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."

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