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.