“I just wish the day would come when I didn’t have to deal with Thalidomide.”
Moni’s early childhood was unhappy. She hated the stares and taunts she received in playgrounds but was grateful that a brother 18 months older stood up for her and would defend her if necessary with his fists. Monika also hated being placed in a special school for Thalidomide children where they were subjected to hours and hours of repetitive exercises to overcome their limb deformities. “We were treated like trained monkeys. Do this, again and again, so that you can amaze normal people, just like a trained monkey,” recalls Moni.
When Monika was nine, her father died in a mountaineering accident. At the same time her mother had to make an agonizing decision that all parents of German Thalidomide survivors were facing. She could accept a tiny one-time payment and collect a small monthly pension from the trust fund (established in a deal that would see the trial against the Grünenthal owner and eight executives abruptly ended) but in return would have to agree to never sue the drug company in the future. Like most parents of Thalidomide children, Moni’s mother needed the financial support and so she grudgingly accepted the meager trust fund money for her daughter. She still feels guilty that she had agreed to what she viewed as a bargain with the devil.
When Monika was 16, she was asked by a British filmmaker to participate in a documentary on Thalidomide. To prepare herself, she started to research the history behind the drug and what she learned about the company, its owners and staff, shocked and horrified the teenager. Thalidomide had been invented by a Nazi war criminal, Dr. Heinrich Mückter, who received a bonus for every pill sold around the world. Mückter was just one of several doctors who were Nazi war criminals that were hired by Grünenthal after the war.
“I really couldn’t believe there were people like that,” recalls Monika. “It was a turning point in my life.” She was not surprised by the fact that the Nazis, who during the war had sent 300,000 mentally and physically disabled people to extermination camps, would 12 years after the war not be concerned about causing deformities to babies as a result of a drug they manufactured. Monika got angry. From this time forward, every time Moni learned of a Thalidomider’s death, she would place a wreath, card, and candle on the sidewalk outside the main entrance to the Grünenthal offices. “They didn’t last long and were removed pretty quickly but I still wanted to let those bastards know their victims won’t be forgotten.”
Monika’s personal life has become increasingly intertwined with Thalidomide. Professionally, Monika works as a social worker for families with children who are physically or mentally handicapped. The apex of her activism came a few years ago when she arrived outside the Berlin residence of German chancellor, Angela Merkel, with a Christmas tree festooned with cards and messages from German Thalidomide survivors. The tree created a national media frenzy and she was charged and faced questioning by two police detectives back home in Cologne. And then, she received an official letter declaring that the charges would be dropped since the defendant was of “minor guilt” and there was “no public interest” in pursuing the prosecution. Monika richly enjoys the ironic fact that the legal description in her case was exactly the same as described of Grünenthal’s executives in 1970 when the trial was aborted in favour of a limited compensation deal.
Like most Thalidomiders around the world, Monika was outraged by the so called “apology” speech that Grünenthal’s CEO Harald Stock gave in September 2012. “Instead of really apologizing for the damage they’ve done to us and our families and accepting responsibility for Thalidomide, the company after 50 years just said they were sorry they hadn’t reached out to us sooner. Big deal. That wasn’t an apology,” explains Monika.
Listen to Monika’s comment.
What made it worse was the “apology” came just weeks after Australian lawyers working for a Thalidomide survivor in Melbourne, Lynette Rowe, were finally able to get a release of the German court documents from 1970 court case.
“If there were any doubts about the negligence and greed of Grünenthal, those documents put an end to them,” says Monika. “When I read them, it really made my blood boil. I’ve never been angrier in my life.”
As well as her short arm and malformed fingers Monika suffers from curvature of the spine (caused by Thalidomide), for which she needs to take painkillers throughout the day. “I would like to spend just one day without Thalidomide being a presence in my life.”
Moni and all Thalidomiders are now facing a new problem related to Thalidomide, the rapid aging of their bones – Monika at 54 has the bone structure of a 65 or 66 year old.