While perusing the Smithsonian Channel, I saw an advertisement for a new documentary called The Seven Dwarfs of Auschwitz. This immediately caught my attention, so I read the description and discovered a book had also been published on the same topic. Giants: the Dwarfs of Auschwitz, written by Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev, was originally published in 2003 and re-released in 2013 with a Forward by Warwick Davis, who is also featured in the Smithsonian Channel’s documentary. Although at times tinged with ableism, this is, without exaggeration, one of the best books of nonfiction I have ever had the pleasure of reading.
Extremely well-written and well-researched, the authors bring to life the unique story of the Ovitzes, a family of Jewish performers with dwarfism known as the Lilliput Troupe. Before the Nazi regime came to power, and interestingly until as late as 1944, the Lilliput Troupe traveled throughout eastern Europe. The seven dwarfs in the family sang, acted, and played instruments, while the “tall” members of the family served in various other capacities backstage. In May 1944, they were sent by cattle car to Auschwitz-Birkenau, but were spared immediate gassing by the SS, who pulled them and their neighbors–who they falsely claimed were relatives–aside for Josef Mengele. Mengele, the Angel of Death, is infamous for his experiments on twins at Auschwitz, was also fascinated by the genetics and heredity of dwarfism. From May 1944 until his frantic escape from Auschwitz in January 1945, Mengele used the Lilliput Troupe as his pets, conducting experiments on them in the name of the pseudoscience eugenics. The authors trace the family history from the late 19th century, through World War II, and end on Perla Ovitz’s 80th birthday celebration in 2001.
The story is gripping in and of itself, but the authors do a remarkable job in the telling. Although they are entirely unsympathetic to Mengele and the other Nazis, they also do not lavish undue praise on the Lilliput Troupe. The authors describe their independence, charisma, resourcefulness, and loyalty to each other. However, they are not shy to describe aspects of their personalities that are less admirable, like their boastfulness, pride, and the way the dwarfs’ needs overrode the needs or desires of the other members of the family.
The authors share some survivors’ negative thoughts on the group. Other Auschwitz inmates had reason to envy and resent them. Under Mengele’s supervision, they were allowed a modicum of privilege and protection. In exchange for Mengele’s protection, they had to endure months of endless testing. These tests included near-daily blood withdrawals that would lead to fainting and weakness, measurement upon measurement of every inch of their naked bodies, and blinding fluids being dripped in their eyes.
In addition to the Ovitzes, Mengele and other SS doctors experimented on numerous dwarfs, whose stories the authors also bring to light. Most heartbreaking is the story of the “Budapest watchmaker,” whose identity is not revealed. The authors do not explain it, except to say that his name will remain absent. My guess is that his descendants wished for his anonymity.
Several times throughout the book, the authors dealt with the issue of discrepancies in historical memory. For instance, Perla Ovitz, the youngest member of the troupe, adamantly denies ever performing for an audience while in Auschwitz-Birkenau. However, the authors highlight several eyewitness accounts that all agree on seeing or hearing the Lilliput Troupe perform for the Nazis. In another instance, numerous survivors recount seeing the entire Ovitz family killed. Yet, this did not occur. In both cases, the authors attempt to reconcile the opposing accounts and explain what may have caused the discrepancy.
Although not rampant, there were definitely some ableist points in the book. The authors described the family’s apparent “helplessness” over a dozen times. It was oft repeated that they depended entirely on the tall members of the family and would not have been successful performers or survived Auschwitz without them. If it had not been for Mengele’s known fascination with dwarfs, the Ovitzes certainly would have been sent directly from the cattle car to the gas chamber. It is also fair to say that their chances of surviving Auschwitz as seven dwarfs with no other family is unlikely. However, it is not fair to claim that such a thing would be impossible. Many nondisabled people lived to see liberation because they had help, usually from strangers, in getting scraps of food, hiding from the SS when sick, and so on. The Ovitzes, even without Mengele’s “protection” or the help of the average-sized family members, could have collaborated with others and found ways amongst themselves to survive. They were a very resourceful group. I agree that the odds were against them, but that does not mean survival would have been impossible.
Language is important, and debates still rage about the proper terminology to describe disabilities and people with them. Most scholars and activists will agree that “handicap” should not be used now. “Handicap” refers to the historical stereotype of people with disabilities who were homeless and impoverished, holding their cap in hand, waiting for charity. This image of the person with a disability is generally derided by advocates. Instead of “disability,” which is generally much more acceptable, the authors continually use the term “handicap” to describe dwarfism in the book. This is not a major flaw, but it illustrates that this book could have used some editing by a disability scholar.
Given the subject, this book could have easily been nothing but saccharine “inspiration porn.” Poor, helpless disabled people overcome all odds with the help of their “normal” family members, and manage to survive through their faith, good attitude, and perseverance. Gag. The authors wrote this way at points, but they more often than not pointed out the group’s independence, intelligence, resourcefulness, and desire to be taken seriously as artists, not as freak show performers. I’m sure many people who read this book did so because of its inspirational nature, but thankfully the authors did not go out of their way to tell that kind of story. I came close to throwing my Kindle across the room just once, and that had nothing to do with the authors’ writing, but with one “tall” family member quoted as saying he and his wife aborted several pregnancies for fear of dwarfism. That is pure ableism–but a topic for another day.
Aside from the instances of ableism, my only other complaint is the lack of a visual family tree or list of names. Between the Ovitzes, their spouses, neighbors, family friends, and other victims in Auschwitz-Birkenau, my brain was overrun with trying to keep everyone straight.
The Lilliput Troupe’s story is important and must be shared. I highly recommend this book. I’m very happy that their story is not being lost to the passing of time, but is being brought to the forefront by this book and the Smithsonian documentary. Never forget.