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Covid-19: Conversations with 2Gs

In the time following the shelter at home order, I was invited to present various webinars related to Covid-19, in which interactive discussions followed my lecture and made it possible for participants to share a wide range of reactions to the pandemic and to the pervasive changes it imposed on our lives. These webinars allowed groups with specific shared interests and concerns to experience a “web-based, next-best” way of being together during the time in which other gatherings were restricted due to social distancing.

Some of the webinars were specifically aimed at, and attended by, children of Holocaust survivors, as were several free, online zoom ‘meetings’ for 2Gs which I offered and continue to offer, in order to provide a safe forum for 2Gs to discuss our reactions to the current events in the company of others who share the same legacy.

In private sessions with individual 2Gs as well as in these larger online meetings, I had the privilege of hearing poignant comments and insights from the participants about their experiences during the strange times we’re living through and the novel challenges we are all facing, and about the old nightmares and fears that some of the current events are bringing forth for survivors of the Holocaust and their children, but also about the different resilient perspective that growing up with survivor parents has instilled in their offspring.

In gratitude for the sharing and the mutual support that was felt in these online meetings, I am sharing here some of the most resonant themes that were expressed by many 2G’s. Understanding that we are part of a larger group and that some of what we struggle with is not just a personal quirk (or personality flaw) is often a helpful perspective, as is recognizing our unique strengths in the midst of a challenging and changing world.

 

Age, Traumatic Triggers, and Covid-19

Children of survivors of the Holocaust represent a group of adults who are sensitized and vulnerable to many aspects of the pandemic. Age is one of these aspects, as it currently places most children of survivors in the cohorts disproportionately impacted by the Coronavirus. The Center of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that 8 out of 10 US deaths from Coronavirus were adults age 65 and over. As one participant stated, “being targeted as older is very triggering”, because feeling like a particularly targeted group is itself a reminder of the targeted persecution of the Jewish population during the Holocaust. Furthermore, older adults were targeted for selection to the gas chambers immediately upon arrival at the concentration camps. Whether in labor camps, in hiding, in the woods or any other circumstances, adults older than 50 were much less able to survive the Holocaust (Tammes, 2017). Consequently, the perceptions of their own age as an elevate risk associated with the Covid-19 might be particularly anxiety arousing for 2Gs.

As the Black Lives Movement evolved, there were additional potential trauma-triggers for children of Holocaust survivors that compounded the reactions to the Covid-19 pandemic. Accounts and audio-recordings of police brutality, the protests against blatant manifestations of racism, and also some of the disorderly and violent images, such as shattered glass from broken shop windows in the streets, which called forth associations to “Kristalnacht”, the night of broken glass between November 9-10, 1938, in which Nazis in Germany torched synagogues, vandalized Jewish homes, schools and businesses and killed close to 100 Jews.

 

Hyper-alertness to Signs of Danger: “The canary in the mine”

Participants in the discussion groups expressed having felt elevated anxiety due to the pandemic and many described having experienced a sense of premonition already at the very beginning of the crisis, before the extent of the pandemic was more publically recognized: “The feeling of doom? I kind of feel this is the feeling I have been expecting my whole life…It is not at all a surprise…” Many commented on the adaptive value of this hypervigilance, in terms of trying to protect oneself and others. A professional who left her job in Brooklyn when she realized the danger of continued unprotected exposure, while others (including her boss) were still underestimating the risk of Covid-19 and avoiding protective measures, said: “I am like the canary in the mine. I sense things before other people do, I try to warn them, but I was viewed as an alarmist…”

Adaptive functioning lies within the “window of tolerance” of anxiety – where levels of arousal are not so high that they become impairing, nor so low that there is no motivation to take adaptive action, for example, wearing masks and being strict about hand-washing and social distancing. The responses of 2G’s indicated that they tend to be hypervigilant and careful, but it was also apparent from the comments shared, that being constantly and overly sensitive to danger interferes with one’s sense of well-being and with the quality of family atmosphere and relationships: “I seem to drive my family crazy, as I am extremely diligent about distancing and all the other precautions…they say I am overdoing it. My mom was the same way about everything in life. Is that which I am accused of common to other 2Gs?“

Indeed, there is a tradeoff between the advantages of being prepared for a difficult time, and the cost of such chronic preparedness in terms of quality of life and relationships: “I seem to be having an easier time adjusting to the limitation of the stay at home, having to wear the mask if you have to go out, and sanitize everything, than those who do not share my family’s background” and yet another participant said: “It’s my experience and observation that many of us 2G’s are faring better emotionally than others – we are accustomed to extreme situations of threat and danger. The challenge is: how do we live in more ‘normal’ times?”

