What was the last time you actually paid attention to the sidewalk?
Can the microcosm around our feet still hold some unexpected visions?
Does it still mean something to focus on small things and details, and to look down – beside avoiding stepping on something unpleasant?
In a world where we are taught that everything, from skyscrapers to our own ambitions, should aim high, artists Slinkachu and Cordal – each their own way, each of them with a different and personal approach – seem to want to value all that is small, forgotten, invisible.
The works of these two street artists, who are both active, independently from one another, on the London scene, could be confused at a first glance: they both utilize tiny figurines, and install their provocative miniature sculptures inside the urban context, leaving them to their fate. But the similarities really stop there.
Slinkachu has an unmistakable satirical and sardonic vein, so much so that his installations are presented as snarky micro-stories; Slinkachu mini-men are mirrors, spoofs debunking our miseries, excesses and vanities. How intelligent, how civilized they must think they are – yet dimensions contradict their actions. Whether they believe they are criminals or superheroes, these microscopic little primates aren’t going anywhere.
Their misadventures are evidently similar to ours, and the figurines sometimes even represent a pop and bizarre version of some of the most debated themes in the news.
Cordal’s little men, on the other hand, are the nightmare of removal coming back to the surface.
The atmosphere here is apocalyptic, melancholic, surreal, and in his works the miniature cannot be separated from the (often hopeless) landscape in which it has been positioned.
There is something touching and strangely eerie in this anonymous people emerging from the puddles in our cities, or sinking back into them “following the leaders”; there is a Beckett quality to these sad ghosts haunting our drainpipes, to these lost tourists, to these victims of the cruelty of a much too large and heavy world, and to their tiny bodies disappearing in the surrounding filth.
What haunts us, in these figurines, is the fact we recognize them all too well. We can identify, and yet we cannot shake the embarassement of a vague guilt. The world is, after all, custom-made to be our size, not theirs.
The poor, the troubled, the outsiders inhabit realities that are too small, they live on a scale which is too distant for us to realize that we are stepping on them. Still, it would suffice to watch.
Here comes the third volume in the Bizzarro Bazar Collection, Mors pretiosa – Italian religious ossuaries, already on pre-sale at the Logos bookshop.
This book, closing an ideal trilogy about those Italian sacred spaces where a direct contact with the dead is still possible, explores three exceptional locations: the Capuchin Crypt in Via Veneto, Rome, the hypogeum of Santa Maria dell’Orazione e Morte in via Giulia, also in Rome, and the chapel of San Bernardino alle Ossa in Milan.
Our journey through these three wonderful examples of decorated charnel houses, confronts us with a question that might seems almost outrageous today: can death possess a kind of peculiar, terrible beauty?
From the press kit:
“There is a crack, a crack in everything: that’s how the light gets in” sings Leonard Cohen, and this is ultimately the message brought by the bones that can be admired in this book; death is an eternal wound and at the same time a way out. A long way from the idea of cemetery, its atmosphere of peace and the emotions it instils, the term “ossuary” usually evokes an impression of gloomy coldness but the three places in this book are very different. The subjects in question are Italy’s most important religious ossuaries in which bones have been used with decorative ends: the Capuchin Crypt and Santa Maria dell’Orazione e Morte in Rome, and San Bernardino alle Ossa in Milan. Thick with the sensation of mortality and vanitas, these ossuaries are capable of performing a completely unexpected role: on the one hand they embody the memento mori as an exhortation to trust in an afterlife for which the earthly life is a mere preparation and test, on the other they represent shining examples of macabre art. They are the suggestive and emotional expression – which is at the same time compassionate – of a “high” feeling: that of the transitory, of the inexorability of detachment and the hope of Resurrection. Decorated with the same bones they are charged with safeguarding, they pursue the Greek concept of kalokagathìa, namely to make the “good death” even aesthetically beautiful, disassembling the physical body to recompose it in pleasant and splendid arrangements and thereby transcend it. The clear and in-depth texts of the book set these places in the context of the fideistic attitudes of their time and Christian theological traditions whereas the images immerse us in these sacred places charged with fear and fascination. Page after page, the patterns of skulls and bones show us death in all of its splendour, they make it mirabilis, worthy of being admired.
