Saturday, August 31, 2013

Perspectives -- The Ovitz Family, entertainment, and Auschwitz

In 1999, a filmmaker named Shahar Rozen produced Liebe Perla, a documentary about the Ovitiz's, seven brothers and sisters who are dwarfs that were experimented upon at Auschwitz.  The film follows the relationship between Hannelore Witkofski, a woman of short stature living in late 20th Century Germany, and Perla Ovitz, the only surviving member of the Ovitz family.  The film follows the ordeal of the Ovitz's, who managed to survive Auschwitz because they dwarfs, and subject to genetic experiments; and because they were musicians.  The story draws connections between Europe of the 1940's and Germany of the late 20th Century in terms of the way people with disabilities, and people who are different, are treated and ostracized. Between 2000 and 2002, I saw the documentary at least twice, including at the Little People of America Conference in Salt Lake City in 2002, where there was a screening and discussion.  Soon after the 2002 Conference, I wrote about the documentary for the LPA Today

  Earlier this year, the actor Warwick Davis hosted an episode of what appears to me to be a web-based program called "Perspectives."  The episode was called "Perspectives:  Warwick Davis:  The Seven Dwarfs of Auschwitz."  It was first released in March but just within the last week a Youtube upload of the documentary has been making the rounds on Facebook.  This short documentary also looks at the experience of the Ovitz Family.  The Rozen documentary made a connection between World War II Europe and modern day Germany.  Davis' film comes at the issue from the angle of entertainment.  As a young actor, Davis starred in Return of the Jedi and Willow.  More recently, he's been in the Harry Potter series and in the mockumentary "Life's Too Short." Within the dwarfism community, in the United States and in England where Davis lives, there has always been tension around dwarfs and entertainment because in popular culture dwarfs are often objectified, dehumanized, and portrayed as sight gags.  For a dwarf actor, I imagine it could be tricky to navigate the line between what some may believe is objectification and acting.  Early in the Perspectives documentary, Davis sets up the entertainment theme by talking about his career and looking at the career of the Ovitz's before they were captured by the Nazis and sent to the concentration camp.  Davis makes the case that the Ovitz's were musicians and entertainers, which transcended the immediate appeal the family may have had as little people.  In voice over, Davis says, "They weren't just entertainers because they were small. They were entertainers because they were good at what they did."  Reflecting on his own career, he explains, "I got started in acting because I was short, but I didn't rely on that."

The Perspectives documentary starts to sink in after the initial staging of the entertainment theme.  He visits the village in Hungary where the Ovitz's lived until the Germans invaded and shipped the Jewish residents to concentration camps, and he visit Auschwitz. Davis continues to give his own insight on historical signficance of the story and make connections to his own life, but he also steps back from the narrative, and allows historians who he visits and old footage of Perla Ovitz tell the story.  This is where the documentary picks up momentum.  Liebe Perla was very good, but I didn't get a sense of the Ovitz Family experience in the context of the horrors of World War II Death Camps.  As a viewer, it felt like a separate experience.  By linking in testimony from Auschwitz Historians, the Perspectives Documentary integrates the Ovitz story into the broader history of the concentration camp, which I think is important because it puts the history of the this specific group of dwarf into a common history with which most people are familiar. 

As the documentary nears the end, Davis loops back to the entertainment theme.  He tells the audience that 100 dwarfs were exterminated at Auschwitz, making the point that the fact that the Ovitz's were dwarfs wouldn't keep them alive forever.  The SS Doctor Josef Mengele experimented upon the seven Ovitz brothers and sister because their bodies were different.  For eugenic purposes, he pulled teeth, pulled hair, and pulled eyelashes in pursuit of the knowledge of what separated disabled bodies from non-disabled bodies. But the Ovitz's knew that the differences in their bodies may eventually not be enough to keep them alive.  So, the Ovitzs started to perform.  Their performances bought them enough time to survive until, eight months after they arrived in Auschwitz, the camp was liberated.  

For me, the most moving part of the documentary comes at the very end.  The emotional impact of the moment doesn't have much to do with my connection to Davis as a dwarf, or to the dwarfs in the Ovitz Family.  Rather, the impact is tied up in the ambiguity of the human soul moving on after being in a place where thousands of people were put to death; and the conflicted feeling toward a horrendous man who was responsible for human atrocities, yet allowed the Ovitz Family to live.  Expressing that ambiguity, Perla Ovitz says in an interview, "I should hate him, but he let us live."  Moments later she says, "the lips smile but the heart weeps."

