Doctor Death and the seven dwarfs
The Sunday Mail (Brisbane), 23 March 2003
When the Ovitz family arrived at Auschwitz that May morning in 1944, it was still dark. As they were herded down the ramp from the fetid rail truck that had brought them on the nightmare journey from Hungary, they clung together desperately in the jostling, terrified crowd.
Soon a group of Nazi soldiers gathered around them, first staring in disbelief at the nine brothers and sisters, then mocking the "Jewish freaks". Perla Ovitz, the youngest member of the family, remembers seeing smoke and flames spewing from a chimney in the distance and asking aloud: "What does that mean?"
A man dressed in the distinctive striped jacket of the death camp turned to her and said: "Don't you know where you are? That is Auschwitz, the grave of Israel, the ovens where you will soon end up!"
Within an hour of their arrival, the Ovitz family had been stripped of their belongings and were standing naked in what they thought were showers.
"The heavy metal door slammed behind us," Perla said. "It looked gloomy and I looked up at shower heads and wondered why the water wouldn't come. Suddenly we smelled gas. We tried to push up for air and one of us collapsed. With our last strength, we began to cry out. It seemed to me like minutes but it can only have been seconds. Then we heard a shout from outside the door: 'Where is my dwarf family?' The door was opened and a soldier dragged us out and sloshed cold water over us."
The seven dwarf siblings and their two normal-sized sisters were given milk to induce them to vomit up the gas, before being wrapped in blankets.
Then they were paraded in front of Josef Mengele, the notorious Nazi doctor known as the Angel of Death, the man personally responsible for exterminating 400,000 Jews and for inflicting unspeakable suffering on thousands more in his hideous experiments to create a master race.
"He was very pleased with us," Micki, one of the dwarf brothers, remembers years later. "He said he would supply him with work for the next 20 years."
He injected them with bacteria, drained their blood, exposed them to deadly bursts of radiation and forced caustic chemicals inside the women's wombs. Yet the family endured. Their resolve to stay together, no matter what, did not crumble.
Despite the horrors they confronted on a daily basis, the Ovitz brothers and sisters were the only family to enter the gates of Auschwitz and emerge intact. To mark the 58th anniversary of the liberation of the camp on January 27, 1945, a new book chronicling their remarkable lives has been published in Germany.
In Our Hearts We Were Giants is the odyssey of the dwarfs, Rozika, Franziska, Avram, Micki, Frieda, Elisabeth and Perla, from the music halls of a lost European world, to hell on Earth at Auschwitz - and finally to the Promised Land.
Their story began at the start of the 20th century in the town of Rozavlea, Hungary, where a rabbi and mystical healer named Samson Ovitz fathered 10 children - two boys by his first wife, Blanca, and eight by his second, Batia-Bertha.
Seven of them inherited from Samson a condition named achondroplasia - or dwarfism - while three were normal-sized like their mothers. When Samson died of food poisoning aged 46, neighbours and relatives advised Batia-Bertha to send her dwarf children to an institution, but she wouldn't hear of it.
She knew their strength was in numbers and she instilled in them the need to always look out for one another - advice that would one day save their lives.
Batia-Bertha wanted them to go into a profession that would give them independence and protect them from ridicule, so she sent them to a music school where each child was encouraged in a specific performing talent. Minute percussion instruments, drums, violins, a guitar and a cello were made for them and they performed together as The Lillliput Troupe.
"We did a great variety show," recalled Perla, who provided much of the information for the new book before her death two years ago.
The Lilliput Troup was welcomed everywhere. Railway porters would help them to and from carriages, and waiters lifted them on to stools in bars or piled chairs high with cushions in restaurants. It was a life of fun and fulfillment - and romance.
"The fact we were miniature did not deter our suitors," Perla said. "I had my share of suitors, all of them twice my size."
With the onset of war in 1939, life began to change. Hungary was an ally of Nazi Germany and it was not occupied until 1944. But all citizens were obliged to register for identity cards which denoted their religion.
Had the Ovitz's cards been marked Jew it would have meant an end to performing to non-Jewish audiences. So, they managed to charm officials into omitting the word Jew and for the next four years they lived on what were essentially false papers. They stopped speaking Yiddish and took it in turns to call a doctor to be signed off sick so they could miss a show to observe the Jewish Sabbath.
But time was running out. In 1941, the Hungarian authorities deported 35,000 Jews but it still wasn't enough for the architect of the "final solution", Adolf Eichmann.
He was a prime force behind the 1944 occupation of Hungary and the resulting deportation of the remaining 400,000 Jews, most of whom were gassed in Auschwitz.
As the war neared its zenith, the Lilliput Troupe found they could no longer hide their Jewishness. There were informers everywhere.
A neighbour in their home town informed on their normal-sized brother Leon who was executed. His wife and baby daughter were later gassed in Auschwitz. For the rest of the family, the dreaded knock at the door came on April 15 with the curt command to fill one suitcase each. They were ordered to the local synagogue with hundreds of other Jews to await transportation. It was there that they were seen by a senior German officer who decided the Lilliput Troupe should entertain his bored me.
They were housed in a comfortable flat and had to sing, dance and play for drunk Nazis every night.
"Who could be merry at a time like this, our people were being murdered," Perla said. "But we had no choice."
Their reprieve lasted just a few weeks and in May, the Ovitz family were herded with other Jews into a stable to wait for the cattle-trucks to Auschwitz. Their miraculous story as survivors of the death camp was about to begin and it was their size that would save their lives.
