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The dwarves of Auschwitz
March 23, 2013 3:55 PM   Subscribe

The story of a family of dwarves snatched from the gas chamber by Josef Mengele himself sounded incredible. But how to verify the testimony of Holocaust survivors? And should you even try?
posted by Stewriffic (10 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite

 
Leslie Fiedler in his book Freaks discusses this group among his chapter on dwarfs. That they were in the camps, is discussed here:

"... The notorious Auschwitz doctor, Josef Mengele, known as the Angel of Death, collected curiosities for his own experiments on heredity. When he saw the Ovitz family he said ‘I don’t want them disinfected.’ He was saving them from death for his experiments.

The depraved doctor separated the Ovitzes from the rest of the camp inmates to add them to his collection of test subjects. He was curious about the fact that the family included both dwarfs and taller members. Eleven other prisoners claimed to be their relatives, and Mengele moved all of them to his ‘human zoo’.

Warwick says in the film: “It’s incredible, the Ovitzes were brought here because they were Jews, but they managed to buy some time because they were dwarfs....: a fuller study of the dwarfs and their fate
posted by Postroad at 4:08 PM on March 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


Pretty astonishing misuse of the word "dwarves", even for the Grauniad.
posted by howfar at 4:58 PM on March 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


Here is a trailer for (and what must be the beginning of) a movie called Liebe Perla. Perla Ovitz says that she cried when she read that Mengele died. She then asks the researcher to find the video Mendele made of her family, in which he filmed them standing naked for hours while he gave commentary about their physical conditions. What a horrible thing they went through.

As an aside to the main point of the article, I had no idea that obese people were lumped in with twins and people with dwarfism as those who were experimented on, and I also did not know that Mengele was an assistant -- and I'd never even heard of Otmar Freiherr von Verschuer, who apparently wasn't even truly convicted of war crimes and actually went on to have a successful career at University of Munster.

(I thought the plural was "dwarfs", and that "dwarves" were in The Lord of the Rings?)
posted by Houstonian at 5:01 PM on March 23, 2013 [4 favorites]


Houstonian, you thought right. The plural is dwarfs.
posted by nohaybanda at 5:14 PM on March 23, 2013 [3 favorites]


Obviously you should verify or disprove people's stories of being Holocaust survivors, as people have caused great pain to others through fraud or delusion (Binjamin Wilkomirski shocked and upset the community of Holocaust survivors, and is sill being made hay of by Holocaust denialists---which may be the more lasting harm he caused, however unwittingly).
posted by Sidhedevil at 5:47 PM on March 23, 2013 [5 favorites]


I don't see in the article that the authors ever questioned that this family survived the concentration camps. Instead, the article seems to ask about memory. For example, Perla remembers that they were actually removed from the gas chambers -- which is probably not correct. There are other examples. So much horror makes memory a malleable thing, which maybe explains the weirdness of seeing a Holocaust survivor say she cried over Mengele's death. Her mind tries to make sense of something that cannot really be understood.

The article is worth reading.
posted by Houstonian at 6:05 PM on March 23, 2013 [2 favorites]


He was saving them from death for his experiments.

Mengele was clearly a humanitarian and history has obviously judged him harshly.

I was sidetracked early in the story by this:
We looked up to the ceiling to see why the water was not coming. Suddenly we smelled gas.

The Zyklon B used for mass killings of humans regularly omitted the warning odorant, according to Wikipedia.

Horrible story. Hearing about Mengele's experiments with twins scared me as a kid.
posted by Mezentian at 7:56 PM on March 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


Given the levels of deprivation that had been rife among Jews and other targeted populations for some time, I imagine a lot of the people who were still fat by the time they reached a concentration camp had either extraordinarily efficient metabolisms or disrupted metabolisms---both interesting subjects of study under normal conditions, so not surprising that Nazi doctors would use their unfettered power to look into that.

Note, too, that this poses a second answer to the "Well, you never saw fat people in concentration camps!" fat-shamers' nonsense (the first answer being that you never saw healthy people of any size in concentration camps, so why even raise the issue?)
posted by Sidhedevil at 7:59 PM on March 23, 2013 [4 favorites]


The most interesting point of this article is the discussion about the differences between history (as recorded in archives) and testimonies. For her PhD (contemporary history on a fortunately less traumatic topic), my SO collected testimonies from about 100 people (from her own interviews and questionaires as well as written memoirs). She also noted that people rewrite (consciously or not) their own memories, adding events that did not happen (but could have) and erasing some events that did happen (but should not have). For instance, one witness attributed his actions to a certain famous event, except that the actual event took place later. But on the other hand, archives are written by unreliable narrators too: people who were participants themselves and may have either glossed over/over-reported facts to please/not disappoint their superiors, obtain more funds etc. (like diplomats reporting their minister for instance). Or they could be just wrong in their assessment and did not think to include items that would be considered mandatory today. In those cases, testimonies provide an alternative and sometimes conflicting view. Both approaches are complementary.
posted by elgilito at 7:34 AM on March 24, 2013 [5 favorites]


I spent a lot of time researching the Ovitz family in the context of my research into Jewish music in Transylvania, and I have been to the village of Rozavlea several times interviewing people about what they remember about the family Ovitz. (shameless self-link.) I have been in their house (now owned by the former Mayor, who was the neighboring kid that guarded their possessions while they were at Auschwitz) and spoke with the authors of the Guardian article, who seem to be reissuing their original book about the familiy In Our Hearts We were Giants.

Regarding memories of Mengele: Mengele was a genetics researcher and extremely protective of his work vis a vis other Nazi scientists. He believed that other Doctors in the medical camp were envious of his work and wanted to work against him. So he actually did intervene to keep his subjects alive, believing that the other staff wanted to sabotage his work. When a new transport from Transylvania would arrive at Auschwitz, Mengele would take the Ovitch family to the "selection" to identify any relatives who could be used in his genetic research. By lying about who they picked out of the line the Ovitch family managed to save over 600 lives of Jews by claiming to be relatives and getting them separated into the protected Medical camp group.

I have heard other survivors tell me directly that they owed their survival to Mengele. Once, while I was interviewing an wonderful aged couple in Cluj about their lives, the wife declared that they owed their lives to Mengele. A little later, my wife asked her why the couple never had any children, and again, in the same clear voice, the wife answered "Mengele."
posted by zaelic at 3:41 AM on March 25, 2013 [6 favorites]


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