Then They Came for the Romani Women

By Ruth Weinberger

Published March 07, 2003, issue of March 07, 2003.
  • Print
  • Share Share

I hear stories of forced sterilization experiments on a daily basis. I hear frail, old voices trying to explain what happened to them so many years ago at the hands of Nazi doctors. These Holocaust survivors struggle to describe the indescribable, fighting to recollect the horrific experiments to which they were subjected so that they may receive a small measure of financial justice from the German government.

At least, I comforted myself, the forced sterilization of particular ethnic groups was a thing of the past. Crimes like that could not happen anymore in today’s Europe.

Or could they?

The Center for Reproductive Rights recently published a startling report documenting the forced sterilization in Slovakia of at least 110 young Romani women — commonly referred to by the derogatory term “Gypsies” — since the fall of communism in 1989.

“Women are intimidated into consenting to sterilization under conditions that involve various types of coercion,” the report concludes. “In some cases, there were clear-cut cases of forced sterilization, where the patients were not even asked for their consent, but were told or suspected afterward that the sterilization procedure had been performed.”

Even more startling were the testimonies of Romani women who were sterilized.

“[T]hey brought me three papers and told me that I have to sign or otherwise in the next birth the child will suffocate,” one woman told the center. “I was 19 when it happened and I wanted to live.”

Though the crimes committed during the Holocaust, and particularly those by Nazi doctors, are beyond any comparison, the testimonies of Romani women reminded me of the stories I hear from survivors. I cannot count the number of times I have heard them say, “How would I know what happened? I was young, I was in pain, and nobody introduced themselves to me.” I thought of their inability to describe horrors no person should ever have to describe.

Regardless of how much time has passed, how can anyone put a crime like forced sterilization into words? How can Holocaust survivors attempt to reconstruct the events surrounding their sterilization procedures — having most likely not spoken German, having been scared for their lives and having lost most, if not all, of their immediate families? And how can Romani women — who, according to the report, “gave” their consent while in pain on the delivery table, under anesthesia and without a full understanding of the implications and permanence of the procedure?

The Slovakian government strenuously denies the charges of forced sterilization, dismissing infertility among Romani women as a result of lack of hygiene, and threatening the Center for Reproductive Rights with a defamation lawsuit. The government’s defensiveness may be in part because the center’s report challenges long-held racial prejudices among Slovakian officials.

According to the report, “Fear of increasing Romani population size was and continues to be a driving force in justifying reproductive rights violations against Romani women. Such fears and behavior are based on racist assumptions about Romani women’s sexuality, fertility rates and genetic worthiness.”

Slovakia is scheduled to join the European Union in 2004. A respect for human rights and the rights of minorities is a basic requirement for membership in the union. Why, then, is Brussels not holding Slovakia accountable? What about outspoken advocates for human rights in the United States and at the United Nations? And what about world Jewry, which more than any other community should know the dangers inherent in the violation of the human rights of an ethnic group?

According to the Center for Reproductive Rights report, Slovakian doctors marked Romani medical files with a large capital letter “R.” Do we first need to revert back to a large capital “Z” — for the German term for Gypsies, Zigeuner — before we sound the alarm? Or do we need to wait until medical files are labeled with a large capital “J” for Jude before we take action?

Ruth Weinberger works for a program, implemented by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, that assists victims of medical experiments from the Holocaust.






Find us on Facebook!
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.