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Increased Empathy and Helping Behavior Toward the Mother in Daughters of Holocaust Survivors

A new study by Sarit Alkalay, Abraham Sagi-Schwartz and Hadas Wiseman from Israel, published in the journal “Traumatology” this past July, reports interesting findings regarding daughters of (child) Holocaust survivors. The study showed that greater factual knowledge about the mother’s Holocaust experiences was associated with elevated internal feelings of empathy towards her, and also with external empathic responses toward the mother. Higher level of factual knowledge of the mother’s Holocaust experiences was also exhibited by participants who reported a greater amount of time spent providing pragmatic support to the mother, in comparison to other children of survivors. These findings were interpreted by the researchers as indications of post-traumatic growth in the daughters of survivors, a sensitivity to the suffering of the other which is born out of the experience of trauma in the life of the survivors and out of its inter-generationally transmitted effects in the daughters of survivors.

These findings support my own view that many of the effects that have been observed in the children of survivors, especially the manifestations of greater family loyalty and difficulties separating and individuating from the survivor parents, had also positive aspects. The mutual over-protection in Holocaust families might have been necessary in the context of rebuilding after genocidal trauma. While putting a certain burden on the children, protecting the parents was helpful in revitalizing them and making them, in turn, be able to be better parents despite what they had been through. There are many  lessons about resilience and re-integration to be learned from our families, although there were also always unavoidable traces of the tragedy of the Holocaust in the daily interactions and the way normative developmental milestones were experienced by our parents and by 2G throughout the stages of our lives.

                Irit Felsen

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