Press Centre

Perspectives

  • Episode: 

    2 of 7

  • Title: 

    Warwick Davis: The Seven Dwarfs of Auschwitz
  • Transmission: 

    Sun 24 Mar 2013
  • Time: 

    10.00pm - 11.00pm
  • Week: 

    Week 13 2013 : Sat 23 Mar - Fri 29 Mar
  • Channel: 

    ITV

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Actor Warwick Davis undertakes a poignant journey to explore the miraculous story of the Ovitz family, seven Jewish dwarf performers who survived against all the odds during the Second World War in this second programme of the Perspectives arts strand on ITV.

 
His travels take him to the small village in Transylvania, Romania, where the five sisters and two brothers were born. He then follows their journey to the notorious Nazi death camp, Auschwitz.
 
 
Press pack notes:
 
Actor Warwick Davis undertakes a poignant journey to explore the miraculous story of the Ovitz family, seven Jewish dwarf performers who survived against all the odds during the Second World War in this second programme of the Perspectives arts strand on ITV.
 
His travels take him to the small village in Transylvania,Romania, where the five sisters and two brothers were born. He then follows their journey to the notorious Nazi death camp, Auschwitz.
 
Warwick says: “I’m perfectly comfortable with my size, and I actually don’t think I could do my job if I wasn’t.  But I’ve always been fascinated by other short performers through the ages, from court jesters to Tom Thumb.  Some were successful because they were seen as freaks, others simply because they were great entertainers.
 
“I’ve known of the Ovitz family and their story for a number of years now, and it’s always interested me, and always something I’ve wanted to investigate further. 
 
“I was compelled by their story and was absolutely thrilled to tell their story in the documentary. They are very inspiring.  I obviously knew that their tale was one of survival and hope, and quite a harrowing story it was.   
 
“Something I didn’t know about them was the fact that they were not only short people who entertained but they were really good entertainers, and that resonated with me as an actor because for me it’s not really about being short it is about being good at what I do and that is what I strive for.
 
“They were good singers, they were musicians, they made their own props, they made their own sets, they wrote their own material. It was about the performance, they didn’t rely on being short. That got people in the door, but once they were in the show people were privileged in seeing some really great performances.
 
“I was inspired by the fact they did all of this themselves, and concentrated on being talented and not being short. 
 
“They inspired me in the sense they were just very good at what they did. but the inspiration goes beyond that into the fact they survived what they did, and endured it.”
 
Warwick travels to Rozavlea, the village where the Ovitz family lived and which, according  to an ancient fairy tale, was named after a giant who fell in love with a dwarf. He visits the Ovitzes’ home and meets Ioan Timis, former mayor of Rozavlea, who owns the house now, and is probably the only person in the village who actually met the Ovitzs.
 
He recalls how they did shows at the local school and at weddings.  “They’d play their musical instruments. They were loved in the village But most of the time they were on tour.  They were pretty famous,” he recalls.
 
The Ovitzes; Elizabeth, Fransiska. Rosika, Micki, Avram, Frieda, and the youngest, Perla. were an unusual family.  Their father was a dwarf, but their two mothers, and three other siblings, were tall.
 
Warwick compares this with his own family: “My parents and sisters are all average-sized, and when I was born in 1970, I came as a bit of a shock. Above all else, the Ovitzes were committed entertainers, and that’s something I’ve always tried to be as well.
 
In an archive interview Perla Ovitz, who died in 2001 explains:
“We were never apart. We were joined together like a chain. Our mother said, ‘what profession can help you earn some bread?’ She thought of drama school.  Actors can make a living We named ourselves the Lilliput Troupe, because we were small.”
 
Eilat Negev, co-author of a book about the family, Giants – the Dwarfs of Auschwitz, says: “It was really the heyday of the interest in dwarfism.  The interest was shared both by the public, and by the medical profession.  The public was really fascinated by dwarfs and they were part of freak shows.”
 