In the text are recounted some fascinating stories about these places, from sacred representations in which human remains were used as props, to the misadventures of corpse seekers; but mainly we discover that these bone arabesques were much more than a mere attempt to impress the viewer, while in fact they represented a sort of death encyclopedia, which was meant to be read and interpreted as a real eschatological itinerary.
As usual, the book is extensively illustrated by Carlo Vannini‘s evocative photographs.
You can pre-order your copy of Mors Pretiosa on this page, and in the Bookshop you can purchase the previous two books in the series.
“To write is to travel without the hassle of the luggage“,Salgari wrote. For Mauriac, “a writer is essentially a man who does not resign himself to loneliness“. Both these concepts, the mental voyage and the struggle with solitude, are good ways to understand the life and work of NOF4, whose original name was Oreste Ferdinando Nannetti.
We don’t get to choose life. We keep telling ourselves we are in control, but sometimes the boat’s wheel is broken from the beginning. The life that was destined to Oreste Ferdinando Nannetti was a painful one: born in Rome in 1927, on New Year’s Eve, son of Concetta Nannetti and of unknown father, he soon grew to be clearly different from other kids. At the time, this meant there was only one destination for him on the horizon – the insane asylum. Oreste entered a mental hospital for the first time at age 10, after having been committed to a charity institution three years before. In 1948 he was charged with insulting a public official, but the judge acquitted him on the grounds of deminished responsibility (“total mind defect“); he then spent some 10 years at the Santa Maria della Pietà psychiatric hospital, before being definitively transferred to Volterra. Oreste arrived to the asylum in Volterra in the worst possible moment, when the hospital was still ruled by a prison regime, with barred and locked windows and the order to address the male nurses as “guards”. Things slowly began to improve after 1963, but the police atmosphere continued, although with increasingly lighter tones, until the hospital was abandoned in 1979 after the Basaglia Law. In 1973 Nannetti was dismissed, and transferred to the Bianchi Institute. He died in Volterra in 1994, and to look at his life, now, it all seems to be spent under the sign of civil negation, beginning with that ignominious initials on his birth certificate, “NN”, “Non Noto” (“unknown”), where his father’s name was supposed to be. The life of a poor son of a bitch that ought to be removed, erased, forgot. Just another failed mutation.
But Oreste Ferdinando Nannetti, in spite of everyone, absolutely left a trace of his passage on this reality, in fact he cut it, sliced it, incised it. And he wrote, to travel with his mind and fight his way through loneliness.
During his years of internment in Volterra, Nannetti engraved his feverish masterpiece: a colossal, immense “graffiti book” on the wall of the Ferri section. 180 meters long (590ft) and 2 meters high (6ft), the graffiti was accomplished by using the buckle from his waistcoat (all the patients wore one) to carve the plaster. Later, Nannetti began “writing” in this same way on the concrete banister of a big staircase, adding another 106 meters (347ft) by 20 centimeters (8in) to his work. His production also consists of more than 1.600 writings and drawings on papers, including several postcards: these postcards, which he never sent and which were adressed to imaginary relatives, are another attempt to win his battle over an unthinkable solitude.
If his said and miserable biography, which you just read summarized in a single paragraph, was Nannetti’s “official” life, as one could see it from the outside, through his writings and graffiti his real story comes out, his true reality.
In this dimension, Oreste was not just Oreste, but rather an “astronautical mining engineer in the mental system“, “saint of the photo-electric cell“, and called himself Nanof, Nof, or mainly NOF4. This acronym meant indiscriminately “Nannetti Oreste Fernando”, “French Oriental Nuclear”, or even “French Oriental Nations”, while 4 was the identification number he received at the beginning of his internment. How many multitudes live inside a man who defines himself as “Nations”?
NOF4’s “mining” work consisted in studying and digging through reality, and his graffiti really was his “mining key” to access the unfathomable depths of the psyche. In it we read that “glass, metal sheets, metals, wood, the bones of the human being and of animals and the eye and the spirit are all controlled through the reflective magnetic cathode beam; all images who possess a body heat are living matter, and they can even die twice“.
