Wednesday, June 6, 2012

In Our Hearts We Were Giants

“In Our Hearts We Were Giants” tells the story of the Ovitzes, a family of seven dwarves who survived imprisonment and experimentation at Auschwitz. In the first part of the book, the authors, Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev, gave an interesting historical account of how dwarves have been regarded in Jewish culture, which was comparatively more civilized than, say, Ancient Rome, where dwarves had to compete in gladiator tournaments or in Australia, where dwarf bowling was an actual sport.

The Ovitzes formed a family act called The Lilliput Troupe. They were so successful that before they were captured and sent to Auschwitz, they owned the first car in their town of Rozavlea, Hungary and were well-known for always wearing lavish clothes and accessories.

The authors interviewed the Ovitzes’ neighbors in Rozavlea who claimed they remembered the Ovitzes fondly. The treatment they received was so different from most European Jews at the time that they weren’t terribly concerned about Germany’s rise to power and remained oblivious to the amount of danger they were in, protected by identification papers which claimed they were non-Jews.

When they exited the cattle car after arriving at Auschwitz, they handed the SS guards their business cards, as if they were meeting fans after a performance. Their charm and charisma, as well as their fluency in German, worked in their favor and earned them special privileges in Auschwitz. This made other prisoners jealous, including Sara Nomberg-Przytyk, who wrote the book “Auschwitz: True Tales from a Grotesque Land.” The authors discredit some of Przytyk’s stories, such as Shinshon Ovitz, only 18 months old, being killed by Josef Mengele. In reality, he grew up and emigrated to Israel. The authors excused Przytyk’s inaccuracies. After all, when you are surrounded by death and everyone merges into a huge mass of victims, it’s hard to get all your facts straight.

This book provides a great character study of Josef Mengele, and that was the main reason I wanted to read it. The authors also provide interesting information on Dina Babbit, who was saved by her artistic talent and given a job painting portraits of prisoners to illustrate what the Nazis believed were their degenerate racial characteristics. I wish the authors had done a better job of showing the Ovitzes’ unique characteristics, a written version of the kinds of portraits Dina would paint, so I could feel as though I knew them individually. The characters feel aloof, but overall, this was a very interesting book.