Some children of survivors, averse to memories of their parents’ tendencies to hoard food and be always preparing for a disaster, actively resisted and distanced themselves from such behaviors. E., a mental health professional herself, said: “I consciously avoided allowing myself to get overly anxious. Perhaps to a fault, to a point of numbing myself to what was going on around me. But…I always have a reasonable amount of supplies in my house, as I am a busy woman and I like to cook and host. I did not go to the shops and I refused to hoard food or toilet paper, like my friends were doing. But when I tried to shop for food online, and there were no dates available for home delivery for another month, I could feel the grip of anxiety in my gut. From that point on, I felt anxious, guilty for not having prepared better for my family. In fact, I noticed going even further, I started having thoughts about what might happen and what people might do if there is not enough food in the stores…”

Some participants expressed feeling intensely alarmed about the sharp rise in gun purchases which was reported in the news, while others felt the need for protective measures they had never before considered. A successful professional who lives in an affluent, peaceful suburb of New Jersey and never owned weapons shared that as the pandemic started, she immediately bought a gun and stocked up on ammunition, saying, “I know how fast neighbors can become murderers”. The images and stories of police brutality on the news which sparked the BLM protests are dangerously reminiscent of times, both in Europe and in the USA, when state-sponsored discrimination have led fellow citizens to murderous behavior towards other fellow citizens. The images on the news are grim, and current events highlight the horrors of historical trauma and its telescoping through the generations among multiple groups in the USA and elsewhere. These currents of social discrimination and unrest are particularly distressing so survivors of trauma and their descendants, exacerbating the anxieties related to Covid-19.

 

Separations are Traumatic: Social Distancing

The reverberations of traumatic separations in the lives of the survivor parents have colored all actual and perceived separations in the lives of the second generation, and the responsibility for the parents’ wellbeing has been a central theme in the psychological world of the children raised by survivor parents (Bar-On et al., 1998; Felsen, 1998; Prince, 2015; Quadrio, 2016; Scharf & Mayseless, 2011; Shmotkin, Shrira, Goldberg, & Palgi, 2011; Shrira, Palgi, Ben-Ezra, & Shmotkin, 2011; Wiseman & Barber, 2008)). However, due to Covid-19, social distancing has prevented social contact with one’s family, especially with elderly survivor parents, for many weeks. 2G’s whose survivor parents are living in nursing homes or long-term care facilities have been dealing with the real risk to their parents’ lives (as has been shown by the high mortality rates in such facilities), and with the inability to check in on parents who are completely isolated in their rooms within these residential programs.  Participants shared: “The present circumstances bring back terrible memories for my mother, what can I say to comfort her?” and “My mother is now 90 years old and living alone during the pandemic. She is isolated and depressed, and hard-of-hearing so she cannot watch TV or listen to the radio much…Besides daily phone calls, what can I do?!” For those who do have home healthcare aids coming into the parents’ home, there are very urgent concerns about the risks posed by this exposure, as different caregivers come and go.

Given the intergenerational transmission of sensitivity around separations from loved ones, not just from parents, it is important to examine are how 2Gs dealing with social distancing from their own children and grandchildren. Many 2G’s are concerned about their children and grandchildren’s reactions to the pandemic: “My daughter is 3G. She expressed anxiety to the point that she is sure we will not have food. Are these symptoms of 3G? How should I respond?” or “One of my daughters seems to have more stress and fears about Covid-19, maybe because she has young children. I am not sure how to calm her fears, fears of sending the children back to daycare, fears of going back to work, where she has to take the elevator to the 22nd floor. I feel that her fears may be heightened because she grew up close to her grandmother, a survivor. Not that my mother spoke about the Holocaust much at all…but somehow I feel that is it is more internal for her.” Indeed, research on the grandchildren of Holocaust survivors increasingly suggests that 3G’s are impacted by their grandparents’  Holocaust legacy in multiple ways (Goldman Dale, 2015; Wasserman, 2017). A study from Australia found that 3Gs show elevated anxiety relative to their peers, and that this difference is greater even than the difference between 2Gs and their own non-Holocaust related peers (Lurie-Beck, 2007).

