In Our Hearts We Were Giants: the remarkable story of the Lilliput Troupe--a dwarf family’s survival of the Holocaust
Book review by Barbara Duncan
By Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev, 306 pages, illustrated & indexed. Published 2004 by Carroll & Graf Publishers, 245 West 17th St., 11th floor, New York, N.Y. 10011. German version 2003: Im Herzen Waren wir Riesen, published by Ullstein Heyne List GmbH. & Co. KG, Munich
After being so taken with the film, “Liebe Perla,” (Dear Pearl) I looked for years for some further writings about Perla Ovitz and her family from Transylvania, a troupe of entertainers who only survived the Holocaust because Dr. Josef Mengele kept them alive for experiments in the Auschwitz concentration camp. It was possible on the internet to find articles and interviews that told pieces of the story, but they all were tantalizingly brief or led only to scholarly research facilities in German or other languages. So, it was a find to come upon this 2004 book by Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev, two Israeli journalists, representing 10 years of sleuthing, first locating Perla in Haifa in 1994 and then retracing the family of dwarfs from the theatrical stages of Central Europe during the 1930s, their deportation to Auschwitz-Birkanau in 1944, to their migration to Israel in 1949.
Their timing was perfect: Koren and Negeve found the last surviving member of the family, Perla Ovitz, the personable actress, when she was still eager and able to tell the story of how the family of mostly dwarfs (their preferred term) earned their living performing musicals and sketches on stages in Romania, Hungary and Germany until they were caught up in mass Nazi deportations of Jews. The journalists then flew to Romania in 2000 where they explored Rozavlea, hometown of the Ovitz family, and continued to what is left of the Auschwitz camp to see and sense for themselves some of the details of how it might have been when the Ovitz family of nine lived there, protected from hard labor by Dr. Mengele. After Perla died in 2001, they were able to concentrate on documenting the story with 16 pages of vintage photographs, interviews and research into archives in several countries.
The writing style is engaging, weaving in myriad details of family relationships; the hardships of earning a living by a family whose physical conditions precluded farming, the traditional occupation in this rural region; and Jewish life in Central Europe prior to the Holocaust; while portraying all events within the context of the local and global political developments. In one way, their job is easy – this may be the only family that survived a concentration camp intact, and the Ovitz story is unique—their protector was the same camp official who selected thousands for certain deaths. But, Perla gives them challenges that are difficult to contemplate, and due to her formidable personality and convincing memories, the writers are forced to reframe Mengele through her eyes: the father figure who distributed privileges, special food and favors to her and her family, enabling their survival. The Ovitz family had also undergone persecution before their arrival in the camps, having had to disguise their Jewish heritage 1940-44, when it was illegal for them to perform in Hungary for non-Jewish audiences.
The story is all here—the hardships that awaited them after their immigration to Israel, the early deaths some family members attributed to the experiments they underwent in the camps, and loneliness of Perla, as the youngest and ultimately the sole survivor of the family. Koren and Negeve have given the story and the family the dignity and immortality deserved.