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Response to Senior Times Article about Second Generation

In their November issue, The Senior Times published an article entitled "Psychologist Debunks Myths About Children of Survivors", which was brought to my attention by several second generation individuals, who were perplexed by the content.

I wrote a letter to the editor in response to the article, and was told the letter will be published soon in the Senior Times, but wanted to share it with those of you who were wondering how to make sense of the opinion expressed by the article that appeared there in November. A copy of my letter is given below.

                     Irit Felsen


Letter to the Editor

Dear Editor,

 I am a clinical psychologist and a researcher focused on clinical work with Holocaust survivors and their descendants and on empirical research in this field. My papers have been published in many professional peer-reviewed journals.

 The article by Irwin Block “Psychologist debunks myths on children of survivors” does not do justice to the subject. There are now hundreds of methodologically sound studies showing that the simple question of whether children of survivors have more psychiatric/psychological pathology or not, is not adequate to understand the impact of massive parental trauma on the children.

As a group, children of survivors do not show higher prevalence of clinical disorders, but there are many common characteristics among them that are different from their peers. Studies have shown various psycho-biological findings, including cellular and physiological trait variations not caused by changes in DNA, indicating changes in how genes are expressed (epigenetic changes) in those whose parents suffered from more pronounced and more persistent post-traumatic reactions. It has also been shown that they have more physiological problems in middle age compared with peers.

Common psychological themes and concerns have been expressed by children of survivors from non-clinical samples, and are all the more telling because there are such vast differences among them, such as the country where they grew up and the culture surrounding them.

Children responded differently even within the same family, but still, similarities and commonalities among many children of survivors are striking. This body of evidence has already inspired research and interventions with other trauma-exposed populations, as it has shown the serious impact of parental trauma on the well-being of children, even when these are born after the end of the parental trauma.

That said, there is also evidence for the success, the high socio-economic achievements and the pro-social attitudes of children of Holocaust survivors as a group, as mentioned in your article. However, the simple dichotomy of whether there is pathology or not has been replaced by a more nuanced recognition that there are multiple areas of functioning and that one can be impacted by parental trauma to varying degrees, more in some areas and less in others.

The older studies mentioned in your article were indeed criticized for many methodological flaws. However, we see the influence of parental trauma on the children of survivors in multiple, much more recent, studies, which overcame these methodological issues. We have come to understand that the influence of parental distal trauma is often not manifested in what is considered clinical level pathology, but rather in the more subtle sphere of the private, subjective experience of individuals, the way they perceive, respond to, and feel about big and small events in their lives. The functioning of individuals can be excellent in external measures of success, alongside poignant pain that is invisible in external measures, accessible only to the observer when looking at the subjective and intimate areas of the individual’s life and relationships.

We should acknowledge the complex, nuanced picture and recognize the multiple strengths and vulnerabilities that the legacy of the Holocaust left in the descendants of survivors.

The concept of “historical trauma” has been now recognized in other populations as well. The resilience of Holocaust survivors and their children is expressed in the capacity to move forward, function well despite the pain, nurture hope and strive for a better future, and raise the next generations with a profound sensitivity to our common humanity and to the suffering of the other.

— Irit Felsen, PhD



  1. Betsy Dougatz says

    So glad you responded to the Times article. Just live in our shoes for one day and recognize that a common theme evolves around all of us in one form or another. Thank you for sharing. I found the article upsetting as well.

  2. EMANUEL SAKS says

    on point.

    Marty Saks, 2G

    I had the pleasure of meeting you at University of Miami in 2014 for an all day Seminar on Trans-generational Trauma.

    Ever since then I have held mini seminars and programs on this issue.

    The other day I suggested to our 2G committee to reach out to you as speaker on the aforementioned topic. Additionally the talk would include how 2g parents present the Holocaust with their children and grandchildren. Need less to say the specifics can be finalized at a later date.

    All my best

    Emanuel M Saks

    • Thank you for the comment, I would love to present in a program about the issues you mentioned, and will be happy to discuss particular points of interest and the content that would best suit the specific group. Happy 2019!

  3. Gail Graf, LCSW says

    Well researched and written Dr. Irit Felsen.

  4. ruthie Hoffman says

    As a child of holocaust survivors, I thank you for bringing up this significant information. I can perceive the strengths and vulnerabilities in my personal life as being influenced by my parents’ trauma.

  5. Thank you, dear Irit, for writing this rebuttal. I, too, felt the article took many points out of context and painted much too broad of a brush stroke on, as you say, a very nuanced topic. Further, I actually think the article is dangerous, as it discounts not just the effects of the Holocaust on the children and grandchildren of survivors, but also the descendants of other genocides as well, and leaves the impression that when the event is over, it is over and there are no ripple effects or repercussions, which we all know is categorically false.

  6. You are so right, Emily, and that is exactly why it was so important to me to reply to this article, as well as to an article that appeared very soon after this one, in the New York Times, which was entitled “Can One Really Inherit Trauma?”
    The latter offered a review of findings on Epigenetics, a somewhat skewed review in my opinion, concluding that evidence is yet inconclusive. Although I disagree with the conclusion and find the review omitted important other epigenetic findings, the main point is the title and the conclusion that such a multi-facted and nuanced transmission can be reduced to one aspect, genetic, epigenetic or other, and that if the evidence for that particular avenue is (supposedly) inconclusive, than it would indicate that one “cannot really inherit trauma”. Dangerous for the whole field of trauma investigations and its potential assistance to all trauma victims and their descendants. So sad, but not the first time research about the long-reaching effects of trauma is being questioned and attempts are made to deny how badly genocidal trauma can affect generations of people.

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