—was mobbed. Street performers, horse-drawn carriages and throngs queuing at food stands mingled with demonstrators raising money and awareness for Ukraine.

The scene typified the weird mix of tourism and activism we’d experienced throughout this trip. Our boutique hotel chain catered to wealthy hipsters and international businesspeople, and every morning the lavish breakfast spread included a feast of meats and cheeses and pancakes and bacon; three kinds of herring; kiwi-avocado smoothies and rice pudding topped with orange-peach puree; jars of olives, sundried tomatoes, pickled pumpkin.

It was disorienting to experience such luxury in a country bordering a war zone and beset by refugees. In the packed central square of Kraków, a singer sang a soulful Ukrainian ballad, and a woman beseeched the crowd in a quavering voice: “Did you sleep well last night? Did you enjoy your breakfast and your coffee? Are you enjoying your sightseeing on this day of sunshine?” Leveraging vacationers’ pleasures, she reminded us that if each person would donate the cost of one cup of coffee, we’d be able to help those who—not far away—were not sleeping well, were not at all enjoying their sunny day, because bombs were falling on them.

The next day I took an early-morning bike ride with Gwenn through Kazimierz, the former Jewish neighborhood of Kraków. We stopped in the pretty cobblestoned square of ulica Szeroka. It’s the gentrifying place that exudes a ramshackle-historic-hip charm. A big part of that charm is its Jewish character. The two synagogues serve mostly as tour-group stops. There were falafel and shawarma joints advertising in Hebrew lettering, and later there would be klezmer music played around a menorah. We passed the Jerusalem Tea Room, the Judah Food Market. “Hummus is Happiness,” read a sign on a building.

We wondered: Were there any Jews living here now? From a walking tour the day before, we knew the history of this neighborhood, where 80 years ago people had been killed in cold blood on these same cobblestones, or herded across the river to a hastily built ghetto to be shipped to the death camp at Belzec. Of the 70,000 Jews living in Kraków before World War II, only a handful had survived.

There were ghosts all around us. How is it that yesterday’s site of horror becomes today’s leisure destination? Schindler’s List was filmed in Kraków, and on our walking tour, our guide described scenes from Spielberg’s movie. Right here is where Amon Göth’s SS officers chase the man down the alley. Was that the movie or reality? From the calamity of famines, pogroms, genocides and cities bombed to bits arises a pretty tourist square. Hummus is Happiness. Places like Kazimierz are suspended between redemption and blasphemy, and it’s hard not to feel a queasy awe at the prospect of suffering alchemized into gold; of trauma polished, burnished and marketed.

Gwenn and I pushed on and crossed the footbridge into Podgórze, site of the former deportation camp. In the suspension cables of the bridge, a series of bronze sculptures depicted figures in poses of acrobatic skill on a high wire, evoking precarious balancing acts at once lovely and harrowing. On the other side of the river we rode through Plac Bohaterów Getta (Ghetto Heroes Square), set with 68 empty bronze chairs, one for every thousand Jews murdered in Kraków. The memorial joined what had happened then to what was happening now, evoking the capriciousness of survival and the poignancy of fates thrown to the winds by war and an implacable enemy.

By trip’s end, spring was in full bloom, Poland aflame with tulips. In Ukraine, Russia had abandoned the assault on Kyiv to focus on the south and east of the country. The refugee flow was bidirectional now, with some Ukrainians continuing to arrive in Poland even as others had begun to head back. Anya was one of them. “I need to be in my country again,” she said, readying herself to return to Kyiv.

As for the Herzes: in 10 days the family had logged more than a thousand miles and entertained more than a thousand Ukrainians. Bill called the trip the most emotionally draining thing he had ever done. “I won’t forget what we saw here,” he said. “It gives you perspective on the kinds of problems we have in our own life. Honestly, they’re nothing.”

Like Bill, I had been trying to distill some essence of the experience, some indelible image or lesson to bring home with me. I kept thinking about a show in the center of Warsaw, in a vacant office complex whose upper floors hosted temporary housing for Ukrainian families. The Herzes had set up their props on a folding table in the building’s dreary atrium. Forty young kids sprawled on mats, their moms sitting in chairs behind and older kids watching from the mezzanine above.

Like Bill, I had been trying to distill some essence of the experience, some indelible lesson to bring home.

Bill and Dana went through their tricks, finishing with Miser’s Dream, in which kids throw invisible coins that loudly clank into a tin can Bill holds. One of the moms volunteered to join and played it out with a sheepish grin. Afterward, as children raced around the atrium like maniacs, I talked with the woman. Her name was Anna, she said in near-perfect English, and she was a lawyer from Dnipro. She introduced her 12-year-old daughter, Sophie, who sported a junior version of her mother’s smile. Anna’s husband, an IT systems administrator, had stayed behind in Ukraine.

Anna recounted her and Sophie’s hasty departure back in March, on a train to Warsaw. “Our plan was to continue to Spain, to stay with a cousin,” she said. “But people here were so hospitable that we remained.” She marveled at all the Poles had done. Lego games for kids. Concerts. Classes. On Orthodox Easter, Warsaw put on a festival, complete with a special Ukrainian Easter bread called paska. She showed photos of the bread on her phone. She nodded toward the upper floors of the complex. “We have a nice apartment, a little kitchen. We have enough room.” Her daughter, she said, had even found dancing and acrobatics classes.

I asked Anna what she would have thought one year ago if someone had told her she’d be living in exile in an abandoned office complex in Poland.

“I would say, ‘It is not possible. It is a bad dream.’” She sighed. “We keep thinking we must wake up from this dream. But we don’t know when this will happen.”

Bill came over. While chatting with Anna, he took out a Sharpie and did a trick in which he marked a cross on the back of his hand, then appeared to blow it off and into Anna’s closed fist.

“It is amazing,” she said, shaking her head and chuckling.

What I found amazing was the courage these Ukrainians were showing—being suddenly and drastically sheared off from everything familiar, including loved ones, and yet somehow remaining hopeful. I wanted to ask Anna the same question that a magician gets asked so often: How do you do that?

Bill asked Sophie how she was getting along so far in Poland. Her mother said to her, in English, “You can show him.”

The girl smiled shyly. Readying herself, she bounced once on the balls of her feet, took three quick running steps, then executed a highly athletic cartwheel and sprang up beaming.

Bill and I applauded, both of us smiling hugely. “Thank you so much for that,” Bill said. “Best magic trick I’ve seen all week.”

Rand Richards Cooper ’80, a frequent contributor to Amherst magazine, is a contributing editor at Commonweal and the author of two works of fiction. He has written for Harper’s, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Esquire and many other magazines.

Photographs by Rand Richards Cooper