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Notify the media

I've set up two "Google News Alerts" on my computer.   One is for the word "dwarf" and one is for the word "midget."  The News Alerts allow me to track media stories that include the word "dwarf" and "midget."  Every morning, Google will send me two emails.  One email includes links to all news stories from the previous day that include the word dwarf and one for the word midget.  I originally set up the emails to stay on top of stories that may be relevant to my work as Vice President of Public Relations and as President for Little People of America.  For a while, I stopped opening the email that listed the "midget" stories. If the stories included in the email didn't involve a youth sports league of some kind, the story was either insulting or ridiculous.  Opening the emails every day became too much of a burden.  Recently though, I've started to look at the emails again.  A few stories that have popped up in the last week are indicative of both what is wrong with the word midget and what people of short stature are sometimes forced to encounter. Neither story represents a serious problem that plagues people with dwarfism from dawn til dusk, but both underscore why it's important to raise awareness around dwarfism and language.

The first story comes from the Telegraph, a news site in England.  Both the headline of the story,
"Sunderland 'midget' Emanuele Giaccherini shows he can use his head with goal at Southampton" and the story include the m-word.  In this piece, the manager of a soccer club uses the m-word as a slur to put-down one of the players. Speaking about his player, Emanuele Giaccherini, who had made some impressive plays on the pitch, the manager says, “That proves that football is strange. Even a midget can score a goal, because he is intelligent."  The player is question is evidently 5'6".  The quote indicates two things. First, it indicates that if an individual is small of stature, then there is a general assumption that the individual does not posses the same talents as taller individuals.  Second, the quote indicates that the word "midget" is thought of as derogatory.  Sometimes, people ask, "What's wrong with the word 'midget?'  It's just a word."  Every word is just a word.  But words carry value, and words carry power.  Midget carries the weight of dehumanization and insult.  That's why Little People of America works to raise awareness around it. 

The second story comes from the Eagle-Tribune out of Maryland.  The story covers what happened when a helicopter landed in the parking lot of a strip club in a town called Salisbury.  Evidently, last week (August 21), the police were called to investigate when the helicopter touched down.  The investigating officer reported back to headquarters that the helicopter had dropped off the exotic dancer Bridget Powers, also known as "Bridget the Midget." Powers is a dwarf.  Last week, the paper ran a story about the visit from Powers.  Evidently, the story was incorrect.  When Powers' agent informed the paper that she was not a passenger in the helicopter on August 21, the paper double checked its story.  It turns out that the investigating officer made up the part about Bridget Powers.  She had worked in Salisbury in the past but was not a passenger in the helicopter.  According to the paper, the mistake "stemmed from the result of the responding officer’s attempt at humor, since Powers has worked at Kitten’s in the past."  Kitten's is the name of the strip club.  In response to the mistake, the local police department issued a media statement.  The statement included this line, "We are in the process of changing the culture of the Salisbury Police Department and this will be used as learning experience in that process." 

The story out of the Eagle-Tribune is harmless, but it might also reflect the mindset of society as a whole around dwarfism.  To the investigating officer, Bridget the Midget was a joke. He mentioned her name because he thought it would be funny.  It's possible that if it were a different entertainer, not Bridget Powers, who had made an appearance at Kittens, the investigating officer would have done the same thing.  In that case, stature wouldn't have made any difference.  But based upon the history of people with dwarfism in entertainment, and based upon the fact that people with dwarfism are still used as punch lines, it's easy to assume that Power's stature was part of the motivation behind the officer's actions. 