Co-author Yehuda Koren adds: “There were 75 different dwarf agents all over Europe, and they were really knocking on doors, hunting new dwarfs. It is estimated that by about 1939, about 1500 dwarfs were making their living out of showbusiness. 
 
“They were basically making a living out of exhibiting their deformity and this is exactly what the Ovitz family tried to avoid. They wanted people to come to see them because they were able actors or singers.”
 
The family performed in Romania, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and in the largest concert halls in Europe, to huge audiences.
 
Warwick says:
“I think their reputation as great entertainers was what carried them through a career. That’s the kind of the philosophy I have throughout my career; I got started in acting because I was short, but I didn’t rely on that, I thought: ‘to maintain this, I need to hone the craft of performing and acting’.  Ultimately, it would be nice to be known as an actor who just happens to be short, which I think the Ovitz family were.
 
By 1937, when Disney released Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the craze for little people as entertainers had reached its height. Hitler was one if the film’s greatest fans. He loved Disney’s Snow White so much, he made his own version, as Nazi propaganda. 
 
Warwick explains in the film: “People who had any kind of physical deformity, including dwarfs like me, became an obsession for the Nazis.  They would either kill them through their euthanasia programme, or they’d use them as guinea pigs in laboratory experiments, in their quest to create a master race.”
 
When the Nazis started tearing through Europe, the Ovitzs, who were not only dwarfs, but also Jews, thought they were far enough away to be safe from the Nazis. 
 
Yehuda says: “They didn’t feel it had any implication upon them, simply a terrible thing which happened elsewhere.  As if nothing changed, the show must go on.”
But the Germans invaded and one night they made everyone leave their homes. 
 
Warwick travels to Dragomiresti, six miles from the Ovitzes’ village, where the family was forcibly taken. He is shown archive photos of the family arriving. He meets Dr Ioan Michai Dancus, the son of the village priest, who lived right opposite the ghetto where the Ovitz family was taken.
 
He reads from his father’s diary:
“It all began on April 1944.  Three days after Easter, the Jews were brought to Dragomiresti. Later they were forced into carts.  That’s how the Jews left the village and taken to an unknown destination. Some died of exhaustion on the way there.  Those who refused to go were shot. As I finish writing these lines, there are no more Jews in Dragomiresti, and no one knows where they have gone.”
 
Warwick takes the same train journey that the Ovitz family took to Auschwitz, although they were forced into a cattle wagons, each with eighty people crammed inside.
They thought they were going to be re-housed, so they’d bought the tools of their trade with them: make-up, costumes, instruments.
 
Warwick said he was shocked and angry to hear what had happened to the Ovitz family.
“At times making the film was really difficult because you become very close to a subject. Having read about them and interviewed so many different people, especially interviewing the authors of the book about the Ovitz family, I learned a lot from first hand accounts they passed on from Perla Ovitz, who they interviewed for the book.  
 
“I went to Auschwitz, to Birkenau, and stood in places they stood and saw things they saw, and remembered a testimony from them about looking in a certain direction and seeing what they saw. It was very powerful, and really moving. 
 
“We were standing in the woods which was a waiting area for the gas chamber; people waiting there didn’t know that is where they were going. I had seen photos in archives with a historian which showed people in this wood. Just innocent, looking towards the camera, slightly confused, but none of them terrified, and it was about now knowing, looking at that photo, what did happen to those people. 
 
“It makes me sad thinking about it now, it is really a hard thing to comprehend, especially that we are human beings sharing the planet, and the idea that one human being can be so awful to another.
 
“I did feel anger, being there it really highlighted it. You work on films and you develop characters you become emotionally attached to the character, I have done all that before.  With this I am just telling a story but I became so much more involved in it, and so attached to these characters in the Ovitz family. 
 
“I felt really angry especially the persecution of people who are really physically different I can’t understand that because you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. It is not about that, it is about who the people are. Sometimes, more often than not, the physical disability makes the person who they are.”
 
The notorious Auschwitz doctor, Josef Mengele, known as the Angel of Death, collected curiosities for his own experiments on heredity. When he saw the Ovitz family he said ‘I don’t want them disinfected.’ He was saving them from death for his experiments.
 
