Liebe Perla: a complex friendship and lost disability history captured on film
By Barbara Duncan ( firstname.lastname@example.org)
At the end of this unique documentary, there is often silence in the room as the audience works to take in the myriad of complexities, ambiguities, moral dilemmas and unanswered questions. Then the opinions, questions and often, arguments, begin. "Liebe Perla" (Dear Perla) is surely one of the most provocative, profound and disturbing disability-themed films ever produced.
The film documents the deepening international friendship between two women of short stature: Hannelore, a young German disability advocate who is researching the treatment of little people during the Holocaust, and Perla, an 80 year old concentration camp survivor and former member of a Jewish family musical troup of dwarves from Transylvania. She and her family survived Auschwitz only because the "Angel of Death," Joseph Mengele decided to keep them alive for his "experiments."
Perla Ovitz, now living in Israel, said in an interview with Hadassah Magazine, ( www.hadassah.org/news/Nov99/size.htm) "We were the only family who entered a death camp and emerged together. If I ever questioned why I was born a dwarf, my answer must be that my handicap, my deformity, was God's way of keeping me alive." In the film, Perla admits to Hannelore that her feelings about Mengele are complicated-she cried when she read news of his death because she felt that it was only his protection that enabled her and her family's survival. In one eerie moment that succeeds in summoning Mengele into the room to watch the film with you, Perla recalls how he used to chant a little rhyme he made up for her family: " Over the hills and seven mountains, there my seven dwarfs do dwell."
Hannelore Witkofski, in an interview for the film magazine, Documenter, ( www.documenter.com/issue04/041acgb.htm) clarified her conditions for being filmed, drawing the line at the privacy of her home: "I didn't want any type of 'home story,' because of my experiences with how disabled persons are presented in the media, how they are shown. So imagine, this cute . . . picture of a short-statured woman cooking on a very short oven with a small soup. It would be a kind of children's movie, like a fairytale. So it was for me, very important to save my privacy . . . And on the other side, (I wanted) to bring my work to the center, because working people with disability, this is absolutely uncommon in the public view. Disabled people are poor, they suffer, but they don't work."
Vast differences between the protagonists
As can be deduced from the above statements, these two women have almost nothing in common except they are both called short-statured. As becomes starkly clear in the film, they are of different generations and belief systems, are citizens of countries which still have an uneasy relationship based on their intertwined history, and are at the opposite ends of the spectrum in most of their views--about disability, religion, the role of women, their outlooks on life. Some of these differences perhaps can be best explained by age: the younger woman, Hannelore has the researcher's serious analytical approach and energetic drive to get to the underlying implications of all the issues they discuss; while Perla has seen about all the inequity and horror that can fit into 80 years and she doesn't intend to spend another minute on it, now preferring to remember the good times. And yet, they develop a living, caring friendship through letters, the phone and occasional visits.
In and of itself, the friendship between these two vibrant and complex women might have been interesting enough to justify a film. But the film's real "hook" is soon introduced by a request Perla makes to Hannelore to search for a degrading film Mengele made around 1944, showing Perla and her family naked while their physical conditions were discussed. Hennelore and her research assistants decide to take on this assignment and we then join their search, north across Germany to Berlin, and on to rural Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland, concluding with a visit to Perla in Haifa and Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust memorial and museum.
The search for the missing film takes us to various archives and research institutes and introduces other characters, some still alive and others through photographs and histories. One of the most memorable is another ex-inmate of Auschwitz, an elderly Polish photographer who worked for Mengele. The memories of the work he had to do, mostly photographing disabled or obese inmates from various angles, echo through his quavering descriptions and are reflected in his anguished eyes.
I watched this film several times with Berkeley-based members of the disability movement and discussed it with others who have seen it, including Kitty Cone, Nancy Ferreyra, Ann Cupolo-Freeman, Sam Freeman, Debby Kaplan, Simi Litvak, Kathy Martinez, Sandy O'Neill, Corbett O'Toole and Jessica Weld. Everyone agreed it was a powerful and provocative film and if possible, should be seen in a group with time for discussion afterwards. Following are some of their stronger reactions and comments.