NOF4 can telepathically communicate with aliens: “Nannetti’s texts are about imaginary nations taking over other imaginary nations, about spaceflights, about telepathic connections, about fantastic characters, poetically described as tall, spinach-like and with a Y-shaped nose, about hypertechnological weapons, about mysterious alchemic combinations, about magical virtues of metals, ecc.“. (Quaderni d’altri tempi, II,6)
As a paranoid agent under cover in Burroughs‘ Interzone, Nannetti received dispatches from beyond and reported his psychic investigation’s results on the concrete wall: “I have gathered some news by telepathic means, which will seem weird to you but are true: 1. The Earth is still, and stars turn on Earth’s side; 2. The woman has got no father, your father was a woman“. Heroic, borderline scientist inside his “nuclear observatory“, NOF4 measured magnetic fluxes, saw forests made of metal pylons and antennas with his mind’s eye, and kept carving his graffiti with his buckle.
“The dense lines of text of which [the graffiti] is composed, with drawings and illustrations sometimes interrupting it, give the idea of a constant flow of words, sounds, images. An encyclopedia of the world almost treated as inner dialogue, and delivered to the world itself with urgence, maybe chaotically, but surely with a strong determination“, writes sociologist Adolfo Fattori, and his words are echoed by Lara Fremder: “Maybe this is how it went, it happened that a man with no history tried to write one for himself, and in order to do that he chose a wall, a big wall, a 180 meters surface, the whole facade of the psychiatric hospital. And he began to write and draw and to collect everything inside carved pages on the wall. […] What I think, what I love to think, is that NOF4 had other interlocutors to have a conversation with, and he showed them his drawings, and handed them the keys to his own mining system. I love to imagine these interlocutors really understood that lunatic well, studying with him projects and plans for other dimensions, surely not for this one, where day after day we witness a slow agony of meaning and beauty“.
The psychiatric hospital in Volterra, closed in 1979, is in a state of complete abandon. Of Nannetti’s graffiti, which is considered a world masterpiece of outsider art, little was saved (a piece was detached in 2013 for preservation). Only some parts of it still stand, and we have just a few photocopies of his writings and drawings. If not for Aldo Trafeli, a male nurse who was the only one to talk to Nannetti, eventually becoming his friend, we probably wouldn’t even know his story.
Among the still existing parts of the graffiti, one in particular is the visible trace of Nannetti’s kindness. In some points, the lines of text go up and down: when asked about this strange “wave”, Oreste replied that he did it because he didn’t want to disturb the other patients, who sat against the wall warming in the sun; he could have asked them to move, but he preferred to continue his carvings around their heads.
Nannetti, the “nuclear safecracker”, the “astral colonel”, never went past elementary school. But, even without being a person of letters, in writing he found a spaceship to explore his own illness and pain.
NOF4 was not alone anymore, NOF4 could travel: “as a free butterfly singing, the whole world is mine… and everything makes me dream…“
The only existing moving images of NOF4.
Here’s the italian Wiki page about NOF4. The quotes in the post come from a marvellous monographic number of Quaderni d’altri tempi entirely dedicated to Nannetti.
We shouldn’t fear autopsies.
I’m not using this term in its strict legal/medical meaning (even though I always advise anybody to go and see a real autopsy), but rather in its etymological sense: the act of “seeing with one’s own eyes” is the basis for all knowledge, and represents the first step in defeating our fears. By staring directly at what scares us, by studying it and domesticating it, we sometimes discover that our worries were unfounded in the first place.
This is why, on these webpages, I have often openly explored death and all of its complex cultural aspects; because the autoptic act is always fruitful and necessary, even more so if we are addressing the major “collective repressed” in our society.
Bringing forward these very ideas, here is someone who has given rise to a real activist movement advocating a healthier approach to death and dying: Caitlin Doughty.
