Irv’s Story in the SJ Mercury News

Holocaust survivor brings a little joy to strangers

By Mike Cassidy
Mercury News Columnist

This article first appeared in the San Jose Mercury News, March 18, 2008

I first met Irv Barowsky at Maltby’s restaurant in Los Altos when he walked up to our table and pulled a red scarf out of my wife’s right ear.

That’s what he does – magic. Every Sunday, the 78-year-old retired semiconductor industry guy strolls among the tables at the family joint, turning red cards into black cards, making coins disappear and occasionally testing the fire code.

“Has he shown you the setting-the-napkin-on-fire trick?” asked proprietor James Maltby.

No, thank goodness.

It’s been like this for years. Barowsky has a circuit. Maltby’s on Sunday, Harry’s Hofbrau in San Jose on Thursdays. And on weekends, impromptu gigs at Santana Row.

“Everybody who’s ever been to a restaurant with him has been mortified,” says Lisa Stambaugh.

Stambaugh, Barowsky’s daughter, called to tell me about her dad. Her call started like many: “I don’t know if this is a story, but . . .”

A nice old guy who’s spreading a little joy. Does magic for free at restaurants. (OK, dinner is on the house.) Plays music at senior centers. Performs at private parties in return for donations to his favorite charities.

“He’s not the guy,” Stambaugh says, “who started Google or anything like that.”

No, he’s not. But he is someone who reminds us how many amazing people who have not started Google there are. People with stories we can’t imagine and will never know.

You see, Barowsky was born in Poland in 1929. By the time he was 12, the Nazis occupied Poland and had moved Barowsky and his family into a Jewish ghetto.

In 1943, word came that the ghetto’s residents would be moved. On relocation day, Barowsky, his brother, parents and their neighbors were ordered to file out.

A German officer waited to sort Jewish prisoners into two groups: those going to concentration camps and those going to the crematorium.

“My parents were older, obviously, and they had no use for them,” Barowsky, of Los Altos, says. “So, they went in the other direction and were done away with.”

He and his older brother went to a camp where his brother fell ill.

“He was sick and couldn’t go to work,” Barowsky says. “He ended up in a crematorium.”

Barowsky ended up at Buchenwald, where he survived until he was rescued by Allied forces while on a forced march away from the camp.

That was “1945,” Barowsky says. “April 1945. April 13, 1945.”

With that start, Barowsky could have turned bitter and angry. Instead, he chooses to entertain strangers.

“I prefer spending my time,” he says, “not thinking about how bad it was, but about how good it is.”

So much has happened since ’45. Barowsky immigrated to New York in 1947 to live with relatives. He learned English, went to technical school, then college. He served in the Army, got jobs with General Electric, Motorola and Spectra-Physics, to name a few. And more important than all that, he met Rosel Dwosken at a wedding and married her in 1956.

They moved to California and in 1965 bought the rambling ranch house they live in today. They had two wonderful daughters, and Rosel started a 21-year career as a librarian in Sunnyvale’s schools.

Not a bad life. And one that makes you wonder what stories people you see every day are walking around with. Japanese-Americans and internment camps. Vietnamese-Americans and re-education camps. Veterans and prison camps. Who knows what a hero is going to look like?

Maybe he’ll look like a trim man with angular features wearing a sport coat and a playing-card pattern tie. The one who smiles as he pulls a scarf out of your ear.

Tami MacDuff, left, laughs as Irv Barowsky displays her card on his head during a magic trick for patrons at Maltby’s in Los Altos, Calif. on Sunday, March 16, 2008. (Jim Gensheimer/Mercury News)

Irv Barowsky places a card on his head as he performs magic tricks for patrons at Maltby’s in Los Altos, Calif. on Sunday, March 16, 2008. (Jim Gensheimer/Mercury News)