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Strengths and Vulnerabilities of Children of Holocaust Survivors: Summary of the 5th Meeting of the Discussion Group for Children of Holocaust Survivors, Boro Park Y

The fifth meeting of the Discussion Group for Children of Holocaust Survivors took place last Tuesday at the Boro Park Y. This meeting was dedicated to a detailed discussion of particular strengths that are often characteristic of children of Holocaust survivors.

All people have areas of strengths and weaknesses, which are usually braided together in various combinations. We all know individuals who are brilliant at some highly intellectually demanding specialization, which they perform magnificently in the privacy of their research lab or back room of a financial or engineering company, who feel pathetically lost and inept in social situations. In such cases, one can contrast the relative strengths- that person’s intellectual aptitudes- with their relatively deficient abilities in the domains of social and interpersonal skills. These strengths and vulnerabilities are distinctly separate areas of personality functioning. However, the strengths and the vulnerabilities of the second generation cannot be viewed as separate characteristics or personality aspects, rather more like the two sides of the same coin. The same personality traits constitute simultaneously both assets and liabilites.

Particular Strengths of the “Second Generation” were delineated in the recent meeting, highlighting both their potentially resilient and problematic aspects:

An appreciation of the preciousness of life: While having a keen sense of the precarious and fragile nature of life, associated with elevated anxiety, this perspective is also associated with a unique appreciation of the preciousness of life. “Post Traumatic Growth” (PTG), evidenced as a capacity to appreciate life and to be able to see more clearly one’s personal priorities and values, has been shown by research to co-exist with post-traumatic symptoms and to be, in fact, correlated with them. It appears that the distress related to traumatic experiences, serves to drive the search for meaning and the focus and clarity on what it truly important in life.

Hardening is the capacity to work hard and postpone gratification, ignore discomfort and difficulty, and push through despite physical and psychological distress. This type of functioning, termed also “steeling”, was necessary during the Holocaust in order to survive, and served the survivors in their post-war adaptations to new environments and to the challenges of migration, while rebuilding their lives in a foreign culture, mostly without much practical or mental health support. Many survivor parents worked long hours, some two or three jobs, despite not sleeping well at night because of trauma-related nightmares. Survivors functioned at home and at work, ignoring fatigue, somatic and mental pain. This strength, born of repressive coping, has been passed on to the second generation. However, it was suggested by recent studies that this lack of attention to one’s own aches and pains might be related to more health problems among the second generation as they reach middle age. Like their parents the survivors, the second generation might ignore and neglect aches and pains, letting them become bigger problems over time. Also, related to the hardening directed at themselves, children of survivors might also be experienced as not very tolerant towards the difficulties of others.

Self-denial: some children of survivors might have a need to be self-denying, frugal, and conserve resources even if it is not called for. This concern for saving money might be seen by non-Holocaust related spouses or by others as irrational and as stinginess. The underlying motivations, some conscious and some less conscious, for such self-denial, might include an identification with the survivor parents and their way of life, as well as guilt for having so much more than the parents ever had or ever allowed themselves to enjoy. Frugality might also serve a defensive function in the face of anxieties about the future, the unpredictability of life, the need to be amassing reserves to protect oneself and one’s loved ones. These attitudes and anxieties can interfere with the capacity to relax, to take time to enjoy and let others enjoy the fruits of one’s labor.

Resourcefulness: my patient K. stated : “I can make a meal from dust!” This resourcefulness is manifested not only in such practical areas as cooking, fixing what’s broken, and ingeniously re-purposing objects. Children of survivors show a tremendous ability to work very hard and very creatively in order to “make something out of nothing”, make the best and the most out of situations or relationships that are not very good. These capacities constitute extremely useful resources when there is a need to cope with difficult and unchangeable realities, such as a child’s handicap or a spouse’ illness. In these predicaments, the children of survivors will perform impossible feats to get the best care and best treatment for their loved ones. However, the same tenacity and determination to can be detrimental when applied to situations or relationships where the better strategy would have been to quit. Children of survivors might have a hard time recognizing the need to leave or give up on a relationship, be it a marriage or a job, even when they should, due to their difficulties with the idea of abandoning and separation, and because of their deeply rooted tendency to “make it work”, no matter what, as they had learned to do in their family environment.

