Survival of the Smallest

Between May and July 1944, approximately 437,000 Jews and persons of Jewish descent but of a Christian religious affiliation were deported from Hungary to the concentration camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Most of them were older men, women, and children, because Jewish men between eighteen and forty-eight were being used by the Hungarian army as forced laborers. All were from the countryside since the regent of Hungary forbade deportation of the approximately 200,000 Budapest Jews.

The train ride to Auschwitz, in cat-tle cars crammed with eighty to a hundred people, lasted two or three days. Those who survived it were divided into separate columns of men and women and were made to pass before a German medical officer. More often than not, this was Dr. JosefMengele, a tall, handsome, and elegant SS Hauptsturmführer (captain), who decided, usually with a flick of his baton, whether the deportee should be gassed immediately or allowed to live and work, at least for a while. At most, Mengele inquired about the deportee’s age and looked into his or her eyes: those under sixteen (later under fourteen) were killed; so was anyone seemingly too old for heavy physical labor.

Depending on the mood of Mengele and his fellow doctors and the availability of space in the barracks and the crematoria, fewer than 20 percent of the Hungarian arrivals were kept alive. The rest were gassed without anyone bothering to register their names. Only in a few cases was an entire family spared or an entire family killed immediately; and these must have been very small families. The book The Auschwitz Album—containing photographs by two SS men—portrays the arrival of families originating from northeastern Hungary, the poorest region in that country.1 There are many pictures of children, some barefoot, a few fancily dressed. Within an hour or two, all would suffocate in the gas chambers, dying usually in the arms of their mothers or grandmothers. But their elder sisters and brothers were often spared. A friend of mine, a well-known scholar in Hungary, arrived in Auschwitz when she was a young woman, along with her parents, her grandmother, and five siblings; only she and two of her sisters passed Dr. Mengele’s scrutiny. Her eldest sister could have saved herself had she been willing to give up her child.

Within that mass of doomed deportees, a tight-knit group of twenty-two (later twenty-three) survived both the first and all subsequent selections. This was because Dr. Mengele took an interest in twins, dwarfs, hunchbacks, and other human specimens he believed worthy of scientific research, and because the group included seven dwarfs who were brothers and sisters. Although in reality the group was made of three unrelated but closely tied families, the Ovitzes, the Slomowitzes, and the Fischmans, the dwarfs, who belonged to the Ovitz family, pretended that the sixteen others in the group, who were of normal size, were their immediate relatives, and this helped to save them. For simplicity’s sake and because this is how the Germans treated them,…

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