Study: Holocaust trauma is not passed down

Findings come on heels of new lawsuits by 2nd- and 3rd-generation descendants of survivors.

Holocaust survive 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Holocaust survive 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Despite new lawsuits by second- and third-generation descendants of Holocaust survivors that they have suffered trauma, new research at the University of Haifa contradicts the theory that Holocaust survivors' trauma is passed down to children and grandchildren. The research, conducted by the psychology department's Prof. Avi Sagi-Schwartz, director of the university's Center for the Study of Child Development, found that second- and third-generation Holocaust survivors exhibit the same normative behaviors as those who are not the children or grandchildren of survivors. "We know that people working in the field who are used to the old theories and popular beliefs will have difficulty accepting the conclusions of this research, but additional research done in other parts of the world yielded similar results," said Sagi-Schwartz. Mental health professionals have been under the impression that Holocaust survivors transmit their traumas to their children, who in turn transmit them to theirs. Even among those who do not believe survivors transmitted their traumas to their children, there is a school of thought that traumas "skipped a generation" and that the effects of trauma could be found among survivors' grandchildren. This recent research examined the reciprocal relations of 50 mothers - who are the children of Holocaust child survivors who lost both parents in the Holocaust - and their one-year-old children. Since the research evaluated the effects and transmission of trauma, it was essential to base it on participants who had undergone severe trauma, which is the case when both parents are killed. The research revealed that the traumas of the Holocaust were not passed down from generation to generation nor did they skip a generation. "It was clear to us that our results would be viewed with skepticism," Sagi-Schwartz said. "One specific theory has been accepted for years and it is difficult for people to accept a new theory." In addition to the research conducted in Israel, meta-analytical research was conducted that evaluated the results of all available studies done in this field in the US, Canada, England and Israel. The data from 13 different research projects was complied into one mega-sample, in which the results were similar to the results of this recent study. When the results differed, it was attributed to how the research participants were located. "One of the problems was that in many cases researchers recruited their participants through organizations that aid Holocaust survivors in distress," Sagi-Schwartz said. "This meant that a very specific cross-section of Holocaust survivors participated in the study - those with a high level of distress. This is not representative of the general population of survivors and therefore leads to biased results." He cited some possible reasons that the traumas of the Holocaust were not always transmitted to survivors' children and grandchildren. Sagi-Schwartz said one of the theories was that before the Holocaust many of these people had normal family lives and supportive environments. That enabled them to put their traumas aside and resume normal lives after the war ended and they had children of their own.