Mengele believed the dwarfs and their two "normal" sisters were key to his dream or eradicating imperfections of the human race.
A cultured, intelligent man, he justified his evil experiments on the grounds that he was using "sub-humans" - Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals and people with mental or physical disabilities.
He would greet the cattle trucks, separating out those fit enough to work before their deaths, and those who would aid his research. His special interest in dwarfs earned him the nickname "the freak hunter".
When the Ovitz family arrived at Auschwitz, one of the officers had rushed to alert Dr Mengele.
It had been Mengele himself who'd bellowed, "Where is my dwarf family? At the doors of the gas chambers. One of the normal-sized Ovitz sisters, Leah, had been carrying her 12-month-old baby, also named Samson.
Mengele was curious whether the child would develop normally, like his mother, or become a dwarf like his uncles and aunts. So, he decided he must be preserved too.
The damily was kept isolated in a special barracks where Mengele conducted his vile tests and they were given special "privileges".
They did not have to stand for hours at a time each day in atrocious weather - sometimes from dawn until midnight - a process which claimed the lives of numerous prisoners.
They were also allowed to keep their hair - everyone else had shaved heads - because Mengele examined it in his experiments.
Initially, their diet was as meager as that of the other inmates. Breakfast was a bowl of tepid coffee made from acorns, and lunch was a watery stew made from Swedes normally fed to cattle.
At night, if they were lucky, it was a slice of bread.
Sanitation was horrific. "There were 174 toilets in the sanitation block, used by 10,000 inmates. So you can imagine the state. We had to run through ice-cold showers - Mengele made us do it because he was so fastidious about hygiene," Perla said. "He said it was important to keep clean and not get lice."
When the Ovitz dwarfs mentioned to Mengele that they were in danger of being trampled underfoot in the rush to get to the showers, he curtained off a corner of the barracks for them. Behind it he placed an assortment of baby baths taken from families whose children had been killed in the gas chambers.
Official Auschwitz records show the Ovitzes were first called to the doctor's "surgery" on june28, 1944, for what would become regular visits.
"He began drawing our blood," said Perla. "It happened every couple of days. With the poor diet, exhaustion and lack of blood, we wondered every night if we would wake up again the next day. After a while. Mengele saw how weak we were. He arranged for us to be given white bread, milk soup, a spoonful of turnip marmalade, a slice of sausage or cheese."
On July 1, Micki, Perla, Avram were ordered to the X-ray clinic where they were exposed to dosages of radiation far exceeding safe levels. Over the next six months, more blood was taken from their veins, bone marrow drawn from their spine, hairs plucked, molars extracted without anaesthetic, drops sprinkled into their eyes, hot and cold water pumped into their ears, needles inserted into various nerve centers and electrodes attached to their heads.
Large quantities of various unknown liquids were injected into the wombs of those sisters who were married.
"It was an abrasive liquid that burned their insides and made them feel like they were on fire," Perla said. "They had tears streaming down their faces. It meant nothing to Mengele."
And still the brutality continued. Syphilis spores were injected into them and they were infected with numerous unknown bacteria which would cause them great pain and suffering in their lives after their liberation.
One day, Mengele surprised them. They were given make-up and perfume and ordered to beautify themselves and then taken to a nearby auditorium packed with hundreds of SS officers. Mengele mounted the stage and called on the Lilliput Troupe. They formed a line in the middle of the stage and suddenly Mengele shouted: "Take off your clothes!"
Then he presented his medical findings, using a long, thin billiard cue to point at their naked limbs, reciting sizes and lengths and describing his experiments.
"We were frozen, glued to the floor, even when the lecture was over and the officers besieged the stage to look at talk to us," Perla recalled.
Mengele even composed a rhyme for them: "Over the hills and over seven mountains, there my seven dwarfs do dwell!"
He often referred to them by the names given to the dwarfs in the Disney version of Snow White.
He called Micki and Avram "The Toulouse Lautrec brothers".
"Mengele saved us from death but he did it for his own glory," Perla said. "If he had ever come to trial, I would have taken the witness box and told the whole world of his atrocities. I would have shown him the scars and the ailments he inflicted on me. I hate him, but revenge is pointless. If the judges were to ask me, I would tell them to let him go, as I was saved by the grace of the Devil. God will give him his due."
Their greatest revenge on Mengele is that they survived.
On January 27, 1945, the Red Army entered an abandoned Auschwitz. The guards had fled and so had Mengele, who evaded justice for the rest of his life, fleeing to Brazil where in 1979 he died after suffering a stroke while swimming.
After the war, the Ovitz family settled in Haifa in the newly established state of Israel, where they called themselves the Seven Dwarfs of Auschwitz and began touring.
Their bittersweet cabaret was an enormous success. When they retired they had enough money to buy two cinemas, a café and a large flat where they lived together.
Each Friday, they gathered for dinner to celebrate, sing and reminisce about their extraordinary past.
All seven Ovitz dwarfs died between 1972 and September 2001. In death as in life, they are together, buried side by side in a family plot. The advice that their mother had given them held good: they had looked out for one another and had endured.
Not long before she died, Perla reflected on her fate: "We were the only family who entered a death camp and emerged from it together," she said. "If I ever question why I was born a dwarf, my answer must be that my handicap, my deformity, was God's way of keeping me alive."
©-free 2003 Adelaide Institute