 

Adult Sibling Relationships in Holocaust Families: Resentments and Cutoffs

The lack of open communication in the family has often been extended to the communication among siblings in Holocaust families: “Other than talking about sports, my brother and I never had any meaningful conversations. I am just mentioning that to show how superficial our relationship was. But, again, he was a good guy, just not a hard worker. Am I being unfair? After all, he grew up in the same household. And I am sure he was damaged as well. And I was not nice to him [as an adult].” The relationships among siblings in many Holocaust families are suffused with mutual resentments, often resulting in total cutoffs after the parents are deceased. While sibling differentiation is a natural process that takes place in all families, I propose that normative processes of de-identification are polarized and intensified by the presence of trauma-related dynamics in the family (Felsen, 2018). Empirical findings reflect the focus on parental needs and the imperative to protect them, yet each sibling co-constructs different relationships with the survivor parents, and each has a different personal adaptation to the legacy of the Holocaust. Many factors influenced the differentiation among siblings, some of the important ones being gender and the time in the life of the family when each child was born, as children born later had parents who had the time to heal more and to adjust better to their new life (Beck, Gow, & Liossis, 2005). Children have differential susceptibility to parental trauma, as well as to parental resiliencies (Belsky, 2019, personal communication; Rousseau & Scharf, 2015) so even within the same family the developmental outcomes vary among siblings, (Felsen, 2018; Letzter-Pouw & Werner, 2013; Lichtman, 1984). As one male 2G stated: “My brother was the good kid. Quiet. Loneliness and rage at not being recognized as someone with personal needs were all things simmering in my psyche. I could not handle all the pressure. I escaped into a negative identity.”

The presence of life-and-death themes in the family atmosphere lends an absolutism to these negative judgments (Felsen, 2018) and these intensely negative feelings often resulted in complete cut-off in relationships among adult siblings in Holocaust families. During the Coronavirus pandemic, as many people felt the need to reconnect with long-lost and far-away friends and relatives, some 2G’s have been struggling with the difficult state of their relationships with siblings: “Is there any rationale for my strong desire to reconnect with friends and colleagues, while at the same time remaining dissociated from family members that I have been distant from for a long time? How can we suppress the feeling of wanting to reach out to our own flesh and blood during this pandemic?”  Others have expressed their pain at having tried to re-connect and been rebuffed by a sibling with whom they had not communicated for a long time: “I left a message…trying to reconnect, I remembered that soon he has a birthday…An invitation to be part of a family call on zoom would be what I hope for…I guess it is not going to happen…It is hard to undo so many years of not speaking…”

 

Discussion: A Profile of Strengths and Vulnerabilities

The current reality of life as we knew it has changed, creating fears and anxieties for all and in particular among vulnerable groups. Older adults, those over 60 years old, had to be most stringent about social distancing, which led to loss of ability to engage in many of their usual activities, separation from friends and family and isolation. In addition to their chronological age placing them within these vulnerable cohorts, children of Holocaust survivors are vulnerable to many aspects of the Covid-19 pandemic which trigger trauma-related mental contents and emotional reactions associated with the Holocaust. However, one should not make assumptions about the reactions of Holocaust survivors nor their descendants, as the responses of 2Gs showed also their sense of their own resilience, which they attribute to the experience of being children of survivors. Exposure to extreme trauma in the past has been shown to have both sensitizing and inoculating effects in survivors and in their offspring.

Resilience can only be inferred in relation to the experience of trauma, and by the fact that some individuals manage to cope better with traumatic events or circumstances, and fare better in their aftermath, than others who have endured similar experiences. Studies have shown that as a group, both survivors of the Holocaust and the second generation have demonstrated significant resilience and have been successful in many areas of their lives. However, resilience is a complex and multi-faceted construct, so one can be resilient in some areas, and at the same time vulnerable in others, and post-traumatic symptoms can co-exist alongside resiliencies within the same individual. Resilience is also a dynamic construct, which means that one can be resilient at certain times in one’s life and not in others. Quite a few of the participants expressed recognizing this duality within their personal lives, especially the preparedness for difficult times and the capacity to deal with hardship relatively well, alongside its costs in terms of their functioning during good times.

Children of survivors have a profile of strengths and vulnerabilities which are often the two sides of the same coin, or the same psychological trait. Each of these traits can be both an asset and a liability, depending on the context and on the degree to which they over-determine current reactions. For the second generation, the activation of some automatic trauma-related responses in the context of the current Covid-19 crisis is a painful experience, but it can also offer an opportunity to re-examine one’s coping strategies and become more aware of some of the non-conscious patterns of our lives, an awareness that can enhance our adaptive capacities during the crisis of the pandemic and beyond.

                 Irit Felsen

Comments

  1. Nina Indig says

    Excellent analysis of what we 2Gs are going through!
    Also, there’s the (guilt-induced?) need to say, “I really should stop complaining about what we’re going through, even though I haven’t hugged a grandchild in months or gone to shul since March or seen my elderly relatives. After all, thank G-d, we have food, shelter, etc. etc. — Our suffering is so much less than what our parents went through.”
    Stay well!

    • Irit Felsen, Ph.D. says

      Thank you Nina for your very insightful comment! There are a few other things one could add, but I tried to keep the post reasonably short. For those who are interested in a longer and more detailed version, please let me know.
      Irit

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