The fairy tale Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs has fascinated children for generations since it was first published in Germany in 1812 by the Brothers Grimm. But this is a tale about a real family of seven dwarfs. They fell into the hands of the Germans during World War II, and their story is anything but a delightful fairy tale.
The Ovitz family lived in the Transylvanian region of Hungary, in a small village called Rozavlea. Their father, Shimson Eizik Ovitz, had 10 children over the course of two marriages and seven of those, five girls and two boys, suffered from dwarfism, as did he himself. Ovitz was an entertainer and a rabbi, and it was to entertainment that his children would turn after his death in 1923.
They formed a musical group called the Lilliput Troupe and performed in eastern Europe through the 1930s and into the 1940s. They worked in Hungary, Romania and Czechoslovakia singing in a variety of languages including Hungarian, German and Yiddish. The full-sized members of the family acted as stage hands.
But the lives of these performers was about to be hideously disrupted by the Nazis. Hungary was an ally of Germany during World War II. But in 1944, Hitler discovered that the Hungarians had been trying to negotiate an armistice with the Americans and British. Now the German army occupied the country. This was not good news for the Ovitz family.
The Ovitz family were on the wrong side of the Nazis for two reasons. Firstly, they were Jews, and Hitler had decided to liquidate the entire Jewish population of Europe. Secondly they were dwarfs, and Nazi ideology regarded people with disabilities as inferior beings, worthy only of extermination.
In fact, for most of the war, the Ovitz family had managed to escape the attentions of the Hungarian fascists and the German Nazis. Somehow, they got their hands on papers which didn’t mention the fact that they were Jews. This meant they were able to continue touring and performing until 1944.
But now, the Nazis caught up with them. It was announced in April 1944 that all Hungarian Jews must now move to ghettoes. The Ovitzs were taken from their village of Rozavlea to the nearby town of Dragomiresti where there was a ghetto.
Their stay in the Dragomiresti was a short one and they were next ordered to the nearest train station, a nine-hour march away. The Ovitzs were fortunate enough to find a wagon for the journey. But that was when any idea of good fortune ended. The three-day train journey took them to a terrible destination, the Auschwitz death camp in annexed Polish territory.
As Jews who were also physically different, the Ovitz family might well have been murdered in the gas chambers as soon as they arrived at the camp. But it was their very physical difference that saved their lives. The sinister Dr Josef Mengele, known as “The Angel of Death” had other ideas about the fate of the dwarfs.
As one of the Ovitz dwarfs, Perla, put it to Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev, authors of the 2013 book about the family, Giants: The Seven Dwarfs Of Auschwitz, “I was saved by the grace of the devil.” And of course the great irony of the Ovitz story is that they were spared death by one of the most barbaric and vicious men of the Nazi era.
Evil Mengele used inmates of the concentration camp for his pseudo-scientific medical experiments, inflicting terrible suffering on them and often killing them. Previously, he had experimented mostly on sets of twins but now he saw a new subject for his so-called research.
So keen was Mengele to have the Ovitz family members as his experimental subjects that he ensured that they got very special treatment in the camp. They had their own accommodation, they wore their own clothes and, unlike other prisoners, were not obliged to have roughly shaven heads. And there was no question of them being sent to the gas chambers and ovens.
But don’t imagine that the Ovitz family lived an idyllic life in the hell on earth that was the Auschwitz concentration camp. Mengele subjected his human specimens to frequent medical procedures. He often took blood from them and they were endlessly x-rayed.
Later, Perla was to remember, “The amount of blood they took was enormous and, being feeble from hunger, we often fainted. That didn’t stop Mengele: he had us lie down and when we came to our senses they resumed siphoning our blood. They punctured us carelessly and blood spurted. We often felt nauseous and vomited a lot.”
Other torments that Mengele inflicted on the Ovitz family included alternately pouring cold and boiling water in their ears, and the extraction of healthy teeth. The family also lived in fear that Mengele might one day decide that he had other uses for them which could mean their deaths.
Their fears were well-founded. Two dwarfs had arrived at Auschwitz some three months before the Ovitzs had come to the camp, an adult hunchback and his son. Far from preserving them, Mengele had both of them killed so that he could display their skeletons in a Berlin museum.
“We’d reconciled ourselves to the thought we wouldn’t walk out from the camp,” Perla recalled. “But the notion that our skeletons would be exhibited in Berlin was ghastly beyond words.” As it was, the Ovitzs knew only too well that their continued survival depended on the whims of Mengele.
With their survival in mind, the family was careful to treat Mengele with reverence, always addressing him as “Your Excellency” and doing their best to humor him. “We all knew that he was ruthless and capable of the very worst forms of sadistic behavior – that when he was angry he’d become hysterical and shake with rage.”
Then, in January 1945, as the Nazi regime crumbled, the Russians liberated Auschwitz and the Ovitz family were rescued and taken to a refugee camp in the Soviet Union. Mengele had fled before the Soviets arrived. He was to escape justice, living out his days in Brazil until he died in a drowning accident at the age of 67 in 1979. Miraculously, all 12 members of the Ovitz family survived their unimaginable ordeal at the hands of Mengele.
Eventually, the Ovitzs settled in Israel and continued to tour their musical act until 1955. Perla was the last to pass away in 2001 at the age of 80. And this remarkable woman had an admirable lack of rancor. Asked what she’d have said if Mengele had been caught, she replied, “If the judges had asked me if he should be hanged, I’d have told them to let him go. I was saved by the grace of the devil – God will give Mengele his due.”