One of the most distressing aspects of the Holocaust is the fact that millions of children starved, fell ill and died as a result of Hitler’s genocidal policies. Even before studying the history of the Holocaust in greater depth, I became sensitized to the issue of children’s suffering during communism in the infamous orphages of my native country, Romania.
From the beginning of his rule, Romania’s dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, made rapid industrialization a cornerstone of his domestic policy. During the 1960’s, however, the country approximated zero population growth, which meant, in the long run, a reduced labor force. In response, Ceausescu abolished abortion in 1966, except for cases of rape, incest and danger to the life of the mother or if the mother was over 45 years old and had given birth to at least four children. Later, he introduced more punitive pronatalist measures to offer Romanian citizens further incentives to have more children. The government increased taxes for men and women who remained childless after the age of 25. In 1967 Ceausescu practically abolished divorce. A miniscule quota of maximum 28 divorces was allowed in the whole country that year. The government also offered some positive incentives. Mothers received a monetary reward upon the birth of their third child and the income taxes of couples with three or more children were lowered by 30 percent.
The policy that proved to have disastrous consequences for the country was the abolition of birth control. Contraceptives, which were not manufactured in Romania, were banned, making effective birth control extremely difficult. Initially, the birth rate rose dramatically, but then quickly declined again as women began resorting to dangerous, illegal abortions, which could sometimes be obtained in exchange for a carton of Kent cigarettes. By the early 1980’s, the government took more intrusive measures to regulate women’s reproductive cycles. Doctors performed mandatory monthly gynecological exams on all women of reproductive age to detect and monitor pregnancies. The government also launched a propaganda campaign praising “patriotic” couples that had several children. These measures, however, failed to achieve the desired results. After decades of repressive policies, birthrates in Romania were only slightly higher than those of nations where abortion was legal. However, these draconian measures did manage to increase the number of unwanted children, many of whom were put up for adoption in Romania’s infamous orphanages, which began to receive international media attention during the 1980’s.
By the end of Ceausescu’s dictatorship, there were approximately 100,000 children in Romania’s orphanages. Given the regime’s pronatalist policies and the country’s low standard of living, many families were placed in the impossible position of choosing between food and their newborn babies. Thousands of children were placed in orphanages whose living conditions resembled those of concentration camps. SoRelle notes that even older children were not potty trained and were left to wallow in their own waste. Children slept huddled together on cots or on the floor, covered by the soiled blankets. Many lacked shoes or appropriate clothing for the cold winters. Many were also lice infested because of the unhygienic conditions and lack of proper cleaning supplies. Dunlap observes that orphanages didn’t have disinfectant, soap and hot water. Diseases were rampant and medical care insufficient. Instead of playing with toys, the orphans played with dirty needles. Babies lacked proper attention and children were left unattended and uneducated, remaining illiterate into their teens. Even the international attention such a blatant human rights violation received did nothing to change the dictator’s pronatalist policies or the appalling conditions of the Romanian orphanages.
Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon