In Our Hearts We Were Giants

The Remarkable Story of the Lilliput Troupe--A Dwarf Family's Survival of the Holocaust


By Yehuda Koren

By Eilat Negev

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In this remarkable, never-before-told account of the Ovitz family, seven of whose ten members were dwarves, readers bear witness to the best and worst of humanity and to the terrible irony of the Ovitz's fate: being burdened with dwarfism helped them endure the Holocaust. Israeli authors Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev weave the tale of a beloved and successful family of performers who were famous entertainers in Central Europe until the Nazis deported them to Auschwitz in May 1944. Descending into the hell of the concentration camp from the transport train, the Ovitz family—known widely as the Lilliput Troupe—was separated from other Jewish victims. Dr. Josef Mengele was notified of their arrival and they were assigned better quarters and provided more nutritious food than other inmates. The authors chronicle Mengele's experiments upon the Ovitz's, and the creepy fondness he developed for these small people, even the songs he composed and sang to this family of singers, dancers, and klezmorim. Finally liberated by Russian troops, the family returned to their deserted village in Transylvania, and eventually found their way to a new home in Israel. They resumed their careers, overcame their handicaps and became wealthy and successful performers.


In Our Hearts
We Were Giants

The Ovitz Family, Antwerp, 1949.

Back row, left to right: Sarah, Azriel, his wife Leah, daughter Batia, Moshe Moskowitz (Elizabeth’s husband), Unidentified woman, Batia (Avram’s daughter), her mother Dora.

Front row, left to right: Micki, Franziska, Perla, Elizabeth, Rozika, Frieda, Avram, Shimshon.

In Our Hearts
We Were Giants

The Remarkable Story of the Lilliput Troupe—
A Dwarf Family’s Survival of the Holocaust




To our mothers, Sarah and Rachel


T here’s a long pause after the chime echoes inside. No ray of light sneaks from under the door, no muffled noises disturb the quiet afternoon.

Two peepholes, one above the other, catch the eye. The lower is just thirty inches above the ground. Until not long ago, Perla Ovitz would drag herself to the door and, peeking out, try to guess by the look of the trousers or the dress hem if the person on the other side was friend or foe. Nowadays, confined to her bedroom, she’s too weak to make the journey. Her vigorous voice erupts from a loudspeaker in the hallway; it demands identification. Then there’s a buzz, and you can push the heavy brown door open. You blink in the dusky corridor. You’re not sure how to continue, for fear of slipping or bumping into concealed furniture, or, worse, stumbling over your hostess. She’s under three feet tall. Her voice is your compass, guiding you forward. You grope blindly toward a diminutive silhouette in the doorway of the dimly lit room. She waits at the threshold in a full-length, majestic crimson dress and allows her visitor to tiptoe past. You step carefully inside. Then, she waddles in.

It is her bedroom. The legs of the double bed have been sawn off and although it is practically lying on the floor, a small stool stands next to it, to enable her climb into sleep. Beyond a kindergarten table and chairs is a child-sized washbasin. From your towering angle, there’s not much difference in her height if she’s standing up or sitting on the edge of the bed. Your first impulse is to shrink down, so as not to dwarf her with your presence. She nods toward the normal-sized sofa beside her bed. You take care to keep your feet on the ground, as crossing your legs will place your shoes in front of her face.

The raven-black hair of the ageless doll-like lady is carefully combed back and held in place by a velvet bow, in old-fashioned Hollywood style. She’s theatrically made up—her cheeks are rouged, her nails are lacquered shiny red. She wears earrings, a necklace, rings. As long as you breathe, you should look your best. I don’t want people to pity me. It’s a motto she is fond of repeating.

She enchants with her dazzling smile, and her bubbly talk is studded with unexpected aphorisms. A beaten dog dreads even the kindest people, for instance, is how she excuses her cautiousness. She spends most of her time sitting on her petite chair, or reclining, dressed, on her covered bed, as these days she can stand no more than a minute or two unaided.

She’s on her own most of the day, and needs everything to be easily accessible—a packet of chocolate cookies and a plastic box of sliced apples lie on the bed should she get hungry. A thermos of water waits within reach.

