Inherited nightmares

A new book examines how Holocaust trauma can haunt even the grandchildren of survivors.

March 21, 2010 08:27
A Holocaust survivor. [illustrative]

holocaust survivor 311. (photo credit: Isaac Harari)

Holocaust survivors bear emotional scars that are not easily healed. Research has also shown that many children of survivors – raised by traumatized parents – tend to be different than peers who had no connection to the Shoah. But an Israeli clinical psychologist (and son of survivors) who “grew up in a country far removed from the horrors of the Holocaust” says that the grandchildren of survivors may also be touched by the unspeakable horrors.

Dr. Natan Kellerman, who has worked with survivors and their families for over a decade, recently wrote a new English-language book called Holocaust Trauma: Psychological Effects and Treatment. Published by, the academic softcover is based on his own research and that of others. Of the 206 pages, almost 40 consist of references to studies.

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The author, who was born in Sweden where his parents moved after the Shoah, is currently project development director of the National Israeli Center for Psychological Support of Holocaust Survivors and the Second Generation (Amcha) – which likely will go on to counsel the Third Generation when the ageing survivors are gone. Kellerman focuses on Israeli survivors. However, he devotes chapters to Jewish survivors and their descendants abroad as well as to the collective effects on the populations of Germany, Austria and other European countries whose relatives took an active part in the mass murder.

Amcha president Prof. Haim Dasberg writes in the foreword that “Holocaust survivors living among us were part of the conspiracy of silence for many years. They attempted to be like other Israelis, living through the developmental phase of a Jewish national consciousness. Until the 1980s, it was not a particular honor to be a Holocaust survivor, except for the few ghetto fighters who founded the kibbutzim Yad Mordechai and Lochamei Haghettaot and who held seats in parliament.” But, Dasberg continues, “denial of being a Holocaust survivor was a psychological necessity for coping, and indeed Holocaust survivors thrive in society.” After the phase of denial came the phase of ambivalence and doubt, occurring mainly around the years between the Yom Kippur War and the First Gulf War. During those years, a “general empathy and identification with the survivors began.” The Amcha president said the motto for Kellerman’s book is: “Remember the past and live in the present,” but he adds that the future is also important, and wishes success for the therapists who took on the burden of working with survivors and their descendants.

In his preface, after quoting William Faulkner who said “The past is not dead. In fact, it’s not even past,” Kellerman describes his own experience as  member of the Second Generation. His mother, Lily, was at 15 given the number A8816 in the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp. She was selected for work while her parents and younger siblings were gassed. A year later, barely alive, she was liberated by the British on April 15, 1945 and sent to Sweden for rehabilitation for five years. She met her husband and gave birth to two sons, with Natan being the younger. “Even though I was born and grew up in a country far removed from the horrors of the Holocaust, I have lived with its images for my entire life,” he writes.

His mother, who was fully functioning and loving, told him very little about her traumatic experiences, but her Holocaust trauma “has painfully permeated my inner life... Gruesome Holocaust associations fill my waking and sleeping life, and human suffering is a constant companion. As have so many other children of survivors, I have apparently absorbed some of the psychological burdens of my parents and share their grief and terror. It is no coincidence that I became a psychologist and a psychodramatist, and that much of my professional interest has focused on individual and collective trauma,” he confesses.

He goes on to say that scenes that seem like fiction to those who are not survivors or their descendants are alive for people like survivors and himself. “...We imagine a father holding his child in his arms and watching it starve to death, without having any food to give it; we imagine the child lying next to his mother, searching for warmth, only to realize that she has frozen to death. We imagine the death anxiety of all those who knew they were about to be shot, or hanged, or buried, or gassed or whatever other method of murder was about to be enacted upon them. We imagine the heartbreaking separations between family members in which mothers gave away their babies in order to choose life.”

