Mengele and the Family of Dwarfs: Yehuda Koren Tells One Family's Remarkable Story of Surviving Auschwitz

Article excerpt

UNDER THE 'FINAL SOLUTION', entire Jewish communities, extended families of forty or fifty members were crammed in cattle cars and transported to Nazi death camps. Almost nine out of ten people who arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau were sent directly to the gas chambers. The few that were spared provided slave labour, and the work was not so much liberation as a brief, tortured interval before death. It was rare that one person from an entire family survived, let alone two. The survival of the Ovitz family from the village of Rozavlea in northern Romania is unique: twelve members, the youngest, eighteen months, the oldest, fifty-eight, were deported to the camp and all emerged unscathed. Seven of them--five sisters and two brothers--were dwarfs, less than three feet tall, the largest recorded dwarf family in the world. Not only did they survive, but they saved the lives of eleven other inmates as well.

Their patriarch was a dwarf named Shimshon Eizik Ovitz, (1868-1923). His first wife was normal height and bore him two dwarf daughters. After she died he married another normal height woman, who bore him eight more children, five of them dwarfs. Ovitz was a Badchan, a merrymaker at Jewish weddings, and later became a wandering rabbi, famous for his spiritual powers. His seven dwarf children established their own ensemble, The Lilliput Troupe, singing and playing on child-size instruments. In the 1930s and early 1940s, they performed all over Romania, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, while their normal-height relatives helped backstage. When not on tour, they lived together in one big house with their spouses.

When Hungary took over northern Transylvania in September 1940, the race laws barred Jewish artists from entertaining non-Jewish audiences. The Ovitzes obtained new papers omitting their Jewishness, and continued performing for nearly four more years. But on May 15th, 1944, the game was up: they were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Descending the ramp, the seven dwarfs and their five relatives were immediately separated from the others. As well as selecting people for the gas chambers, SS doctor Josef Mengele was also using his service in the death camp as a springboard toward an academic career. Like a demonic impresario casting the ultimate freak show, SS doctor Josef Mengele plucked out from the masses that passed before him, twins, and unusual mutations: hunchbacks, pinheads, hermaphrodites, giants, dwarfs, obese men and corpulent women. As the Ovitzes were put aside to be added to Mengele's 'human zoo', eleven neighbours from their village clung to them, claiming they were related to the dwarfs. Mengele's curiosity was aroused at the prospect of having such a large research group, enabling him to compare the dwarf members to those of normal height.

Concerned that his dwarfs might end up trampled in an overcrowded barrack of more than 500 prisoners, Mengele consigned special living quarters to them. Whereas two or three inmates shared a ragged blanket on a thin, louse-infected mattress stuffed with sawdust, the Ovitz family enjoyed individual woollen blankets, sheets and even pillows. To save his precious guinea pigs from the risk of illness and death by running to the toilet and fighting for a place, Mengele ordered a washbasin and chamber pot to be put behind a curtain in a corner of their room. The normal-height members of the group fetched food for all, carried the dwarfs to the experimental clinics and helped them dress and climb on the beds. Unlike other inmates, their hair was not shorn, and they were allowed to keep their own clothes. The twenty-three-year-old Perla Ovitz wrapped herself warmly in the sheep skin coat she had brought from home.

At that time, medical science was obsessed with blood and its constituents--it was generally believed that blood plasma retained all traces of illness, and contained all genetic traits. Extensive blood drawing was the particular ordeal of baby Shimshon Ovitz, who, born prematurely, was markedly smaller than normal. …