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Summary of 2nd meeting of Discussion Group for Children of Holocaust Survivors

The second meeting of the Discussion Group for Children of Holocaust Survivors took place at the Boro Y on June 28.

Again, the room was packed with nearly fifty participants who gathered together to better understand the legacy that binds us together. Further deepenimg some of the themes raised during the previous meeting, the discussion focused in particular on the question, how did effects related to the Holocaust get transmitted to the children of survivors.

Is there such a thing as transmission of effects related to the Holocaust in the second generation? This question was raised in the 1970’s-1980’s, after the first reports that described psychological problems among children of survivors, based on children and adolescents that were seen in psychiatric clinics, began to appear. Critics opposed the generalization of such findings to the entire group of families of survivors. Indeed, many survivors functioned very well in their post-war lives. Some functioned very well in every arena, some only in certain domains, such as work outside the home, but not so well in their intimate relationships and family life. Yet others functioned very poorly across the board (Felsen, 2016, Kavod). The Holocaust engulfed many people, and the variability in individual responses is indeed vast. A diagram that was taken from the study by Barel et al., (2010) was shown, summarizing the results of a large meta-analysis of the findings of many studies which examined the physical and mental health of Holocaust survivors across the globe. The findings reveal that there were no significant differences between survivors and other peers on most aspects of health, even when clinical samples were excluded from the comparison. Significant differences were clearly observed in one area only, where Holocaust survivors had much higher levels of post-traumatic symptoms than others who did not live through the Holocaust. These findings clearly suggest that many of the second generation grew up with parents who functioned well in the community yet suffered from elevated post-traumatic reactions.

The concept of the “Dual Reality” of the second generation which was introduced in the first meeting was further elucidated as two parallel psychological systems of reference, the one referencing the reality of the here-and-now and the other referencing the reality of catastrophic trauma. In the reality associated with the lives of the second generation, who had not experienced the Holocaust, the world is perceived as essentially benign and just, where one is expected to behave in socially desirable ways such as be polite, wait one’s turn, and demonstrate prosocial behavior. In the reality of trauma, the expectations for behavior are very different, and are determined by survival. The metaphor of a “glass floor” was suggested in order to describe the relationship between the two realities. Underneath the glass floor, always in sight, forever present, lies another view of reality. This underworld holds feelings, images, behavioral expectations and anxieties that have to do with what the second generation absorbed from their parents with regards to a reality completely different from that which they experienced in their own lives. The reality glimpsed underneath the glass floor is the reality of catastrophe. The absorption of the reality of trauma has little to do with informational knowledge of the facts of the Holocaust or the events that took place. Rather, it is a knowledge that emanates from the relationships with the parents and from the emotional reactions of the parents to the events within these relationships.

in the 1980’s, the professions of psychiatry and psychology have accepted the diagnosis of Post Traumatic Disorder (PTSD) and recognized that people are affected by traumatic events, sometimes for a very long time. Since then many studies have shown that parents who suffer from persistent post-traumatic reactions behave differently in the relationships with their children. They respond in different ways to reminders of memories, to things that upset them, and they cannot tolerate well experiences of anxiety that are inevitable in the course of raising children, because of their post-traumatic symptoms.

What is PTSD and what are post-traumatic reactions? Some of the typical symptoms associated with the disorder include chronic levels of anxiety, hyper-vigilance which is expressed as mistrust and a constant scanning of the surrounding for potential dangers, startle responses and strong reactions to things that may appear minor to others. These aspects of post-traumatic reactions have been shown to be most persistent, even when the more dramatic symptoms, such as intrusive memories, flashbacks and nightmares subside with time or as a result of successful treatment. Another important group of symptoms is related to attempts to avoid reminders of the traumatic event. Like circles around a stone in water, avoidance symptoms tend to widen: first people might avoid the immediate places, people or things that might remind them of their traumatic experience. Later, more and more distant things are avoided, depriving the individual of new experiences which might be positive. Trauma survivors might also attempt to constrict emotionally, since any strong emotion, even positive emotion, might evoke feelings associated with previous losses. For example, in the documentary “Because of That War” by Yehuda Pliker and Yaacov Cohen, Poliker’s father, a survivor from Saloniki, describes the reaction he had at his son’s Bar-Mitzva, when in his mind’s eye he envisioned all the absent family members who were murdered, who would have been celebrating with him. Flooded with tremendous sadness and agony, he kicked the tables festively set for the celebration and knocked everything down, shocking the guests and his Bar-mitzva son.