Caitlin, born in 1984, decided to pursue a career as a mortician to overcome her own fear of death; even as a novice, picking up corpses from homes in a van, preparing them, and facing the peculiar challenges of the crematorium, this brilliant girl had a plan – she intended to change the American funeral industry from the inside. Modern death phobia, which Caitlin directly experienced, has reached paradoxical levels, making the grief elaboration process almost impossible. This irrational anxiety towards dead bodies is the reason we delegate professionals to completely remove the corpse’s “scandalous” presence from our familiar environment, thus depriving relatives of the necessary time to understand their loss. Take the extreme example of online cremation services, through which a parent, for instance, can ship out his own child’s dead body and receive the ashes a few days later: no ritual, no contact, no last image, no memory of this essential moment of transition. How can you come to terms with grief, if you even avoid watching?
From these premises, her somewhat “subversive” project was born: to bring death into people’s homes, to give families the opportunity of taking back their loved ones’ remains, and to turn the undertaking profession into a support service, not preventing relatives from preparing the body themselves, but rather assisting them in a non-invasive way. Spending some time in contact with a dead body does not usually pose any sanitary problem, and could be useful in order to concretely process the loss. To be able to carry out private rituals, to wash and dress the body, to talk to our loved ones one last time, and eventually to have more disposal options: such a positive approach is only possible if we learn to talk openly about death.
Caitlin therefore decided to act on several fronts.
On one hand, she founded The Order of the Good Death, an association of funeral professionals, artists, writers and academics sharing the will to change the Western attitude towards death, funerals, and grief. The Order promotes seminaries, workshops, lectures and organizes the annual Death Salon, a public gathering in which historians, intellectuals, artists, musicians and researchers discuss the various cultural aspects of death.
On the other hand, Caitlin created a successful YouTube channel with the purpose of answering user submitted questions about what goes on behind the scenes of the funeral industry. Her Ask A Mortician webseries doesn’t draw back from any horrific detail (she talks about the thorny problem of post-mortem poo, about the alleged presence of necrophiliacs in the industry, etc.), but her humorous and exuberant approach softens the darker tones and succeeds in passing the underlying message: we shouldn’t be afraid of talking about death.
Finally, to reach an even wider and heterogeneous audience, Caitlin published the thought-provoking Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, an autobiographical account of her time as a funeral home apprentice: with her trademark humor, and to the reader’s secret delight, Caitlin dispenses several macabre anecdotes detailing her misadventures (yes, some chapters ought to be read on an empty stomach), yet she does not hesitate to recount the most tragic and touching moments she experienced on the job. But the book’s main interest really lies in following her ruminations about death and the way her own feelings evolved – eventually leading her to actively try and change the general public attitude towards dying. Smoke Gets In Your Eyes immediately became a best-seller, as a further proof of the fact that people actually want to know more about what is socially kept out of sight.
As an introduction to her work for the Italian readership, I asked Caitlin a few questions.
Has working as a mortician affected the way you look at death?
It has made me more comfortable being around dead bodies. More than that, it has made me appreciate the dead body, and realize how strange it is that we try our best as an industry to hide it. We would be a happier, healthier culture in the West if we didn’t try to cover up mortality.
Did you have to put up some sort of psychological defense mechanism in order to deal with dead bodies on a daily basis?
No, I don’t think so. It’s not the dead bodies that are the issue psychogically. It is far more difficult on the emotions working with the living, taking on their grief, their stories, their pain. You have to strike a balance between being open to the families, but not bringing everything home with you.
“He looks like he’s sleeping” must be the best compliment for a mortician. You basically substitute the corpse with a symbol, a symulacrum. Our society decided long ago that death must be a Big Sleep: in ancient Greece, Tanathos (Death) and Hypnos (Sleep) were brothers, and with Christianity this analogy solidified for good – see f.i. the word “cemetery”, which literally means “sleeping, resting place”. This idea of death being akin to sleep is clearly comforting, but it’s just a story we keep telling ourselves. Do you feel the need for new narratives regarding death?
“He looks like he’s sleeping” wouldn’t necessarily be a compliment to me. I would love for someone to say “he looks dead, but he looks beautiful. I feel like seeing him like this is helping me accept he’s gone”. It’s harder to accept the loss when we insist that someone is perpetually sleeping. They’re not. They’re dead. That’s devastating, but part of the acceptance process.
