'Holocaust survivor trauma rare in 2nd generation'

Research finds the second generation of Holocaust survivors only share parents' trauma in "special and extreme situations."

April 19, 2012 03:22
3 minute read.
Visitors at Yad Vashem

Visitors at Yad Vashem 370. (photo credit: Nir Elias/Reuters)


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Contrary to public opinion and some academic reports, University of Haifa researchers maintain that the second generation of Holocaust survivors share their parents’ trauma from the Nazi era only in “special and extreme situations.”

After conducting studies for the past 20 years at the Israeli university and at Leiden University in the Netherlands, researchers have published their conclusions in the Journal of Loss and Trauma.

They found that there is no difference in the amount of psychological and physiological suffering in the second generation compared to their counterparts who are not the children of Holocaust survivors. The only group that do “inherit” trauma are those whose parents endured “extreme situations” during the Holocaust, wrote Prof. Avi Sagi-Schwartz of Haifa and Prof. Marinus Van-Isendoorn and Prof. Bakermans-Kranenburg in Holland.

Also participating was Dr. Ayala Friedman, who studied the subject as part of her doctoral work.

The team decided to look at the physiological situation of the second generation and not just psychotrauma because they thought that maybe they had been missing something, because psychological trauma is easier to measure, Sagi-Schwartz said.

Thus they measured differences in the production of cortisol by the body. This “stress hormone” is released in reaction to day-to-day stress to warn the body. The hormone is usually at a higher level in the morning and declines as the day turns into night. They studied 32 women survivors who lost both their parents in the Holocaust, and their daughters born in Israel. The control group that did not live during the Holocaust included 33 women who came on aliya a short time before the rise of Nazis and their daughters who were born in Israel.

Among the survivors, higher levels of cortisol were measured during routine days compared to that in women who had not gone through the Holocaust.

Survivors also were found to dissociate at least temporarily between certain traumatic experiences and other feelings of which they were aware. But the second generation showed no differences in cortisol levels or dissociation from their counterparts with no Holocaust experience.

The researchers did find high levels of cortisol in second-generation women if their mothers were found to have extremely high levels of dissociation.

Thus instead of generalizing about the second generation, the researchers said, or even about the third generation, “we must find the unusual groups who in certain conditions could have inherited traumas from the Holocaust, and then we can try to help them,” said Sagi-Schwartz.

Prof. Danny Brom – head of the Israel Psychotrauma Center of Jerusalem’s Herzog Hospital – told The Jerusalem Post that he agreed with the University of Haifa findings. “There is not more psychopathology in the second generation compared with their peers. There may be some psychological characteristics, but not more psychological pathology,” said Brom, who knows the three researchers and was born in Holland.

The children of Holocaust survivors who remained post-traumatic for many years after World War II may be more prone to suffer from emotional difficulties, such as being inflexible in relationships, overprotective of or apathetic to children or preoccupied with the Holocaust, he said. Organizations for Holocaust survivors such as Amcha, in which Brom has been involved, also help members of the second generation.

“But theirs is not a public health issue, as trauma in the second generation is not common. The third generation is even less affected. Amcha treatment is provided to half of people with home visits, as the very elderly cannot easily leave their homes,” Brom added.

Such patterns are not exclusive to Holocaust survivors but also found in survivors of terrorist and missile attacks; this can also affect their children.

But there is a lot of resilience, despite what they’ve been through, Brom said.

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