Forced sterilisation in Auschwitz-Birkenau
A particular form of abuse to which many Roma were subjected in the Nazi concentration camps was forced sterilisation. When the Nazi sterilisation programme was launched as early as in July 1933, it did not explicitly target the Roma, though as a group they were particularly vulnerable under the Sterilisation Law, and many hundreds were forcibly sterilised in the years leading up to the war. The number of procedures escalated after war broke out, however, and by the end of the war around 3,000 Roma had been sterilised. Several Norwegian Roma women were subjected to such abuse while interned in Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Caption: A list of the Roma women from the Mechelen transport who were selected for ‘gynaecological examination’ on 20 January 1944. Illustration: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum
On 14 July 1933, the German authorities passed a sterilisation law legitimising the forced sterilisation of people assumed to have hereditary diseases. The law was part of the Nazi regime’s radical social and criminal policy, and targeted the mentally ill, the hereditary blind and deaf, chronic alcoholics and others defined as having ‘asocial’ defects. Although ‘Gypsies’ were not mentioned explicitly in the wording of the law, a disproportionately high number of Roma was affected, partly because they were regarded as an ‘asocial’ and ‘inferior’ section of the population.
Based on the racial hygiene idea of the Roma’s inherited, negative, destructive and ‘asocial’ traits, the Nazis also considered it necessary to reduce their reproduction and prevent ‘racial mixing’ with the German majority population. Leading researchers in the field has pointed out that the sterilisation policy imposed on the Roma aimed at limiting the size of future generations must to some extent be viewed as an integrated part of the attempt to exterminate this minority.
During World War II, the rate of sterilisation of this group escalated, and many of the procedures were performed in the Nazi concentration camps. Some of the procedures performed on Roma during the war were registered as being voluntary, but in reality the choice often lay between sterilisation or internment, and many were misled into thinking that they would be released sooner if they consented. The sterilisation programmes in Auschwitz-Birkenau, Ravensbrück, Buchenwald and other camps where Roma were interned took the form of pure medical experiments which, in addition to the sterilisation procedure itself, were also used to test alternative methods of sterilisation.
Many Roma women were subjected to such sterilisation attempts in Auschwitz-Birkenau. On 20 January, only three days after their arrival in Birkenau, 84 women who arrived on the Gypsy transport from Mechelen were selected for a so-called ‘vaginal examination’, purportedly to detect gonorrhoea. The SS often gave false grounds and diagnoses to hide their true intentions. According to Monique Heddebaut, who has studied the Roma group that was deported from Mechelen and their fate in Auschwitz, the real purpose for the ‘examination’ was to sterilise the women and to test alternative methods of sterilisation. At least 10 Norwegian Roma were on the list of the 84 women selected.