is a well-known fact that Holocaust survivors who
endured the concentration camps suffered agonizing
emotional wounds that, for many, have never healed.
Less well-known is how this legacy has also seeped
into the psyches of many of their children. Bower
(1996) studied 80 Jewish adults born to Holocaust
survivors and 20 Jewish adults whose parents had
not faced Nazi persecution. All subjects were of
comparable age and all had reported experiencing
some type of trauma during their life. At some point
over their lifetime, 29 percent of the offspring
of Holocaust survivors had experienced symptoms
of depression and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder
(PTSD), as opposed to zero percent of the control
group. This finding suggests that the child or children
of the Holocaust survivor may be at higher risk
for psychiatric symptoms including depression, anxiety
and PTSD through exposure to their traumatized parents
(i.e., they may be vicariously traumatized).
Survivors who develop PTSD in response to Holocaust
experiences may pass on vulnerability to the same
condition to their children. Yehuda et al. (1998)
found that survivors' offspring who were diagnosed
with PTSD typically reported Holocaust-related thoughts
or images as their primary traumas. Personal experience
corroborates this finding. My mother is the daughter
of Holocaust survivors. She reports having early
childhood memories of her father's nightmares.
In addition to PTSD, children of Holocaust survivors
also experience many other symptoms. Holocaust survivors
often develop symptoms such as guilt associated
with being alive (i.e., "survivor guilt").
Other symptoms include melancholia and identification
with the dead. It has been suggested that survivors
may believe that they are unable to fulfill the
needs of their children and may withdraw from their
children (Fogelman, 1998). However, I must comment
that personal experience suggests an alternative
response. I have found that the survivors I have
known have done "everything" for their
children and have deprived themselves in an effort
to provide for their children.
Some data indicate that children of Holocaust survivors
have difficulties with interpersonal adjustment
(Garland, 1993). This may come as little surprise,
since many witnessed destruction of interpersonal
ties and violence of extreme nature. Such traumatic
experiences can lead to difficulty with social adjustment
and difficulty trusting others. Garland (1993) has
commented that "work has shown that the children
of parents who have carried within them, however
silently, the experience of a destroyed world have
much to contend with growing upůmaking normal separation
and individuation difficult. Children of such survivors
have an intense need to act as redeemers for their
parents." Similarly, Fogelman (1998) found
that children of survivors evidenced problems with
communication and identity conflicts. Mor (1990)
found a higher frequency of separation anxiety and
guilt in children of survivors. My family's experience
with separation anxiety supports Mor's findings.
My mother suffers from separation anxiety and guilt
which has been passed down to her children.
Past studies have focused on survivors of concentration
camps and their offspring without regard to those
Jews who survived many different circumstances.
The research that I have examined inevitably focused
on adults who were children during the Holocaust
and people who were hidden from their persecutors
for the duration of the war. Studies have revealed
that the Holocaust impacted a great deal of the
identity development of child survivors. Many of
the adults studied tended to view their adult experiences
with feelings such as the need to escape reality,
hide, or save others. Garland (1993) found that
child survivors who had experienced loss, separation,
and death of family members exhibited somatic complaints,
difficulties with the expression of aggression,
and pronounced anxieties about themselves and their
The various effects that adults who were child survivors
experience can be attributed to many aspects of
their traumatic exposure. Children and adults were
treated differently in the camps and consequently
their emotional reactions were different. Children
were likely too traumatized during the war to experience
"true" childhood. They did not know what
it was like to be a child and be taken care of by
their parents. Most of them were taken away from
their parents. Also, because the child's identity
had been in a state of development, their experiences
may have remained buried in their memory (i.e.,
unconscious). This may have impeded their ability
to empathize with others and likely negatively affected
their adjustment to their own offspring.
Another area in which there have been many interesting
findings is with survivors who were hidden during
the war. These would include those who actually
hid underground, in the woods, or in closed spaces
such as attics. Many Jews were also sent to live
with Gentile families or in convents or orphanages,
posing as Gentiles or actually converting to Catholicism.
Others were refugees during the war. Magids (1998)
studied differences between the offspring of hidden
child survivors of the Holocaust and the offspring
of U.S. born Jewish parents who did not undergo
similar traumatic events. The survivor sample in
this study consisted of adult children with at least
one parent who was a hidden child survivor. Surprisingly,
findings indicated that children of hidden survivors
were no more or less psychologically impaired than
children of non-traumatized, U.S. born parents.
These results lend support to more recent sociological
research claims that the traumas of the Holocaust
may not have had pathological effects on all survivors.
Helmreich (1992) interviewed a randomly selected
group of 211 survivors and compared them to a U.S.
born group of 295 Jews. Data suggested that some
of the survivors not only managed to resume their
lives but also tended to be more successful than
other U.S. born Jews of a comparable age. According
to Helmreich (1992), the resilient traits (such
initiative, and tenacity) that enabled Jews to survive
the Holocaust may have also accounted for their
later success and such characteristics may have
been passed on to their children. It has been suggested
that positive traits in Holocaust survivors tend
to be overlooked and that Holocaust survivors may
actually be more task-oriented, cope more actively,
and express more favorable attitudes toward family,
friends, and work (Leventhal & Ontell, 1989).
In short, researchers have tended to overlook such
positive traits (in the search for expected and
anticipated psychological difficulties).
In all, there is a tendency to focus on the negativity
that ensues after life-altering traumatic experiences.
My contention is that, although negative traits
may develop after having survived a traumatic event
such as the Holocaust, positive traits also exist.
These positive effects should not be ignored. Further
investigation may best address this observation.
Bower, B. (1996). Trauma syndrome transverses generations.
Science News, 149, (20), 310-311.
Fogelman, E. (1998). Survivor victims of war and
Holocaust. In D. Leviton (Ed.), Horrendous death
and health: Toward action (pp. 37-45). Washington
Garland, C. (1993). The lasting trauma of the concentration
camps: The children and grandchildren may also be
affected. British Medical Journal, 307, 77-79.
Helmreich, W.B. (1992). Against all odds: Holocaust
survivors and the successful lives they made in
America. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Leventhal, G., & Ontell, M.K. (1989). A descriptive
demographic and personality study of second-generation
Jewish Holocaust survivors. Psychological Reports,
64, (3), 1067-1074.
Magids, D.M. (1998). Personality comparison between
children of hidden Holocaust survivors and American
Jewish parents. The Journal of Psychology, 132,
Mor, N. (1990). Holocaust memories from the past.
Contemporary Family Therapy, 12, 371-379.
Yehuda, R., & Schmeidler, J., & Giller,
E.G., & Siever, L.J., & Binder-Byrnes, K.
(1998). Relationship between posttraumatic stress
disorder characteristics of Holocaust survivors
and their adult offspring. American Journal of Psychiatry,
155, (6), 841-844.
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