Need to Humanize the Other: children of survivors are acutely aware of the inhumanity and the potential aggressor in every “Other”. They often show a profound need and capacity to humanize every interaction, reach everyone in a way that goes beyond the average and expectable behavior, especially in formal role relationships. The ability to reach the other is manifested in being unusually personable, using humor, compliments, all kinds of ways to ‘step out of the line’ and personalize the relationship, and sometime by inappropriate means, such as sexualizing interactions or being provocative. This need serves as a strategy for feeling greater safety with the stranger, as it creates a greater likelihood that the other will have more good will, more empathy toward oneself. What survivors and their children have known intuitively has been proven by research in neuro-social cognitions: when there is low empathy, the risk of dehumanizing others and treating them in harmful ways is higher. Studies show that when one is forced to think of the other as a person with personal attributes, and especially when one perceives similarities between oneself and the other, the risk for dehumanization decreases. The need and the capacity to humanize every relationship is potentially a remarkable interpersonal skill. However, when driven by unconscious fears of dehumanization by others, it can have a compulsive quality. In such cases, children of survivors might be vulnerable to depressive or rageful responses to occasional inevitable failures to ‘reach’ the sulky and unfriendly clerk, shopkeeper, or official.

Empathy: related to the need to reach the other, many children of survivors, significantly more than their relative proportion in the general population, find themselves in the helping professions. The development of empathy in children was encouraged by early relationship circumstances that required attunement and sensitivity to the emotional and internal state of a trauma survivor parent. Many children of survivors have become “trained” empathic helpers long before they even entered their careers in the helping profession, motivated by the deeply felt need to make the other better, as they needed and wished to make their parents feel better. However, for the same reason, rooted in the significance of this effort in the relationship between child and parent, children of survivors are very sensitive to real or perceived empathic failures in their relationships, and can respond with disproportionate emotional reactions to a perceived empathic impasse in a relationship.

For example, my patient N. had a construction business. He was proud of the personal and good rapport that he was usually able to establish with potential clients quite easily, and of the quality of the service he offered. It was, as he said, a ‘win-win situation’. One time, when he was convinced he had established such good contact with a client and was waiting to get the green light to do the job, he drove by the site and saw that someone else had gotten the contract. N., who was trying very hard to diet, found himself stopping on his way home at the supermarket and gorging on bad food. He knew that what upset him was that the potential client did not connect with him as he thought he had, and did not “even have the decency to let me know!” N. was baffled by his disproportionately strong reaction. He knew it was not about the loss of the deal. What really got to him, he eventually realized, was that he failed to do what he has always needed to do, find a way to connect with his depressed and anxious mother, to make her feel better, so he could feel better, another ‘win-win’ situation for both. A failure in the relationships with his mother meant he could not help her, he could not make her better, and he would have been left feeling alone, neglected, apparently not worthy of love, and panicked. That is when, as a child, N. began turning to food as his comfort.

Work and succeed in the service of others’ needs: some children of survivors, particularly women, have difficulties setting personal directions and goals for themselves and protecting their personal boundaries. I used the metaphor of a “little magnet” next to a big one, the electrons in the smaller one automatically compelled to re-arrange themselves according to the magnetic field of the bigger one, without any choice in the matter. Similarly, intuiting the needs or expectations of the other, whether a parent, a spouse, a boss, or a friend might become a force that overwhelms the capacity of the child of survivors, more often daughters of survivors, to keep their own internal coherence with regards to their own needs, wishes, ambitions, and boundaries. Just intuiting the other’s needs induces an immediate accommodation to the other’s wishes. While having difficulties pursuing their own personal goals and being assertive in the service of their own individual interests, the same women often show tremendous abilities and assertiveness when working in the best interests of someone else, whether those of their family members or an organization that they are employed in. Having always put the parents’ needs before their own, they can mobilize their competencies best when it is in someone else’s service, when the assertiveness necessary in order to accomplish what is needed does not tap into their sense that doing for themselves is “bad”, i.e., hurts the parents.

How Do the Strengths Translate to Our Relationships: we react to current interpersonal situations based on internal cues and adaptations that we have leaned and carried forward from our past into the present. The meanings we give to various interpersonal exchanges and the particular ways we have developed to respond to them, represent a form of emotional learning that took place in a certain context where it made sense. However, that learning may no longer make sense in other contexts in which we find ourselves later in life.

In order to become more conscious of such ingrained patterns that organize and dictate our responses, in order to have more conscious choice in the matter of how we respond and how our responses impact others, we must identify these “icebergs” in the deep.

Intra-subjective Relational Themes

After the meeting on Tuesday, E. shared with me her feeling that hearing about patterns that are characteristic among children of Holocaust survivors has validated her experiences and helped view them less as her own idiosyncratic character flaws, or her own shortcomings. Understanding the origin of our relational patterns, how they evolved in the context of specific features of the relationships with survivor parents, allows one to make sense of them, even recognize their value and what might be gained from them. It also introduces the idea that old learnings can by replaced by new learning, more suitable for the new context of our present relationships.