In your book, you extensively talk about medicalization and removal of death from our societies, a subject which has been much discussed in the past. You made a step further though, becoming an activist for a new, healthier way to approach death and dying – trying to lift the taboo regarding these topics. But, within every culture, taboos play an important role: do you feel that a more relaxed relationship with death could spoil the experience of the sacred, and devoid it of its mystery?
Death will always be mysterious and sacred. But the actual dying process and the dead body, when made mysterious and kept behind the scenes, are made scary. So often someone will say to me, “I thought my father was going to be cremated in a big pile with other people, thank you for telling me exactly how the process works”. People are so terrified of what they don’t know. I can’t help people with spiritual life after death, I can only help with the worldly realities of the corpse. And I know education makes people less afraid. Death is not taboo in many cultures, and there are many scholars who think it’s not a natural or ingrained taboo at all, only when we make it one.
Has the internet changed the way we experience death? Are we really on the verge of a revolution?
The internet has changed death, but that’s not really something we can judge. Everyone got so angry at the teenagers taking selfies at funerals, but that’s just an expression of the new digital landscape. People in the United States in the 1960s thought that cremation was pagan devil sinful stuff, and now almost 50% of Americans choose it. Each generation takes things a step in a new direction, death evolves.
By promoting death at home and families taking care of their own dead, you are somehow rebelling against a multi-million funeral industry. Have you had any kind of negative feedback or angry reactions?
There are all kinds of funeral directors that don’t like me or what I’m saying. I understand why, I’m questioning their relevancy and inability to adapt. I’d hate me too. They find it very difficult to confront me directly, though. They also find it difficult to have open, respectful dialogues. I think it’s just too close to their hearts.
Several pages in your book are devoted to debunking one of the most recent but well-established myths regarding death: the idea that embalming is absolutely necessary. Modern embalming, an all-American practice, began spreading during Civil War, in order to preserve the bodies until they were carried back home from the front. As this procedure does not exist in Italy, we Italians are obviously unaware of its implications: why do you feel this is such an important issue?
First of all, embalming is not a grand important historical American tradition. It’s only a little more than a hundred years old, so it’s silly to pretend like it’s the fabric of our death culture. Embalming is a highly invasive process that ends with filling the bodies with dangerous chemicals. I’m not against someone choosing to have it done, but most families are told it’s necessary by law or to make the body safe to be around, both of which are completely untrue.
The Order of the Good Death is rapidly growing in popularity, featuring a calendar of death-positive events, lectures, workshops and of course the Death Salon. Most of the organizers and members in the Order are female: why do you think women are at the front line in the death awareness movement?
This is the great mystery. Perhaps it has to do with women’s historical connection to death, and the desire to reclaim it. Perhaps it is a feminist act, refusing to let men have control of our bodies in reproduction, healthcare, or death. There are no solid answers, but I’d love someone to do a Phd on this!
But Nino don’t be afraid of missing a penalty kick
One does not become a good player
On the account of these details
You can tell a good player from his courage,
His selflessness, his creativity.
(F. De Gregori, La leva calcistica della classe ’68, 1982)
Carlos Henrique Raposo, a.k.a. “Kaiser”, active in the Eighties and Nineties, played in eleven soccer teams, such as Vasco da Gama, Flamengo, Fluminense and Botafogo in Brazil, Ajaccio in Corsica and Puebla in Messico.
Eleven professional clubs, and zero goals scored in his whole career.
Yes, because Carlos Henrique Raposo, a.k.a. “Kaiser”, pretended to be a player. And in reality he was an illusionist.
Born in 1963 in a poor family, as many other Brazilian kids Carlos dreamed of a redemption made of luxury and success. He had tried to become a soccer player, without any major result: yet he had the right muscular and powerful build, so much so that he was often mistaken for a professional soccer player. Around his twenties, Carlos clearly understood his mission: “I wanted to be a player, without having to play“.