She can’t move without her cane, which serves as an extended hand, to pull, press, push. Tiny stools scattered through the house allow her to rest at any time in her movements around her rooms. All the light switches have been lowered to her height. The kitchen has a knee-high stove, and a special mechanism allows her to open the refrigerator door with a push of her cane. All the food is stored on the bottom shelf.

Vases that stand as tall as her hold abundant bouquets of silk and plastic flowers in her favorite colors: sharp violets, soft pinks. A heavy red curtain at the wide entrance to the living room is pulled to both sides and gathered in thick cords, as if a show were about to begin. Forty-five years have passed since Perla Ovitz took her last bow, but the stage stays with her still. When all her family still surrounded her, she loved the lights; she even flooded herself with them offstage, at home. Now, trapped alone in the big empty apartment, she seeks the economy and safety of dimmed lamps and half shadows.

Perla’s memories, though, remain vivid—in their glories and their horrors. Hers is a true story of seven dwarfs. It’s a story, however, that delivers Perla and her brothers and sisters not into the arms of a benevolent Snow White, but into the grip of a beast. It’s a story that ultimately takes them into some of the darkest corners of hell that human beings have ever experienced. And it’s a story that they survived.


Transylvania, 1868

T he story begins with giants.

In long-gone days, it is said, in hilly northern Transylvania, the Dolhai Valley was strewn with tribes of giants. For ages upon ages since the creation, they lived and prospered and roamed the earth. Then came the deluge, and they all fled to the peaks of the mountains. There, one by one, they perished, and when the waters receded, only two had survived: a giant and his daughter, Roza Rozalina. Her eyes black as coal, her hair as red as flame and as long as the sadness of the fir trees, sorrowfully she wandered through the valley.

“Father,” she sighed, “I’m withering with loneliness. Will I ever find a mate?” She headed toward the Iza River and, daydreaming, strolled along the bank. All of a sudden, she spotted tiny creatures ploughing between the grass blades. Roza Rozalina was astonished: never had she seen creatures so similar to her, and yet so small. She picked up a handful and nestled them in her apron. These moving toylike creatures would rescue her from boredom, she thought. She examined them closely. One in particular caught her eye. He was handsome as the moon and appeared to be less frightened than the others. Her cheeks blushed as she felt the pangs of love.

When she showed her catch to her father, he was alarmed: “Alas, my daughter, our time is up! These tiny creatures will inherit the earth. Return them immediately to their place!” But Roza Rozalina was incapable of obeying. Soaked in tears, she begged the Almighty to tie her fate to that of the small, handsome brave one. And the Almighty shrunk her a little, and stretched him a lot, until they became in size like twins. Eventually their descendants filled the land. They named the place Rozavlea, after their giant, ancestral mother.

In that sleepy little Romanian village, the ancient legend has been passed on from one generation to the next. Every August, the roughly seven thousand peasants who live there celebrate the festival of Roza Rozalina, with the schoolchildren each year staging the story. And in this same village, so proud of its legendary giantess matriarch, a real dwarf was born in 1868.

It was the third pregnancy for Frieda Ovitz, and having already given birth to a healthy daughter and son, she was distressed to discover that her baby had stopped moving inside her. In that remote part of the world, she had recourse only to prayer or an amulet, or the hope of a miracle. Being an Orthodox Jewish woman, she sought the advice of her rabbi.

“Your child will live,” he assured her, as he glanced at her belly from behind the table that separated them, “but he won’t grow tall.” Heartbroken, Frieda and her husband, Leib, decided to try halting destiny by naming their newborn son Shimshon Eizik, after Samson, the biblical giant. The first years passed without apparent complications, and the parents began to believe they had been spared. But when the child reached the age of seven, even they had to admit that he had long since stopped growing. They probed each other’s memory, they asked their elders. As far back as anyone could remember, in all their family history there had never been anyone who had not grown tall. Little Shimshon Eizik was shuttled between doctors, healers, and sages; he was prescribed medications and charms, spells and potions. But to no avail—they added not a millimeter to his stature. Frieda gave birth to two more boys; to her relief, both of them continued growing normally

The peasants of rural Rozavlea, which, like the rest of Transylvania, belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, were wretchedly poor, with limited options. But a three-foot-tall youth like Shimshon Eizik could not even hope to lift an ax or cut a tree or push a plough, and to him every farm animal was an immense and menacing monster. Realizing their son would never be able to support himself by physical labor, Frieda and Leib Ovitz invested in Shimshon’s schooling. They furnished him with tutors, and the bright, good-natured boy excelled in his studies.