Sophisticated Content analyses of childhood recollections of the Second Generation reveal particular common relational themes, representing a sense of “failed intersubjectivity”: not being understood by others, not understanding others, and a lack of shared understanding. This expectation that there is no possibility for understanding, being quick to feel that there is no hope for establishing understanding, is a legacy that children of survivors might bring with them to their later relationships with spouses, partners, friends and children.

Studies have identified several specific themes and psychological concerns in the recollected childhood memories of adult second generation. One area of painful experiences involves the emotional impact of having directly experienced parental distress at moments when intrusive memories and parental emotional dysregulated reactions were triggered. Some children of survivors recall distressing instances where parental reactions manifested numbing and detachment at significant joyful points in their children’s lives. Others recall parental lack of ability to support them at difficult moments in their lives. These children recall feeling a lack of parental empathy to their problems, and that their own problems were never viewed by the parents as serious enough, or significant enough, as they were always compared to the extreme traumatic experiences that the parents themselves endured during the Holocaust.

For example, after we follow the story of the protagonist in Maria Russle’s book, “A Thread Of Grace”, and gain an intimate understanding of what she had suffered and lost, we read about her children’s feelings about her at the end of her life: “…this is what they remember from their mother: she never cried. Each of her children tells of some life crisis that failed to arouse maternal compassion. The cancer. The divorce. The miscarriage. In their mothers opinion, nothing of what happened in Canada can ever justify crying. Save your tears, she used to say, you might need them sometime.

An overarching concern expressed by children of survivors is needing to protect the parents. In fact, similar consequences associated with parental trauma have been since shown in other populations. Fields and his colleagues, who studied families of survivors of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia concluded that parents who suffer might, implicitly and explicitly, communicate their emotional vulnerability, “instilling inordinate concern for their welfare in their children” (2013, p. 484).

Children of Holocaust survivors often feel that their keen awareness of parental suffering and vulnerability has interfered with their own wishes to be granted greater autonomy vis a vis the parents.’ The need to protect the parents from distress has often led to avoidance of conflict on the part of the children, and to difficulties in putting their own needs ahead of the parents’ needs. Alternatively, some children recall that they did fight to get to do what they wanted, but that, too, was associated with a heavy emotional cost. For example, Y. recalled that every school year the class went on a trip for a few days, an important event in the life of young Israeli children. Every year when the date for the trip was announced, Y.’s mother would object to her going away, and both Y. and her mother would cry the entire week long, until finally her mother would give in and Y. would go on the school trip. Other children of survivors describe how they chose not to go away to college or not to do certain things they wanted to do, because of their perception of the cost of doing so, both the suffering it would cause the parents, and also the sense of being “bad” if they made this choice. The profound perception of one’s own needs, wishes, ambitions and personal preferences as hurtful to the people we love; the suspicion that following one’s own wishes is always at the cost of the other’s pain and suffering, and therefore has to be foregone, is another problematic relational belief (sometimes conscious and sometimes non-conscious) that the children of survivors might bring to other relationships.

Adult “Second Generation” also express a wish for having had greater emotional closeness with parents, a closeness that would have allowed for more open discussion of the children’s needs while growing up. However, parents who survived extreme traumatization are often perceived by their children as extremely dedicated but emotionally unavailable, either because they are too closed–off or because they are too over-reactive, so that real open communication is not possible. Another issue that has been also shown to be common in the recollected memories of children of survivors is the focus on survival issues in the family atmosphere, which lends a ‘life or death’ gravity to everyday interactions, normative altercations and developmentally appropriate struggles within family life. In the movie “Fugitive Pieces” (2008 director Jeremy Podeswa) a child is seen sitting next to his father, snuggled against him. When the child gets bored with the adult conversation in the room, he slides off the sofa, puts down his half-eaten apple and attempts to go off to play. The wasted half-eaten apple triggers the survivor father’s memories of starvations and deprivation and in his anguish he blurts : “ If my own son does not know…Why did we even survive?!” Instances in which parental responses to a conflict or to a transgression of rules make it seem as if it were “killing” the parents, or otherwise invoke themes of survival or death, can severely constrict the child’s ability to experiment with various aspects of their identity. Instead, some of one’s own needs, as well as one’s feeling about whole aspects of oneself, are restricted from expression and remain under-developed.

The last meeting of the Discussion Group for Children of Holocaust Survivors focused on the double-edged strengths and vulnerabilities of the children of survivors, those aspects of self that were over-emphasized and developed into real strengths, and their opposite, under-developed sides, that have become liabilities in the life of adult children of survivors. The next meeting will focus on specific strategies for becoming aware when these core relational beliefs are activated, in order to “re-calibrate” them, and for amplifying strengths while minimizing the liabilities associated with the same character traits.

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