The Effects of the Holocaust on the Children of Survivors

Close-up of a memorial plaque
Close-up of a memorial plaque. Purestock/Getty Images

Being married to the son of two Holocaust survivors, I have a front row view of the effects of the Holocaust on the children of survivors.

Evidence shows that the children of Holocaust survivors, referred to as the Second Generation, can be deeply affected both negatively and positively -- by the horrific events their parents experienced. The intergenerational transmission of trauma is so strong that Holocaust-related influences can even be seen in the Third Generation, children of the children of survivors.

We are all born into some story, with its particular background scenery, that affects our physical, emotional, social and spiritual growth. In the case of children of Holocaust survivors, the background story tends to be either a stifled mystery or overflowing with traumatic information. In the first case, the child may feel drained and in the second case overwhelmed.

Either way, a child whose background story includes the Holocaust may experience some difficulty in their development. At the same time, the child may gain from their parents experience some helpful coping skills. Being married to the son of two Holocaust survivors, I have a front row view of the effects of the Holocaust on the children of survivors.

Evidence shows that the children of Holocaust survivors, referred to as the Second Generation, can be deeply affected - both negatively and positively -- by the horrific events their parents experienced.

The intergenerational transmission of trauma is so strong that Holocaust-related influences can even be seen in the Third Generation, children of the children of survivors.

We are all born into some story, with its particular background scenery, that affects our physical, emotional, social and spiritual growth.

In the case of children of Holocaust survivors, the background story tends to be either a stifled mystery or overflowing with traumatic information. In the first case, the child may feel drained and in the second case overwhelmed.

Either way, a child whose background story includes the Holocaust may experience some difficulty in their development. At the same time, the child may gain from their parents experience some helpful coping skills.

According to studies, the long-term effects of the Holocaust on the children of survivors suggest a "psychological profile." Their parents suffering may have affected their upbringing, personal relationships, and perspective on life. Eva Fogelman, a psychologist who treats Holocaust survivors and their children, suggests a second generation 'complex' characterized by processes that affect identity, self-esteem, interpersonal interactions and worldview.

Psychological Vulnerability

Literature suggests that after the war many survivors quickly entered into loveless marriages in their desire to rebuild their family life as quickly as possible. And these survivors remained married even though the marriages may have lacked emotional intimacy. Children of these types of marriages may not have been given the nurturance needed to develop positive self-images.



Survivor-parents have also shown a tendency to be over-involved in their children's lives, even to the point of suffocation. Some researchers suggested that the reason for this over-involvement is the survivors feeling that their children exist to replace what was so traumatically lost. This over-involvement may exhibit itself in feeling overly sensitive and anxious about their children's behavior, forcing their children to fulfill certain roles or pushing their children to be high achievers.

Similarly, many survivor-parents were over-protective of their children, and they transmitted their distrust of the external environment to their children. Consequently, some Second Gens have found it difficult to become autonomous and to trust people outside their family.

Another possible characteristic of Second Gens is difficulty with psychological separation-individuation from their parents.

Often in families of survivors, "separation" becomes associated with death. A child who does manage to separate may be seen as betraying or abandoning the family. And anyone who encourages a child to separate may be seen as a threat or even a persecutor.

A higher frequency of separation anxiety and guilt was found in children of survivors than in other children. It follows that many children of survivors have an intense need to act as protectors of their parents.

Secondary Traumatization

Some survivors did not talk to their children about their Holocaust experiences. These Second Gens were raised in homes of hidden mystery. This silence contributed to a culture of repression within these families.

Other survivors talked a great deal to their children about their Holocaust experiences. In some cases, the talk was too much, too soon, or too often.

In both cases, secondary traumatization may have occurred in Second Gens as a result of exposure to their traumatized parents. According to the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress, children of Holocaust survivors may be at higher risk for psychiatric symptoms including depression, anxiety and PTSD (Posttraumatic Stress Disorder) due to this secondary traumatization.

There are four main types of PTSD symptoms, and a diagnosis of PTSD requires the presence of all four types of symptoms:

  • re-experiencing the trauma (flashbacks, nightmares, intrusive memories, exaggerated emotional and physical reactions to things reminiscent of the trauma)
  • emotional numbing
  • avoidance of things reminiscent of the trauma
  • increased arousal (irritability, hypervigilance, exaggerated startle response, difficulty sleeping).

Resilience

While trauma can be transmitted across the generations, so can resilience. Resilient traits - such as adaptability, initiative, and tenacity - that enabled survivor-parents to survive the Holocaust may have been passed on to their children.


In addition, studies have shown that Holocaust survivors and their children have a tendency to be task-oriented and hard workers.

They also know how to actively cope with and adapt to challenges. Strong family values is another positive characteristic displayed by many survivors and their children.