Kitty Cone:"This film should be widely viewed-everyone should have a chance to get to know these vibrant and fascinating women, with all their layers of complexity. In a very interesting way, this film conveys the horrors of the Nazi extermination of disabled persons without forcing you to encounter the subject graphically. It reminded me ofSchindler's List-this is what a film can do compared with a book. It gives you perhaps less information, but more profoundly, with greater impact."
Sam Freeman:"The film should have more context, more explanation. Our generation knows who Mengele was, but if young people see this film they could come away with the idea that 'Papa' Mengele was some kind of savior of disabled people in the camps."
Jessica Weld: "There are too many unanswered questions here-how did Perla's family get to Israel, how were they liberated, what happened to other short-statured people in the camps? I find the point of view confusing-we start off exploring the relationship and then it veers down all sorts of other alleyways. Nothing is brought to closure."
Nancy Ferreyra: "It reminded me of the book,Geek Love, where the narrator has this strong disability identity because they create a 'family of freaks.' In a way that's what Perla's family was, these stage performers who were looked at as freaks and survived as freaks. And Mengele was their circus master.
"I think that Perla's response to her experience makes sense when you look at her life before the Holocaust. First, she led an insulated, surreal existence where disability was the norm in her family. Secondly, traveling performance troupes are made up of eccentric people-and even today, Perla seems eccentric, with her exaggerated make-up and colorful clothes."
Simi Litvak: "I was shocked to learn that obese people were also looked at as disabled in the camps and killed. This is the first I have heard that. And it has had a real impact on me."
Debby Kaplan: "No one can judge a survivor of the camps, each one survived in his or her own way. Perla could have some form of 'survivor's guilt,' having seen so many people around her die in the camp. Remember, she was in her early 20's when she came face to face with Mengele and as bizarre as it seems to us, it sounds as though to her he was a sort of father figure during what was clearly the most traumatic time of her life."
Ann Cupolo-Freeman: "This film should be on PBS-it has so many levels that it operates on. There really haven't been any good films that I know of that document what happened to disabled people in the Holocaust.
"We should try to get this film for a Little People of America convention, but we need to get more information about what happened to other little people in the concentration camps."
The last word
And finally, from Harilyn Rousso, who worked with Simi Linton to prepare a screening and panel discussion about "Liebe Perla," for the Margaret Mead Film Festival in New York last November:
"I think this is an excellent film that teaches about the oppression of people with disabilities historically and currently. The treatment that Hannelore faces and her commentary during her search for the film makes it clear, I think, that the attempted genocide of people with disabilities during the Holocaust was no anomaly. In my view, Perla's attitudes towards Mengele are both generational and a survival mechanism. These attitudes are very strongly challenged by Hannelore, who reflects the younger generation of activism and entitlement, rather than gratitude.
"In addition to providing an important piece of disability history, I think the film also highlights differences across generations, typical of any civil rights issue, yet at the same time, demonstrates the value and power of intergenerational bonding. Finally, I think this is very much a film about gender, about how women in particular relate and connect. I would very much support the use of this film in both women's studies and disability studies classes. I think it can offer a context for discussing the sociopolitical model of disability, the invisibility of disability history and the issues of disabled women."
Obtaining the film
The 53 minute documentary is in German and Hebrew with English subtitles. By Shahar Rozen, the film was produced in 1999 with the assistance of the New Foundation for Cinema & Television and Keshet Broadcasting. To arrange for a film and panel presentation, contact Simi Linton, Ph.D., Disability/Arts, 140 Riverside Drive, New York, N.Y. 10024; phone/fax 212 580 9280; email DisabilityArts@yahoo.com
Because both the subjects of the film and the reviewers used various terminology interchangeably-little people, people of short stature, dwarves-throughout our discussions and in the interviews cited above, I let all the terms stand.