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Games Changers

Men's Gold Medal Soccer Match
My wife and I sat in the first row in the center section of bleachers at Demartin Stadium on the Michigan State University Campus.  Hundreds of screaming fans sat to our left, to our right, and behind us, stomping their feet, waving flags, and blowing horns in support of the Women's Soccer Teams from the United States and from Great Britain.  In the match to determine the Gold Medal for the 2013 World Dwarf Games, the two teams were locked in a tie at the end of regulation and had just started a round of penalty kicks to determine the winner.  I don't know the stadium capacity, but the seats were packed, not just with hundreds of athletes and their families who had made the trip to East Lansing for the events, but with Michigan State students and local residents who had read about the championship match.  Sparty, the Michigan State Mascot, also made an appearance.  He was walking the sidelines, encouraging noise from the crowd and showing support for the two teams.  Just before one of the United States players lined up to take what could have been a game deciding kick, a young man who was a United States fan stood up in front of the right side of the bleachers, faced the fans sitting in front of him, and started to belt out the cords of The White Stripes' "Seven Nation Army."  Several years ago, "Seven Nation Army" replaced the musical theme of "The Empire" from the Star Wars Series as the refrain that marching bands would lock into just before a pivotal football or soccer play. I never understood why marching bands across the country, at sporting events across the country, would all play the same song at critical moments, but the power of the music soon moved inside of me. 

Sparty with some of the USA Junior Players
The World Dwarf Games are held every four years.  They hadn't been hosted by the United States since 1993.  And it was East Lansing that hosted the first organized athletic competition exclusively for people with dwarfism in 1985.  More than 400 athletes from 17 countries had registered to participate, a higher number than any previous World Games.  On paper, the 2013 World Dwarf Games were a history making event.  And for many, the event would be life changing.  But my wife and I were staying at the Holiday Inn Express, six miles away from the Athletes Village at Case Hall and from the main hotel, the Marriott.  Commuting to and from the campus for my events, I felt like a commuter student.  I loved the games and got to know my team mates but didn't become part of the athlete community.  But at the Gold Medal Women's Soccer Match of the 2013 World Dwarf Games, when the USA Fan started to inflect the White Stripes, the tone of the week changed for me.  For the first time, I felt the energy of the games on an emotional level.   I felt a part of something that was more significant than the Great Britain Soccer Team and the United States Soccer Team.  The energy flowing through the stadium had brought the international community together. 

Juniors Soccer Team after their Gold Medal Match
The teams that lost the soccer matches that night will feel the sting of the disappointments for a long time.  For some of the players, the pain may linger for four years until they have the opportunity to avenge the losses at the World Games in 2017.  But each player was part of an effort that brought the world together, something in itself worthy of a gold medal.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Basketball Epiphanies

A life changing moment came as a 20-year-old when I attended a Little People of America National Conference.  I hadn't been to a national since I was nine years old.  Eleven years separated the two national conferences. In middle school, high school, and college, I had experienced the frustration of social rejection from women in whom I had been interested, and to some extent I always struggled to fit in and make friends with my male peers.  I believed that the National Little People of America Conference would be a different world.  I thought I'd be a different person.  I thought both women and men would gravitate toward me. But as a 20 year old, on my own at a National Conference in Dallas Texas, it took me one day to figure out that I was the same person around little people as I was around average stature people.  I was defined in both places not by my height but by my personality.  My shy, timid personality didn't change around other dwarfs, and it served me no better within the LPA social circuit than it had in high school and college. 

Though I was crushed to realize that dating within LPA would be just as much of a struggle as it had been during my teenage years, I was relieved to discover that dwarfism wasn't the end all and be all of who I am.  Other personal characteristics had a much stronger impact of defining who I was as a person. 

The realization wasn't nearly as significant, but an experience I had a few days ago reminded me of my epiphany as a 20-year-old.  Since Sunday, I've been in East Lansing, Michigan for the World Dwarf Games, an international competition that happens every four years.  Around 400 athletes from more than 15 countries are participating in the games.  I signed up for four sports -- soccer, basketball, ping pong and boccia.  Two days ago, I met my basketball team for the first time. The coaches, not knowing any of our abilities, immediately threw us into a three on three scrimmage.  After watching us for a few minutes, they stopped the scrimmage and assigned us positions.  I was assigned to play guard.  In Chicago, I've played a pick up basketball game with the same group of average stature people for more than 10 years.  We play every Saturday.  Because every other player has at least a foot on me, I always play guard.  Two days ago, practicing basketball with other little people, it was thrilling to realize that what is true for me in basketball among average stature players, is also true among players with dwarfism. 

USA Team 3 with a few friends, including Tom Izzo.
Unfortunately, my basketball skills, similar to my social skills as a young man, have never been very good.  My team lost both games it played yesterday.  But we had a lot of fun.

For more on the World Dwarf Games, check out this website and this BBC Blog Post from Simon Minty.