As a teenager, Shimshon Eizik tried to come to terms with his lot. The sages of the Halacha, the ancient Jewish code of law, knew that the sight of human malformations could evoke scorn and derision. Shimshon Eizik thus found solace in the Hallachic imperative that if one sees a black man, a red man, or an albino, a giant, a crooked-faced man, or a dwarf, one should say, “Blessed be God, who alters man.” In this way, the negative response to disfigurement was channeled instead into admiration for God’s diverse powers of creation. Traditionally the blessing was spoken only on one’s first encounter with the deformed person, as it was meant to overcome the initial repulsion and enable the speaker to treat the “altered” man as an equal.

But when Shimshon Eizik read further into the holy texts, he was upset to learn that they defined a dwarf as a cripple and thus disqualified the small-statured man from certain functions that normal-bodied men were allowed to perform. Even if born to a line of holy priests, a dwarf was, for instance, never allowed to serve in the temple. So Shimshon Eizik sadly realized that in spite of an apparent tolerance for anomalies, Judaism tended to exalt those blessed with a perfect body.

Furthermore, Jewish folktales often portrayed dwarfism as a punishment for some wrongdoing or sin. Sometimes, too, it represented the lesser of two evils. In one old tale, a childless couple frequents the cemetery to beseech God for offspring. One day, in the midst of their weeping and pleas, an angel descends to them from heaven. “God has heard your prayer, and granted your wish,” the angel tells them, “but you must choose: you can have either a son who will grow no larger than a pea, or a tall, healthy daughter who will leave you and convert to Christianity at the age of thirteen.” The couple does not hesitate: “Let him be as small as a pea.”

Dwarfs, however, could also serve as symbols of distinction and merit, as in the case of Rabbi Gadiel, who has been immortalized by S. Y. Agnon. A kind of Jewish “Agnus Dei,” Gadiel the Dwarf heroically sacrificed himself to save his community from blood-libel—the accusation that his congregation had murdered a Christian child to acquire blood for the baking of the unleavened Passover bread. Nonetheless, such heroism aside, before the advent of modern genetics, the third-century Talmud sternly warned that “giants should not marry each other, as they will give birth to a flagpole, and midgets should not couple, as they will produce a thumb.”

So, tiny in stature—no taller than a boy of five—but a lively and self-confident eighteen-year-old, Shimshon Eizik Ovitz was searching for a normal-sized bride. In a deeply religious society that valued learning, Shimshon’s excellence in rabbinical studies and his piety compensated for his physical deficiency. He could offer his bride the prospects of a good livelihood, along with the community respect he enjoyed as an educated person. Nevertheless, the choices were meager, as only about two hundred Jews lived in Rozavlea, and no more than a few thousand in the neighboring villages, the Jews then totaling just 20 percent of the population. After much searching, the local matchmaker suggested eighteen-year-old Brana Fruchter, from the nearby village of Moisei. As usual in a prearranged marriage, Brana did not have much say in the matter.

About the time of his marriage to Brana, Shimshon Eizik decided to discontinue his studies. By then not only had he succeeded in overcoming any feelings of shame and unease for his own body, which created a stir wherever he went, but he had also learned how to manipulate public curiosity and to transform mockery into admiration. His audience would soon forget his size and shape and become captivated instead by his quick tongue and charisma.

Playing to his advantage the old traditions that the Jewish communities of the region had preserved, Shimshon harnessed his eloquence to his odd but magnetic appearance and slipped easily into the cultural role of Badchan, a merrymaker, a colorful, virtually indispensable figure at wedding festivals, which provided the harsh life of the rural Jewry with its most joyful moments. Life, in fact, stood still when the community celebrated nuptials, which were often as lavish as carnivals and which gave the peasantry a rare chance to let their hair down in an acceptable way. Throughout the festivities, the Badchan would entertain the guests with drollery, riddles, and anecdotes.

A complex enterprise involving hundreds of guests and celebrating the creation of a new family, the wedding was an event that called for perfection: opulent food, impeccable service, the choicest tableware, ravishing clothes, the finest orchestra—and a knowledgable, clever, masterful Badchan. No matter that these conservative, superstitious Transylvanian communities feared the “evil eye,” which could damage the health of expected offspring; Shimshon Eizik Ovitz’s deformity did not deter potential clients from hiring him. For his skills had made him famous throughout the region, and beyond.