The brain does not have a good capacity to remain open to positive emotions while shutting out the negative. Therefore, some survivors have demonstrated on occasion behaviors that were frightening or overwhelming for their children, while others tried to control their emotional responses at the cost of being experienced as cold and emotionally unavailable (I mentioned here the epilogue in the book “ A Thread of Grace” by Maria Russel). I also mentioned the Canadian film “Fugitive Pieces” (2008) by director Jeremy Podeswa, pointing particularly to the scene following the funeral, where the survivor father and his young son are engaged in an interaction that poignantly captures these tragic features in the relationship between them.

It is natural for children to attempt to become more autonomous, to get involved with peers and activities that take them further away from their parents and help them establish their own sense of self. However, for parents who have lost many of their loved ones it was often difficult to contain their anxiety about the safety of their children. Children had two options with regard to their parents’ anxieties: they could internalize them, consequently feeling that the world is very dangerous, that they are vulnerable, and that their parents don’t trust them to be safe. Or children could rebel and reject parental worries, and do what they wish to do despite the distress it caused their parents. Gender was a very important factor that influenced the way different children coped and adapted to the anxieties of their parents. Gender socialization generally influences boys to be more autonomous and assertive and are expected to show more independence by the culture at large. If survivor parents communicated that it was too dangerous, or anxiety arousing for them to tolerate what their children were doing, the children, especially boys, sometimes had to rebel if they were to develop a sense of autonomy, assertiveness and selfhood. This accomplishment came often at a great cost of internalizing a sense that one’s needs come at the expense of the parents’ suffering, that it is a selfish thing to put one’s own needs ahead of others’ needs. One of the participants volunteered a personal example, telling the group that as an adolescent he participated in a human rights demonstration, and although this act itself was not “bad”, he was made to feel very bad about it since his parents were mortified by the possibility that he might get hurt and his insistence on going was at the cost of their distress. In such instances, normative, developmentally appropriate and even positive acts of establishing one’s identity could become colored as “bad”. Children could come to feel that they were “bad” because they caused their parents grief. Girls, often socialized to be more concerned about relationships and about other people’s needs, tended to be more compliant with parental expectations and more sensitive to messages such as : “how can you do it when you know what it does to me?!” As a result, daughters tended more often to put the parents’ needs ahead of their own, a pattern that in many cases became a personality trait of daughters of survivors.

An example from Art Spiegelman’s book “Mouse” was shared to illustrate the ways through which the reality of trauma becomes part of the experience of the children who did not live through the Holocaust., Little Art comes crying to his father because he fell and his friends ran ahead and did not wait for him. “Friends?” his father, the survivor asks with cynicism, put them in a room without food for a week and then you will see what are friends…

Never quite out of sight, never truly not relevant, the reality of trauma lies under the “glass floor”, sometimes in the background and sometimes moving swiftly to the foreground. When there is a terror attack, when someone says something anti-Semitic, or even in the benign context of intimate relationships, something might trigger the reality of trauma, bringing it to the fore and coloring one’s responses.

However, it is important to remember that the transmission of effects related to the trauma is not all bad. Survivor parents had many immense resiliencies, which the second generation has inherited, as well. Some of the resiliencies were discussed, including a capacity to perservere under difficult conditions, heightened empathy, and a strong need to humanize the ‘other’ and the relationship. These traits can be expressed both as strengths and as vulnerabilities, as in a context in which one does have choice, unlike under conditions of a catastrophe, giving up on a bad relationship or a job might be a more adaptive solution.

The next meeting will address some of the strengths and vulnerabilities of children of survivors and will focus in particular on the relationships between adult siblings in families of Holocaust survivors.

Irit Felsen


  1. says

    Thank you. When and where will the next meeting take place?

  2. Thank you Irit for a wonderful blog. As a 2G and a trauma therapist I have always wondered about the impact of “the whole world turning against us” and how it makes us (2G’s) a bit different. The fact that one’s country and often one’s neighbor turned against them seems to have an additional issues that other’s with PTSD do not share. As we learn more about DNA changes, epigenetics (Yehuda) we are finding some common threads of medical issues.Additionally, with so many survivors in poverty and the “claims conference ” refusing to help because they are out of money with a 90 million dollar theft over 10 years it feels like those representing us have again thrown our parents under the bus. I am not trying to be political, just wondering if others feel triggered by this, as I am .

    • Hi, thank you for the lovely comment and please accept my apology for the delay in reply;
      I am still just “getting with it” with the managing of the blog…
      I agree with you completely that there is an added injury due to the fact that our parents’
      own country, countrymen, neighbors and close associates turned against them, and that this inflicts
      a lasting and deep wound that the second generation carries in our own psychological responses and relational/political
      expectancies about the world. I am actually just finished a paper about this aspect, I might make that another post on the blog!
      Thank you for the comments and I hope you continue to communicate your thoughts!

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