Giants: The Dwarfs of Auschwitz: The Extraordinary Story of the Lilliput Troupe by Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev
|Giants: The Dwarfs of Auschwitz: The Extraordinary Story of the Lilliput Troupe by Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev|
|Reviewer: John Lloyd|
|Summary: A fabulous tale of people that made up for their lack of height with warm manners and a giant on-stage personality, before and after the Holocaust reared its ugly head.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 320||Date: February 2013|
|Publisher: The Robson Press|
The title of this book does of course carry a sense of irony, although we never quite know exactly how much. When a man of diminutive stature was born in rural Romania in the 1860s nobody was to know what would happen to his lineage – there was no clue then that he would father ten children, and seven of them would inherit his genetic dwarfism. But history has pieced together all that followed, including the careers those children had as a performance troupe, belting out showtunes to their own accompaniment, and acting in their own tragi-comic skits. And then having the limelight stolen from them by the Nazis, and a transportation to Auschwitz. And then being surprisingly saved, and given what passed as a cushty life, fed and together, but tortured at the hands of the camp doctor, avidly researching anything he thought might shed clues on what singled out his Aryan race's genetic destiny. I say the amount of irony is unknown because we are not told exactly how short these little characters are – but he, the doctor, would have known. As one of the more ominous sentences you'll read all year has it – Mengele had plans for them.
It is also a perfect title, for this is a suitably stunning, humbling tribute to these Lilliputian people. I'll try and avoid puns like this and that being 'writ large' on the page, but everything here is very clear. The authors were great friends with the last surviving Ovitz daughter, Perla, before she died in 2001 – this book has taken ten years to reach Britain, for some reason. But they make sure this is very much a group autobiography – the collective of performers, their full-bodied siblings and their best friends is the whole point of the piece. Upon arrival at Auschwitz, and first encounter with Dr Joseph Mengele, they were even able to pass a large family of full-sized friends off as relatives. Thus purely from being of interest to that sick and twisted individual and his misguided ideas of science, the Ovitzes and friends were able to survive – and two whole football teams of people were able to get through their Holocaust, possibly solely because of that one 1860s gene.
This is definitely the definitive book on the subject, although the scholar might find it frustrating at times. It certainly shows the authors' journalistic beginnings, alongside their brilliant research. The book is allowed to drift off into all manner of background subjects – the Ovitz family having to reconcile their performing career with their being on the more Orthodox side of Judaism, the history we have of dwarfs as being entertainment, and so on. They do what I do, against my childhood English tutors' wishes, of sticking to a more chatty style while allowing one paragraph to drift from one subject to two or even three completely different things. And all the while there is no index, nor complete referencing, nor notes.
But with everything here, comes a richness these people deserve in their memory. This is a primer on the Holocaust, for things here are still very pointedly nightmarish. Barrack life was even worse in some regards for this family – latrines, bunk-beds, food servers all being at the wrong height; hours and hours of roll-call being beyond their diminutive legs. Among the people possibly saved the gas chambers were people employed to cart about the corpses – even if they were eleven years old themselves. But layered on that is the much rarer existence as pets to Mengele – measured, tested, re-tested and shown off as valid subjects to leering Nazis. Such stories have not often been told before, and the exact truth might never be known, as one section here has Perla deny the testimony of many other witnesses on an important matter.
This, then, marries the cold light of investigation into Mengele and the other Nazi goings-on, with at the same time a cheer raised to these very successful, seemingly easy-to-love people. This is a rare instance of people that left so many memories for so many people being completely forgotten, and this is the book to remedy that. Read it if you have ever read around the subject of the Holocaust, for this is suitably different and still confirmatory to make it a must-read. Read it if you have ever had an interest in Jewish history, or entertainment history, for both the religion and spirit of these performers is one that clearly stayed with them off-stage and into solitude. And read it if you have ever read a biography, for these unknown subjects are just dying to have their curtain call, and this book is it.
I must thank the publishers for my review copy.
The Boys From Brazil by Ira Levin is of course the fiction about what a surviving Mengele got up to - if rumours herein of a massive increase rate in one town's birth rate where twins are concerned, it might not have been too fantastical.
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