Months before the wedding, the fathers would book him for the week. They would negotiate his fee, cover his travel expenses, and arrange his lodgings. In the weeks leading up to the wedding, Ovitz would prepare for the occasion by gathering information about the newlyweds, their parents, and the community dignitaries. He would then write songs and ditties based on family histories, assorted facts and anecdotes, rumors and gossip—all of his versification aiming at a good laugh. At the occasion itself, dressed smartly in a black suit and hat and carrying a small cane, Ovitz would appear in the decorated courtyard. Before the guests arrived, his assistant, who always traveled with him, would lift him to a chair standing on a table that would serve as his podium. From there, as master of ceremonies, he would do as he was expected: he would make his audience shed tears one moment, roar with laughter the next. With his ditties he would encourage both the bride and her all-female entourage to weep, for his verses offered them a cathartic antidote to the fears and apprehensions of an uncertain future:

Cry out your eyes, 0 graceful bride,
Your diamond tears enhance your charm.
Now is the time to wail out loud
As soon you’ll become a wife

With sympathy for both the young bride and groom, each leaving a familiar, secure childhood home to live with a person practically unknown to them, Ovitz would remind them in his sermon of their respective conjugal roles and responsibilities. But the tension would be broken immediately after the taking of vows and declaration of man and wife, as then Ovitz would put on his funny face. Working hard to create a jovial mood, he would encourage the guests to dance until they dropped. From time to time he would announce a special guest and offer a witty verse about him—perhaps in praise of the gift he had brought. As a jester, Ovitz was allowed to toss little barbs at the community’s hypocrites and misers.

Shimshon Eizik Ovitz was an earnest jester. He amused his audience with puns and limericks based on familiar quotes from Talmudic thought. He gauged the mood of the wedding guests and told the orchestra what tunes to play. He showered witticisms upon the grandmothers of the brides as they whirled in their customary dance. He kept spirits high and the revelry going nonstop, until the early hours of the morning. When he could, he would grab a moment to rest and slump into his chair, for Ovitz’s small feet and short legs provided only meager support.

The morally strict Jewish society in Eastern Europe at the end of the nineteenth century allowed entertainment only on certain holidays and festivals; the theater was banned as indecent. The wandering Badchans were in essence the pioneering actors of the Jewish world, the founders of the Yiddish theater. They enjoyed great popularity as they ministered to a basic human need: release. Years later, when Jewish orthodoxy had lost its grip, Ovitz’s children would follow in his footsteps by establishing their own vaudeville troupe, which would take the entertainment first offered in religious ceremonies onto the stages of theater halls, all for the sake of pure fun.

On November 2, 1886, Shimshon Eizik Ovitz was lost in prayer when he heard the first cry from the bedroom. Peszele Fogel, the midwife, emerged and announced that he had a daughter. She was named Rozika. When the toddler began walking, she swayed from side to side like a duck, and Shimshon Eizik Ovitz recognized the dreaded sign all too well. On January 27, 1889, Franziska was born, and she too proved to be a dwarf like her father and sister. If Shimshon and Brana feared the mark of heredity would strike their progeny again and again, they nevertheless bore it and obeyed the biblical command that they procreate. A daughter, Mancie, and a son, Judah, followed Franziska, but they both died in their first year and took the secret of their future growth to their tombs.

Ovitz, meanwhile, began to drift from his career as a Badchan. In all his merrymaking, Ovitz would impress his audience as much with his Talmudic wisdom as with his wit, so that before and after the wedding celebrations, various guests would approach him with their religious and personal dilemmas. Many of the region’s Jewish communities were so small they could not afford a rabbi, and the scholarly Ovitz filled the gap. He molded himself into the rabbinic role. He dressed and behaved like a sage; he groomed his beard to look respectable. (In fairy tales, dwarfs grow long beards, but in real life most of them decline to do so, as it makes them look even shorter.)