Therefore, he decided to trust his courage, selflessness and creativity.
Carlos “Kaiser” certainly had the nerve. As a nightlife aficionado and regular clubber in Rio, he managed to bond with a series of famous soccer players (Romário, Edmundo, Bebeto, Renato Gaúcho and Ricardo Rocha who later called him “the greatest conman in Brazilian football“); he offered his favors and used his connections to organize parties and meetings. In return, he began asking to be included as a makeweight in his friends’ transfer deals.
It’s importanto to keep in mind that in the mid-Eighties the internet did not exist, and it was quite difficult to find information on a new player: Carlos was enthusiastically presented by great players vouching for him, who granted him with his first professional contract (for a three-month trial) in the Botafogo club. And thus began his career, always behind the front line but nonetheless enjoying relatively high wages, and an incredible fiction which lasted more than twenty years.
First of all, it was essential for Carlos to earn his teammates’ unconditional trust, their cover and benevolence.
“As soon as I knew which hotel we would be staying in, I went there two or three days beforehand. I rented rooms for ten ladies in that hotel, so that instead of sneaking away at night, my teammates and I could simply walk down the stairs to have some fun“.
Another important step was ensuring to have some newspaper article backing up his non-existing talents. Again, that was not a problem for the “Kaiser”, thanks to his socialite connections: “I have an incredible aptitude for making friends with people. I knew several journalists very well at the time, and treated them all kindly. A little gift, some insider information could come in handy, and in return they wrote about the ‘great soccer player’ “.
Once he obtained a contract, leaning on other players’ transfer negotiations, the second part of Carlos’ plan kicked off: how could he manage to remain in the team without the coach realizing that he wasn’t even able to kick a ball? The solution Carlos came up with was simple yet brilliant – he had to gain as much time as possible.
He started by saying he was out of shape, and that he needed to follow a special workout program with a mysterious personal trainer. He then spent the first two or three weeks running along the sidelines, without participating in the team’s exercises. After that, when he could no longer postpone his presence in the field, he asked a teammate to make an irregular entrance on him during a training game and to inflict him a (not too serious) injury. Sometimes he didn’t even need outside help, he just pretended to sprain his muscle, an injury which was difficult to verify in those years: “I preformed some strange moves during the training, I touched my muscle and then stayed in the infirmary for 20 days or so. There was no MRI at the time. Days went by, but I had a dentist friend who certified I had physical health problems. And so, months went by…”
In this way, scoring zero minutes of playing time during each season, he jumped from team to team. “I always signed the Risk Contract, the shortest one, normally for a six-month period. I received the bonus, and went straight to infirmary“. To enhance his great player image, he often showed up talking in English through a huge cellular phone (a true status symbol, back then), presumably to some foreign manager offering him some outstanding deal. Unfortunately his broken English conversations made no sense whatsoever, and his cellphone was in fact a toy phone.
When he went back to Brazil, in the Bangu team, Carlos’ hoax almost collapsed. The coach, taking him by surprise, decided to summon him for the sunday match and around the half of the second time he told him to warm up. Given the dangerous situation, and the forthcoming disaster a debut would entail, Carlos reacted with an exceptional stunt: all of a sudden, he started a fight with an opposing team’s supporter. He got immediately expelled from the game. When in the locker room the coach furiously approached him, he pretended like he acted on behalf of the coach himself: “God gave me a father and then took him away from me. Now that God has given me a second father, I can’t allow anyone to insult him“. The incident ended with the coach kissing him on his forehead, and renewing his contract.
He had another stroke of genius at the time of his debut in the Ajaccio club, in Corsica, France. The new Brazilian soccer player was greeted by the supporters with unexpected enthusiasm: “the stadium was small, but crowded with people, everywhere I looked. I thought I just had to show up and cheer, but then I saw many balls on the field and I understood we would be training. I was nervous, they would realize I was not able to play on my first day”. So Carlos decided to play the last trump, trying yet another one of his tricks. He entered the playing field, and began kicking each and every ball, sending them over to the gallery, waving his hand and kissing his shirt. The supporters went into raptures, and of course never threw back the precious balls, which had been touched by the publicised champion’s foot. Once out of balls, the team had to engage in a strictly physical training, which Carlos could manage to do without problem.