The depraved doctor separated the Ovitzes from the rest of the camp inmates to add them to his collection of test subjects. He was curious about the fact that the family included both dwarfs and taller members. Eleven other prisoners claimed to be their relatives, and Mengele moved all of them to his ‘human zoo’. 
 
Warwick says in the film: “It’s incredible, the Ovitzes were brought here because they were Jews, but they managed to buy some time because they were dwarfs.
 
“Doctors have always been interested in little people, for genuine medical reasons.  I was in and out of hospital when I was a kid, because of the medical problems that come with being a dwarf.”
 
Armand Leroi, Professor of Evolutionary Developmental Biology, Imperial College London says: “Mengele did indeed believe that somehow the Ovitz family had the secret of growth and we could learn something from them, and at heart he was right.  But the things that he did, the experiments that he did on this family, couldn’t have possibly told him anything.  They were just bizarre, irrelevant, appalling experiments.”
 
Perla Ovitz talks of their torture at the hands of Mengele:
“He took blood, pulled out good teeth.  Look how many gold teeth I have.  I had nothing to eat with.  He did it to all of us.  He pulled our hair and eyelashes out to see if they were the same as tall people’s.”
 
Warwick says: “I can’t imagine it, I think I’d be foolish to try to imagine what they went through, and even what I can imagine, I don’t think I’d have coped very well.  It’s so hard to live under the terror, under the fear, constantly.”
 
About 100 dwarfs were killed in Auschwitz.  So being short wasn’t going to be enough to save the Ovitzes.  To buy more time, they’d have to use another of their assets; their performing talents, to avoid being taken to the gas chambers.
 
The Ovitzes’ nightmare ended in January 1945.  Eight months after they’d arrived at Auschwitz, the camp was liberated.  Along with most of the other SS officers, Mengele had already fled, taking his research with him.  The dwarfs were transported away by cart, and arrived back in their village a year later.
 
In 1949, the Ovitz family emigrated to Israel.  They started performing again to packed-out theatres, just as they’d done before the war. Perla, the last of these inspirational dwarfs died, in 2001 at the age of 80.
 
In the archive interview with Perla she says of the family’s ordeal; “the lips are smiling but the heart weeps”.
 
Warwick says: “That was saying the show must go on. Every actor holds that analogy very close to them. It is about you must always have this air of dignity, and the show must go on, and whatever is happening inside you must keep that inside.
 
“There have often been times in my life when I have been working on a film or a stage project and there were things that anybody else would take the day off work for. 
 
But there is that sense of the show must go on, it can sometimes be a bit of therapy to get up there and carry on. It is difficult but you have to find a way of doing it, the show must go on absolutely. 
 
“Many years ago my daughter Annabelle had a good part in the school play, but the day before it was due to go on she became very poorly. We asked her what she wanted to do and she said she really wanted to do the show. I told her ‘the show must go on, go for it and do it’, and she did. She went on stage and you wouldn’t know she was poorly and enjoyed it. I thought that was great spirit.”
 
Warwick concludes on his investigation into the Ovitzes’ story:
“It’s left me shocked and amazed and I find them even more inspirational than I did before.”
 
The producer is Allen Jewhurst. The director is Ursula Macfarlane
 
 
Series synopsis:
 
The return of the Perspectives documentary strand for its third run brings together powerful stories and a unique insight into the arts from a range of well-known figures.
 
It encompasses seven single films from a rich variety of distinctive individuals offering their take on subjects for which they have a personal enthusiasm and fascination.
 
Perspectives’ diverse range takes in Jonathan Ross on Alfred Hitchcock and Michael Portillo on Picasso, Sheila Hancock reveals her passion for the Brontë sisters. Paul O’Grady heads to the US to tell the story of the life of Gypsy Rose Lee, the world's most famous burlesque dancer, and Hugh Laurie makes a musical pilgrimage to immerse himself in the Blues.