In Our Hearts We Were Giants
By Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev
Carroll & Graf, 305 pages, $25.
Imagine the terror of a having a vicious German Shepherd bark at you on the train platform at Auschwitz. Now imagine that the dog is barking at you as your tiny body is lifted from a cattle car — and when you land on your feet, the dog is taller than you.
“In Our Hearts We Were Giants,” by Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev, is an often-wrenching and at times almost unbelievable account of a family of Jewish dwarfs from Transylvania — a family who struggled in life and cheated death, amazingly.
The story begins with an observant Jewish dwarf named Shimshon Eizik Ovitz who becomes a badchen, or wedding performer, and gains a following as an entertainer in the region. Eventually, after the father passed away, seven of his children became a prosperous show business act, performing in Eastern Europe as the Lilliput Troupe. Fluent in seven languages, they made such a good living performing that they were able to buy an automobile. They were the only family in their little village to do so.
But the Holocaust intruded on their lives, and the Ovitz dwarfs were forced to make a horrific yearlong detour at Auschwitz.
Incredibly, the family survived the concentration camp because of their dwarfism. As the authors relay in their very good explication of the genetics and history of dwarfs in royal courts and the entertainment world, there were an estimated 1,500 dwarfs working in a variety of show biz venues in Europe before World War II. And they were of great interest to Dr. Josef Mengele. As a result, the Ovitzes were not killed, though they were forced to endure endless measurement, experimentation and testing.
What is perhaps even more extraordinary about this tale is that the Ovitzes and another family from the village of Rozavlea are believed to be the only two extended families to survive Auschwitz-Birkenau intact. And they did so in relative comfort compared with the other Jews in the camp: Their heads were not shaved, they were permitted to wear their civilian clothes and they lived much of the time in a shared space. (In fact, Koren and Negev deserve praise for including testimony from other survivors whose recollections portray the Ovitzes as a bit too enamored of Mengele.) Sensing that Mengele was so eager to study as many relatives of the Ovitz family as possible, the Ovitzes falsely claimed that another family, the Slomowitz clan, were blood relations. It was this lie that saved the lives of the Slomowitz family. Getting Mengele to buy the lie shows that what the dwarfs lacked in bone structure, they made up for in chutzpah. According to the book, when their region in Transylvania was transferred from Romania to Hungary in 1940, the dwarfs “stormed” a government office and charmed bureaucrats into issuing them identity cards that did not identify them as Jews. For close to four years, the Ovitzes violated the law prohibiting Jews from performing for gentile audiences, all the while surreptitiously keeping the Sabbath.
But in 1944, the Nazis rounded up all the Jews of Ro- zavlea, including the Ovitz dwarfs and the Slomowitz family, and transported them to Auschwitz.
(Among the incredible little tidbits that will have readers shaking their heads at this story is the fact that Auschwitz inmate/artist Dina Gottlieb, who drew documentary pictures of the seven Ovitz dwarfs and other subjects of Mengele’s cruel research, ended up marrying an American named Arthur Babbitt after liberation. Babbitt, it turns out, was a senior animator for “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”)
The fairy-tale nature of the Ovitz saga continued after liberation. Seven months elapsed before they wrestled free from the grip of the Soviet Army. When the dwarfs finally made it back to their home village of Rozavlea, they found their house ransacked. Incredibly, they were able to retrieve the gold and valuables still buried underneath the family automobile.
They settled in Antwerp, where they resumed their show business career. But in 1949, after a number of offers to relocate, including deals in Russia and the Yiddish Theater in New York, they took their act to the Holy Land.
The Ovitzes spent six years living in an immigration camp and performing around Israel before settling in Haifa, where they eventually retired from show business. The youngest of them and the only surviving dwarf accessible to the authors, Perla, passed away in 2001.
One can’t help but be struck by the cinematic potential of the Ovitzes’ story. How’s this for an opening scene? Seven dwarfs are gathered in the family living room with their musical instruments, learning, and playing along with, songs on the radio. It happened at the Ovitz home in the 1930s. Or imagine the sight of the dwarfs in January 1945, when thousands of women and children were marched out of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Unable to walk even moderate distances because of the limited physical stamina that results from their condition, they stay behind and pray.
Jon Kalish is a newspaper and radio reporter in New York.