Reality and lies
After leaving Guarany, aged 39, Carlos Henrique Raposo retired having played approximately 20 games – all of which ended with an injury – in approximately 20 years of professional career (the numbers are a little hazy). But he came away with a wonderful story to tell.
And here’s the only problem: practically every major anecdote about this intentionally misleading stunt comes from no other than Kaiser himself. Sure enough, his colleagues confirm the image of a young man who made up for his lack of ability with immense self-assurance and cockiness: “he is a great friend, an exquisite person. Too bad that he doesn’t even know how to play cards. He had a problem with the ball, I did not see him play in any team, ever. He told you stories about games and matches, but he never played even on Sunday afternoon in Maracanà, I can tell you that! In a lying contest against Pinocchio, Kaiser would win“, Richardo Rocha declared.
So, why should we believe this Pinocchio when he comes out of nowhere and tell us his “truth”?
Maybe because it feels good to do so. Maybe because the story of a “man without qualities”, a Mr. Nobody who pretends to be a champion, cheating big soccer corporations (which are frequently nowadays amid market scandals) is some kind of a revenge by proxy, that has many soccer aficionados grinning. Maybe because his incredible story, on a human level, could come straight out of a movie.
In the meantime, Carlos shows absolutely no regrets: “if I had been more dedicated, I could have gone further in the game“.
Not in the soccer game, of course, but in his game of illusion.
A pale sun just came up that morning, when a soldier came knocking at the Angel’s door. He would never have disturbed his sleep, if he wasn’t sure to bring him a tryly exceptional discovery. Once he heardthe news, the Angel dressed up quickly and rushed towards the gates, his eyes burning with anticipation
It was May 19, 1944, in Auschwitz-Birkenau, and Josef Mengele was about to meet the largest all-dwarf family ever recorded.
The Ovitz family originated from Rozavlea, a village in the district of Maramureș, Transilvania (Romania). Their patriarch was the itinerant rabbi Shimson Eizik Ovitz, who sufferd from pseudoachondroplasia, a form of dwarfism; over two marriages, he had ten children, seven of which were stricken by his same genetic condition. Five of them were female, two males.
Dwarfism made them unfit for heavy work: how could they solve the paradox of having such a large family with virtually no labor force? The Ovitzs decided to stick together as much as possible, and they embarked in the only activity that could grant them a decent life: entertainment.
They founded the “Lilliput Troupe”, a traveling show in which only the seven dwarf siblings performed onstage; the other, medium-height members of the family warked backstage, writing sketches, preparing costumes or managing their next gigs. Their two-hour show mainly consisted of musical numbers, in which the family covered popular hits of the day on especially tailored instruments (small guitars, violas, violins, accordeons). For 15 years they toured Central Europe with huge success, the only all-dwarf act in the history of entertainment, until Nazism’s dark shadow reached them.
In theory, the Ovitzs were bound to die. First of all because they were observant Jews; and secondly, because they were considered “malformed” and, according to the Aktion T4 euthanasia program their lives were “unworthy of life” (Lebensunwertes Leben). At the time of their arrival in Auschwitz, they were twelve. The youngest was a 18-months-old child.
Josef Mengele, nicknamed the “Angel of Death” (Todesengel), still remains one of the most sadly infamous figures in those unimaginable years of terror. In the tales of the survivors, he is without doubt the most enigmatic and unsettling character: a cultivated and elegant man, with doctorates received in anthropology and medecine, fascinating as a Hollywood star, Mengele possessed another face, one of violence and cruelty which could burst out in a totally disinhibited way. According to some accounts, he could bring sugar to the children in the nomad camp, play the violin for them, and shortly after inject them with chloroform on the operation table or personally carry out a mass execution. As the camp’s physician, he often began his day by staning on the platform and selecting with a gesture of his hand who among the newly arrived deportees was fit to work and who was destined to be eliminated in the gas chambers.