But the psychologist doesn’t focus on himself; besides reporting on scores of scientific studies, he also presents the personal stories of a number of survivors and second- and third-generation descendants who described their feelings and experiences in workshops. He recalled one survivor who told her tearful granddaughter: “No, no, no. We did not pass on any of our trauma to you, and you do not need to be upset.”

While Kellerman concedes that there have been other major human catastrophes and even genocides, he cites Yad Vashem scholar Prof. Yehuda Bauer who said there “is still no other genocide that compares to the Holocaust, neither in its intensity of evil nor in the pain of individuals made to suffer precisely because they were a specific group of people, not in the ghastly scope of its cruel ambitions, not in the combination of twisted ideas and wicked actions that, for a time, threatened to engulf our entire world. The Holocaust was unique in its scope, magnitude and methodology. It was the most systematic, merciless and effective mass murder in human history, a disaster of enormous proportions that we are only now beginning to grasp. This fact is what makes this event so much more malignant than many of the other genocides.”

The Amcha psychologist notes that professionals in the field had gradually accepted a number of assumptions – one replacing the other – about Holocaust survivors. The first was that survivors who show signs of severe mental distress after the war suffered from some kind of mental problem before the war. Next came the view that some survivors who had been healthy before the Holocaust became mentally ill from their war experiences. Then, they supposed that instead of traumatized survivors improving, some conditions became worse as the years went by.

Some professionals who thought survivors who were healthy before the war and functioned adequately after 1945 could develop late effects as a result of anxiety-provoking associations, a new trauma or simply old age. But most recently, a new view emerged that regarded survivors as being healthy before the war and that a majority had recuperated well afterwards due to their natural resilience. Most survivors have never been diagnosed with a mental illness, these professionals argue, nor did they require psychiatric treatment. Yet another view suggested a more complex picture, in which many survivors did suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) but nevertheless succeeded in adjusting to peace-time life.

Finally, wrote Kellerman, psychologists are now trying to integrate all the previous assumptions, even though some are contradictory. So survivors are both vulnerable and resistant, suffered severe traumatization and extraordinary growth, and had severe periods of emotional suffering and symptoms plus emotional balance and creativity. In any case, it is clear that survivors should be treated for the problems and pain they have. Kellerman explains how the problems of survivors who were small children during the Holocaust clearly had different problems than those who were already adults.

An interesting chapter is devoted to Holocaust trauma in the children of survivors. It begins with a quote from Siegi Hirsch, an Auschwitz survivor: “For a long time, I recounted to my children that the six-digit number tattooed on my forearm was the telephone number of an old friend.”

Kellerman has encountered many of the Second Generation who suffer from nightmares as if they had experience traumatic events themselves. However, the way this trauma is transmitted is very complex, he writes. Some in the Second Generation feel they have to be superachievers to be living replacements for those murdered in the Holocaust, he says. One woman whose parents survived confessed that she still has problems buying her children clothing with vertical stripes, as she saw a photo of her father in his camp uniform. When another member of the Second Generation was told by her dentist that she should have her wisdom tooth extracted, she was shocked as she thought of corpses whose gold teeth were removed by order of the Nazis. Some children of survivors have problems with interpersonal relations, or fear shortages of things and want a spare of everything. Some survivors have caused problems by being overbearing, and too involved in their grownup children’s lives.

Kellerman notes that some researchers believe the offspring of survivors who were small orphans at liberation had unique problems because their parents did not have models for family life and have trouble showing affection to their spouses and children.

The grandchildren of survivors may also carry the baggage of the Holocaust. The extent of trauma in this generation is not well studied, but they may also provide opportunities for survivors to discuss their lives in a calmer way, and their stories could produce strong emotional ties with the youngest generation; survivors may be able to relate experiences to their grandchildren that they were ashamed to tell their own children, the author writes.

Kellerman concludes with his deep discomfort from viewing scenes in which Israelis are called “Nazis” by demonstrators in Europe and elsewhere, and his frustration over the world’s misunderstanding.

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