‘Male Holocaust survivors have longer life expectancy’

U. of Haifa, Leiden U. study finds the drive to survive lead to longer life expectancy than those who did not suffer during the Nazi era.

Holocaust survivors read Torah at the Kotel 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Baz Ratner)
Holocaust survivors read Torah at the Kotel 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Baz Ratner)
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 War II.
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.
It 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 Jerusalem.
“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 lifespans.
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 Holocaust.
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.
“The 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,” concluded Sagi-Schwartz.