He was known for his obsession with twins, who according to his studies and those of his mentor Otmar von Verschuer (who was well-informed about his pupil’s activities) could undisclose the ultimate secrets of eugenics. Mengele carried out human experiments of unprecedented sadism, infecting healthy individuals with various diseases, dissecting live patients without anesthesia, injecting ink into their eyes in order to make them more “aryan-looking”, experimenting poisons and burning genitals with acid. Mengele was not a mad scientist, operating under cover, as was first understood, but was backed by the elite of German scientific community: under the Third Reich, these scientists enjoyed an uncommon freedom, as long as they proved their research was going in the direction of building a superior race of soldiers – one of Hitler’s obsessions.
“I now have work for 20 years”, Mengele exclaimed. As soon as he saw the Ovitz family, he immediately ordered that they be spared and arranged in privileged living quarters, where they would be given larger food portions and enjoyed better hygiene. He was particularly interested in the fact that the family included both dwarfs and middle-height individuals, so he ordered the “normal” members also to be spared from gas chambers. Hearing this, some other prisoners from the Ovitz’ village claimed to be blood-related to them (and the Ovitz of course did not deny it), and were moved along with them.
In exchange for their relatively more comfortable life, in respect to other inmates – their hair was not shorn, nor were they forced to part from their clothes – the Ovitzs were subjected to a long series of experiments. Mengele regularly took blood samples from them (even from the 18-months-old child).
Written accounts of inmate doctors shed further light on the endless anthropological measurements and comparisons between the Ovitzs and their neighbours, whom Mengele mistook for family. The doctors extracted bone marrow, pulled out healthy teeth, plucked hair and eyelashes, and carried out psychological and gynaecological tests on them all.
The four married female dwarves were subjected to close gynaecological scrutiny. The teenage girls in the group were terrified by the next phase in the experiment: that Mengele would couple them with the dwarf men and turn their wombs into laboratories, to see what offspring would result. Mengele was known to have done it to other experimental subjects.
The “White Angel” kept a voluntarily ambiguous relationship with the family, constantly walking a fine line between mercyless cruelty and surprising kindness. In fact, although he had already gathered hundreds of twins, and could sacrifice them if need be (accounts tell of seven couples of twins killed in one single night), he only had one family of dwarfs.
Still, the Ovitzs didn’t indulge in false hopes: they were conscious that, despite their privileges, they would die in there.
Instead, they lived to see the liberation of Auschwitz on January 27, 1945. They walked for seven months to get back to their village, only to find their home looted; four years later they emigrated to Israel, where they resumed touring with their show until they eventually retired in 1955.
Mengele, as is known, escaped to South America under a false name, and during his more than thirty years as a fugitive his legend grew out of proportion; his already terrible deeds were somewhat exaggerated until he became a demon-like character trowing live children in the ovens and killing people just for fun. Reliable accounts evoke a less colourful image of the man, but no less unsettling: the human experiments carried out at Birkenau (and in China, at the same time, inside the infamous Unit 731) rank among the most dreadful examples of scientific research completely detaching itself from moral issues.
The last survivor in the family, Perla Ovitz, died in 2001. Until the end, she kept recounting her family’s tale, encapsulating all the helplessness and painful absurdity of this experience, which she could not possibly explain to herself and to the world, in a single sentence: “I was saved by the grace of the devil“.
– An excerpt from the documentary The Seven Dwarfs of Auschwitz (available here), featuring Perla Ovitz.
– Giants: The Dwarfs of Auschwitz (Koren & Negev, 2013) is the main in-depth research on the Ovitz family, based on interviews with Perla and other Auschwitz survivors.
– Children of the Flames: Dr. Josef Mengele and the Untold Story of the Twins of Auschwitz(Lagnado & Dekel 1992) is an account of Mengele’s experiments on twins, with interviews with several survivors.
– The video in which Mengele’s son, Rolf, recounts his meeting with his father – whom he had never knew and who was living incognito in Brazil.
– The truth about Cândido Godói, a small village in Brazil with a high twin births rate, where in the Sixties a strange German physician was often seen wandering: did Mengele continue his experiments in South America?