The drive to survive was so powerful among male Holocaust survivors that decades
later, they showed a longer life expectancy than those who did not suffer during
the Nazi era.
That is the central finding of a new study at the
University of Haifa and Leiden University (the Netherlands) that examined more
than 55,000 Polish Jewish men who immigrated to Israel before and after World
Prof. Avi Sagi-Schwartz of the University of Haifa’s psychology
department and head of its Center for the Study of Child Development, led the
research. The findings were just published in the PLoS One journal.
was the first study to examine data on the entire population of Jews who
immigrated here from Poland before and after World War II, using the
population-wide official database of the National Insurance Institute in
“Holocaust survivors not only suffered grave psychosocial
trauma but also famine, malnutrition, and lack of hygienic and medical
facilities, leading us to believe these damaged their later health and reduced
life expectancy,” said Sagi- Schwartz.
Previous studies showed that a
traumatic experience may shorten life expectancy and even found genetic proof
that trauma may lead to a shortening of the telomeres – the chromosome ends in
human DNA – responsible for the lifespan of human body cells. This led the
researchers to examine whether Holocaust survivors would indeed have shorter
The researchers compared a population of Holocaust survivors
who were between four and 20 years old in 1939 and made aliya between 1945 and
1950 with a population of Polish immigrants of the same age group who immigrated
before the outbreak of World War II in 1939.
The findings showed a life
expectancy in the entire survivor population of six-anda- half months longer
than that of the immigrant population that did not experience the
When the researchers examined the data according to gender,
they found that within the entire female population of Polish immigrants, there
was no significant difference in life expectancy between female survivors and
women who didn’t survive the Holocaust.
The differences in the male
populations, however, were significant, with male survivors living on average 14
months longer. In addition, the older the male survivors were during the
Holocaust, the greater was the difference in life expectancy between them and
their peers who didn’t experience the Holocaust.
“Men who were 10 to 15
years old during the war and in their early adolescence showed a
10-months-longer life expectancy compared to the comparison group. Men who lived
through the Holocaust when they were 16 to 20 showed an even greater difference
in life expectancy – 18 months longer – than their peers who didn’t experience
the Holocaust,” said Sagi-Schwartz.
According to the researchers, one
possible explanation for these findings might be the “post-traumatic growth”
phenomenon, whereby the traumatic, life-threatening experiences Holocaust
survivors faced, which engendered high levels of psychological distress, could
have also served as potential stimuli for developing personal and inter-personal
skills, gaining new insights and a deeper meaning to life.
All of these
could have eventually contributed to the survivors’ longevity.
results of this research give us hope and teach us quite a bit about the
resilience of the human spirit when faced with brutal and traumatic events,”