So it was that Ovitz moved into his new role as the esteemed wandering rabbi of Maramures County. For a week or two, he would settle in a small village, conduct prayers, and preach. For its part, the community would provide him with lodgings and furnish a consulting room. He frequently had to deal with questions regarding the kashruth, or dietary laws; in particular, the separation of meat and milk, for what housewife did not agonize over the dictum that she pour away a bucket of precious milk if she suspected a speck of meat had somehow fallen inside?

While giants were traditionally deemed to be stupid—all body and no brains—dwarfs, whatever the mixed biblical and rabbinic opinions, were popularly believed to have been born with great wisdom and magical powers, as godly compensation for what they had been deprived of in inches. Shimshon Eizik Ovitz benefited from this folk belief. He rapidly became famous for his spiritual powers, and people flocked to see him wherever he went.

Surrounded by people who believed in miracles, the charismatic Ovitz added amulets, spells, and charms to his repertoire. He would lay hands on the head of a sick child and recite a prayer. For an infertile woman, he would inscribe a blessing in ancient Hebrew letters on a piece of parchment with instructions that it be worn at all times. Often he provided the services of a lay psychologist by listening to the laments of wives with matrimonial problems and advising them how to restore peace—and straying husbands—to the household.

Ovitz was paid handsomely for his opinion and advice, especially by businessmen who consulted him regularly before signing new deals. He himself had a good head for business; he invested his earnings in property and land. Official Maramures County documents attest to Shimshon Eizik Ovitz’s popularity, prosperity, and social mobility: first registered as a “cantor,” he appears in later years as a “wizard,” and finally, estimably as a “landlord.”

But great healer that Ovitz was, he was powerless when his own wife, Brana, fell ill and died of tuberculosis in the winter of 1901 at the age of thirty-three. Since he spent most of his time traveling to make a living, he could not take proper care of his two teenage daughters. Nor could he simply leave them to their own devices. Furthermore, the community expected this well-known religious authority to find a new wife.

Barely had the usual thirty days of mourning passed when the matchmakers began knocking at the door. Ovitz refused to consider widows and divorcees, as they were burdened with their own children, but he did find Batia-Bertha Husz, a girl from a distant village only two years older than his daughter Rozika, much to his liking.

What might have persuaded a pair of loving parents to give their pretty, healthy, eighteen-year-old daughter to a crippled widower not only almost twice her age but also with two teenage dwarf daughters? Shimshon Eizik Ovitz’s reputation as a prosperous healer and spiritual superman must have worked for him. To head off the anticipated gossip about Ovitz’s preference for a young virgin, everyone was told that the bride was already an old maid of twenty-four.

Beginning a fresh chapter in his life, Shimshon no doubt hoped that his hereditary luck might also change. It didn’t. On September 26, 1903, Avram was born, a dwarf. Born in June 1905, a baby girl, named Frieda after Shimshon’s mother, proved to be a dwarf as well. With the birth of their third child, in August 1907, the Ovitzes had reason to believe the spell had finally lifted: Sarah grew healthy and tall. Then, in July 1909, came Micki, a dwarf. Two years later, the pendulum again swung in the other direction, Leah being normal-sized; but their sixth child, Elizabeth, born in April 1914, was not. Three years later the normal-sized Arie arrived. And on January 10, 1921, the youngest of them all was born.

Choking, suffocating, she emerged with the umbilical cord tied around her neck. The despairing midwife took her away from the exhausted mother, and, placing her quietly aside, waited for her to die. At first, Batia Ovitz didn’t understand. She asked to see the baby, and when the midwife ignored her, she became alarmed. “Let her rest in peace,” advised the midwife, hinting consolingly at the baby’s critical condition. “This child must live! Bring her to me!” ordered Batia, forcing herself upright. The midwife obeyed. Batia hugged the baby, and that’s when she noticed its jaws were locked. She bent its head back, and inserting her index finger into the tiny mouth, she almost tore it open. The baby responded with a deep cough.


On Sale
Apr 27, 2009
Page Count
288 pages
Da Capo Press

Yehuda Koren

About the Author

Yehuda Koren, a freelance journalist for the British, Israeli, and German press, and Eilat Negev, the senior literary correspondent for Yedioth Achronoth, previously co-authored In Our Hearts We Were Giants. Yehuda Koren, a freelance journalist for the British, Israeli, and German press, and Eilat Negev, the senior literary correspondent for Yedioth Achronoth, previously co-authored In Our Hearts We Were Giants.

Learn more about this author