The Devil and the Seven Dwarfs

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.

(Koren & Negev, The dwarfs of Auschwitz)

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“.

Further material:

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?

Manichini umani

Tutti abbiamo visto le spettacolari immagini dei crash test, ovvero le simulazioni di incidenti che gli scienziati ricreano al fine di studiare le conseguenze dell’impatto sul corpo umano. In questi test vengono utilizzati i cosiddetti dummies, manichini la cui struttura è pensata per avvicinarsi molto a quella umana, e per fornire indicazioni attendibili su come il corpo reagisce agli scontri automobilistici.

Pochi sanno però che non sempre i manichini sono sufficienti per questo tipo di ricerca.

I pionieri di questi studi, negli anni ’40, lavoravano sia nell’ambito militare che in quello civile: oltre ai ricercatori militari, cioè, anche la General Motors e altre compagnie automobilistiche avevano investito nel settore sicurezza. Per la fase iniziale di questo studio, si utilizzarono cadaveri umani.

A dire la verità, i cadaveri si utilizzano anche oggi: sono corpi donati alla scienza (volontà che negli Stati Uniti può essere espressa a livello testamentario) che vengono lanciati a tutta velocità in impatti frontali; talvolta se ne utilizzano soltanto alcune parti, come gambe e braccia che vengono attaccate al busto dei dummies. È ovvio che nessun manichino può simulare con la precisione dovuta l’esatta reazione di un corpo umano ad un impatto — non c’è nulla di meglio che un corpo vero e proprio. La ricerca sui cadaveri ha portato a modifiche fondamentali nella struttura delle automobili. Uno studio del 1995 sottolineava come a fronte di ogni singolo cadavere usato nella ricerca, si salvassero 61 persone all’anno per aver indossato la cintura di sicurezza, 147 grazie all’airbag e 68 all’impatto con il parabrezza.

Negli anni ’40, al fine di ottenere informazioni fondamentali circa la capacità del corpo umano di resistere alle forze di schiacciamento e di strappo che si verificavano solitamente negli incidenti ad alta velocità, i cadaveri venivano lanciati giù per i pozzi di ascensori inutilizzati e fatti schiantare contro lastre di acciaio. Si facevano cadere cuscinetti a sfera sui crani, per calcolare la loro resistenza. Corpi dotati di rudimentali accelerometri venivano lanciati in scontri frontali all’interno di automobili, e via dicendo.
Ma in alcuni casi, per comprendere davvero le dinamiche di un incidente, bisognava spingersi ancora oltre. Bisognava provare a far schiantare persone vive.

Il colonnello John Stapp è un nome mitico di questa fase pionieristica della ricerca. Quest’uomo non si offrì semplicemente volontario per i crash test: si trattava di crash test aerei!

Quello che si voleva capire era l’effetto di una decelerazione velocissima su un corpo umano che viaggiava ad altissime velocità. Fu così che John Stapp divenne l’uomo che nella storia si sottopose alla maggiore forza G di picco.
Venne costruita una rotaia con un modulo a propulsione a razzo e un sistema di frenaggio idraulico fra i più potenti mai costruiti. John Stapp fu piazzato dentro al modulo nel dicembre del 1947. Il motore a razzo faceva raggiungere alla slitta una velocità superiore ai 1000 km/h in 5 secondi. Il freno fermava completamente la slitta nel giro di un secondo e mezzo.

Nei progressivi esperimenti Stapp arrivò a sottoporsi a forze pari a 45 g — prima della sua ricerca i medici pensavano che il limite massimo raggiungibile da un corpo umano fosse di 18 g.
Come conseguenza della potentissima decelerazione, il colonnello si ruppe due volte il polso, il suo corpo si riempì di pustole causate dall’impatto con particelle di polvere, e subì un grave distacco delle cornee che gli causò un’emorragia ad entrambi gli occhi, come documentano i filmati dell’epoca.

Nel 1951, sul deceleratore erano state fatte 74 “corse” con volontari umani, la maggior parte delle quali effettuate da John Stapp: 19 con il soggetto di spalle, e 55 in posizione frontale.

A prendere il testimone della ricerca di Stapp fu un professore della Wayne State University, Lawrence Patrick. Si sottopose a circa 400 “corse” sulla slitta a razzo. Lui e i suoi studenti si fecero schiantare sul petto con un pendolo di metallo, vennero colpiti sul viso da un martello pneumatico rotante ed infine acconsentirono a farsi sparare addosso dei vetri frantumati per simulare l’implosione di un finestrino.

Prima di arrivare alla messa a punto dei primi crash test dummies, però, vi fu un periodo in cui i ricercatori fecero un altro passo inevitabile: l’utilizzo di animali per arrivare là dove i volontari umani non potevano spingersi. Scimpanzè, orsi, soprattutto maiali furono schiantati in centinaia di mortali esperimenti.

Finalmente, grazie a tutti i dati raccolti in queste numerose e pericolose ricerche, all’inizio degli anni ’50 furono progettati e costruiti i primi manichini. Da quel momento in poi, l’utilizzo di dummies sempre più perfezionati renderà superflui i test sui cadaveri o sugli animali.

Ma c’è anche chi continua a schiantarsi per la nostra sicurezza su una base regolare. Ecco a voi Rusty Haight, direttore dell’ Istituto per la Sicurezza della Collisioni della California e detentore del Guiness dei Primati come uomo che ha effettuato in prima persona il maggior numero di crash test.

Se per noi l’incidente stradale è un momento traumatico e pauroso, per Haight è pura routine. La disinvoltura con cui affronta i crash test deriva dalla sua esperienza: si è schiantato a tutta velocità contro muri e altre macchine diverse migliaia di volte.

Grazie a Materies Morbi per l’ispirazione.