In this episode of season 2 of Bizzarro Bazar, produced in collaboration with the Civic Museums of Reggio Emilia: the secret behind the grotesque wedding organized by Tsar Peter the Great; the story of a sperm whale cub that beached in Italy in the 1930s; the black flood that swept a neighborhood in Boston in 1919.
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?