When trauma is passed from Holocaust victims to children

Elderly victims of the holocaust showed resistance to being treated by Jewish physicians who have German names.

April 9, 2018 17:23
2 minute read.
A Holocaust survivor shows his tattoo

A Holocaust survivor shows his tattoo. (photo credit: BAZ RATNER/REUTERS)


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Although more than seven decades have passed since the end of World War II, Bar-Ilan University researchers still detect signs of trauma passed from aging Holocaust survivors to their adult children who take care of them.

Even now, researchers argue whether inter-generational transmission of Holocaust trauma indeed exists. Some claim that offspring of Holocaust survivors demonstrate impressive resilience and do not differ in major health markers (such as symptoms of depression and anxiety) from those whose parents did not experience the Holocaust. But other researchers insist that survivors’ suffering has passed from one generation to another, thus affecting their children and other relatives.

In an attempt to bridge these contrasting views, another theory suggests that the offspring of survivors are generally resilient, yet their vulnerability is exposed when they are coping with continuous stress.

With the third theory in mind, the BIU researchers conducted a three-part study examining the way in which adult offspring of survivors deal with stress related to serving as caregivers to their elderly parents. Their findings were recently published in the journal Aging & Mental Health in a study entitled “Filial anxiety and sense of obligation among offspring of Holocaust survivors.

They first carried out intensive interviews with ten adult children of survivors who serve as caregivers to their parents. The offspring shared their concerns and worries regarding their parents’ condition, and emphasized their desire to protect their parents from additional suffering. They also mentioned the unique difficulties involved in caring for traumatized parents, such as their resistance to being treated by Jewish physicians who have German names.

In the second study, they interviewed 60 adult offspring, half of whose parents survived the Holocaust and half whose parents were not directly exposed to the horrors of the Nazi era. Compared with their counterparts, the offspring of survivors reported a greater commitment to caring for their parents and experienced more anxiety regarding their parents’ condition.

In the third study, 286 participants, comprised of 143 parent-child combinations – some with Holocaust background and some without – were interviewed. This study found that heightened filial obligation and anxiety were especially noticeable among offspring of survivors who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.

“These findings have some important practical implications for practitioners assisting adult offspring of Holocaust survivors in caring for their parents,” said Prof. Amit Shrira, of BIU’s interdisciplinary department of social sciences who conducted the research with Dr. Moshe Bensimon of the criminology department and graduate student Ravit Menashe.

“Practitioners should help both sides process negative emotions, resolve conflictual and problematic relationships, and improve their relationships,” they said. “They should also facilitate offspring comprehension of, and empathy towards, complicated behaviors exhibited by the care recipient. Lastly, they should encourage offspring of Holocaust survivors to express their own needs and suggest other methods of care for their parents so that the burden doesn’t fall entirely upon them.”

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