Why are Shoah survivors’ grandchildren more afraid of ISIS?

New research by Ben Gurion University suggests that transmission of Nazi-era trauma can affect anxiety levels for generations.

A still image taken from an Islamic State (ISIS) video  (photo credit: REUTERS)
A still image taken from an Islamic State (ISIS) video
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Emotional trauma from the Nazi era does not end with the survivors or their children. The grandchildren of Israeli Holocaust survivors show greater anxiety (under certain conditions) about terrorists of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria than a comparable control group, according to researchers at Bar- Ilan University.
When ISIS carries out its frequent attacks around the world, it usually follows them up with video recordings warning against future attacks. Awareness of the threat from ISIS is particularly prevalent here, since the Islamist group maintains strongholds very close to two of the country’s borders and is widely covered by the local media. In addition, both Israeli Arabs and Palestinians have joined or at least tried to join ISIS. Third-generation Holocaust survivors, perhaps most important, are stressed due to the perceived threat of another Holocaust.
The findings are also compatible with epigenetic biological findings that have shown trauma experienced by previous generations causes a change in genetic expression among offspring.
They also provide further credibility to the theory of intergenerational transmission of trauma.
Dr. Yaakov Hoffman and Prof. Amit Shrira, of BIU’s interdisciplinary department of social sciences, examined levels of anxiety about the threat from ISIS among two comparative groups – third generation Holocaust survivors and a control group whose parents were of European origin but had no connection to the Holocaust.
Their findings were published this month in the journal Psychiatry Research.
Until now, professional literature has revealed conflicting findings about intergenerational transmission of trauma, noted the researchers. While early literature contends that intergenerational transmission does occur, subsequent literature has often refuted this phenomenon.
However, careful reading of the literature reveals that under certain conditions one may assume that intergenerational transmission will occur.
The conditions include “closer” ties to the Holocaust – for example, in cases in which all four grandparents survived the Holocaust (as opposed to one grandparent, in which no effect was recorded). Another condition is when trauma from the Holocaust could be closely associated with future threats such as Yazidi genocide or an explicit threat to carry out a Holocaust against Israel. In addition, descendants of Holocaust survivors may be less resilient, such as when they themselves have experienced trauma and display symptoms related to such trauma.
To test the hypothesis that intergenerational transmission of trauma occurs under these conditions, the researchers used a large sample of 1,007 people divided into two distinct groups – one with four grandparents who survived the Holocaust and another with no connection to the Holocaust. Questionnaires were distributed to the two groups during the most recent 2015-2016 terrorism wave in Israel.
Symptoms of post-trauma in this context were also recorded.
The results show that when all four grandparents experienced the Holocaust and the grandchildren themselves displayed trauma symptoms in the wake of the most recent wave of Palestinian terrorism, there was a higher level of ISIS anxiety in comparison to the control group with no Holocaust background.
The results also corroborate with previous findings by Shrira that adult children of Holocaust survivors are more preoccupied with the threat of a nuclear Iran than their peers whose parents are not Holocaust survivors.
“It is important to emphasize that a significant increase in anxiety from ISIS was observed only among grandchildren of four grandparents who survived the Holocaust and when the grandchildren experienced trauma,” said Shrira.
“The current research is unique in the fact that it studies the third generation, which is even further removed from the original trauma of the Holocaust than the second generation, and in the fact that it doesn’t examine one’s preoccupation with a potential threat but rather directly taps into anxiety of such a threat,” said Hoffman. “The results are consistent with the contextual theory of trauma, which contends that trauma arises when a future threat is more like a memory of a previous trauma.
Furthermore, the present study addresses the conditions required to detect intergenerational transmission of trauma.
The results show that we no longer have to ask whether intergenerational transmission exists, but rather the question seems to be what are the conditions for detecting intergenerational transmission,” said Hoffman.
As for treatment, the researchers propose therapeutic interventions that reduce levels of anxiety related to the future, as well as addressing anxiety caused by events experienced by parents and grandparents.
These interventions may help distressed grandchildren distinguish between the horrors of the past and the threats of the future, processing the former while ”de-catastrophizing” the latter, and thereby strengthen their sense of confidence, the BIU researchers suggested.