As a group, the survivor and children of survivor community have a tribal character in that membership in the group is based on shared injuries. Within this community, there is polarization. One the one hand, there is shame over being a victim, fear of being stigmatized, and the need to keep defense mechanisms on active alert. On the other hand, there is a need for understanding and recognition. The Second Generation According to studies, the long-term effects of the Holocaust on the children of survivors suggest a "psychological profile." Their parents suffering may have affected their upbringing, personal relationships, and perspective on life. Eva Fogelman, a psychologist who treats Holocaust survivors and their children, suggests a second generation 'complex' characterized by processes that affect identity, self-esteem, interpersonal interactions and worldview.
 

Psychological Vulnerability

Literature suggests that after the war many survivors quickly entered into loveless marriages in their desire to rebuild their family life as quickly as possible. And these survivors remained married even though the marriages may have lacked emotional intimacy. Children of these types of marriages may not have been given the nurturance needed to develop positive self-images.

Survivor-parents have also shown a tendency to be over-involved in their children's lives, even to the point of suffocation. Some researchers suggested that the reason for this over-involvement is the survivors feeling that their children exist to replace what was so traumatically lost. This over-involvement may exhibit itself in feeling overly sensitive and anxious about their children's behavior, forcing their children to fulfill certain roles or pushing their children to be high achievers.

Similarly, many survivor-parents were over-protective of their children, and they transmitted their distrust of the external environment to their children. Consequently, some Second Gens have found it difficult to become autonomous and to trust people outside their family.

Another possible characteristic of Second Gens is difficulty with psychological separation-individuation from their parents. Often in families of survivors, "separation" becomes associated with death. A child who does manage to separate may be seen as betraying or abandoning the family. And anyone who encourages a child to separate may be seen as a threat or even a persecutor.

A higher frequency of separation anxiety and guilt was found in children of survivors than in other children. It follows that many children of survivors have an intense need to act as protectors of their parents.

Secondary Traumatization

Some survivors did not talk to their children about their Holocaust experiences. These Second Gens were raised in homes of hidden mystery. This silence contributed to a culture of repression within these families.

Other survivors talked a great deal to their children about their Holocaust experiences. In some cases, the talk was too much, too soon, or too often.

In both cases, secondary traumatization may have occurred in Second Gens as a result of exposure to their traumatized parents. According to the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress, children of Holocaust survivors may be at higher risk for psychiatric symptoms including depression, anxiety and PTSD (Posttraumatic Stress Disorder) due to this secondary traumatization.

There are four main types of PTSD symptoms, and a diagnosis of PTSD requires the presence of all four types of symptoms:

  • re-experiencing the trauma (flashbacks, nightmares, intrusive memories, exaggerated emotional and physical reactions to things reminiscent of the trauma)
  • emotional numbing
  • avoidance of things reminiscent of the trauma
  • increased arousal (irritability, hypervigilance, exaggerated startle response, difficulty sleeping).

Resilience

While trauma can be transmitted across the generations, so can resilience. Resilient traits - such as adaptability, initiative, and tenacity - that enabled survivor-parents to survive the Holocaust may have been passed on to their children.

In addition, studies have shown that Holocaust survivors and their children have a tendency to be task-oriented and hard workers. They also know how to actively cope with and adapt to challenges. Strong family values is another positive characteristic displayed by many survivors and their children.

As a group, the survivor and children of survivor community have a tribal character in that membership in the group is based on shared injuries. Within this community, there is polarization. One the one hand, there is shame over being a victim, fear of being stigmatized, and the need to keep defense mechanisms on active alert. On the other hand, there is a need for understanding and recognition.

Little research has been done on the effects of the Holocaust on the Third Generation. Publications about the effects of the Holocaust on the families of survivors peaked between 1980 and 1990 and then declined. Perhaps as the Third Generation matures, they will initiate a new phase of study and writing.

Even without the research, it is clear that the Holocaust plays an important psychological role in the identity of Third Gens.

One noticeable attribute of this third generation is the close bond they have with their grandparents. According to the Eva Fogelman, "a very interesting psychological trend is that the third generation is a lot closer to their grandparents and that it's a lot easier for grandparents to communicate with this generation than it was for them to communicate with the second generation."

Given the less intense relationship with their grandchildren than with their children, many survivors have found it easier to share their experiences with the Third Generation than with the Second. In addition, by the time the grandchildren were old enough to understand, it was easier for the survivors to speak.

The Third Gens are the ones who will be alive when all the survivors have passed on when remembering the Holocaust becomes a new challenge. As the “last link” to the survivors, the Third Generation will be the one with the mandate to continue to tell the stories.

Some Third Gens are getting to the age where they are having their own children. Thus, some Second Gens are now becoming grandparents, becoming the grandparents they never had. By living what they were not able to experience themselves, a broken circle is being mended and closed.

With the arrival of the fourth generation, once again the Jewish family is becoming whole. The ghastly wounds suffered by Holocaust survivors and the scars worn by their children and even their grandchildren seem to be finally healing with the Fourth Generation. Third and Fourth Generation Little research has been done on the effects of the Holocaust on the Third Generation. Publications about the effects of the Holocaust on the families of survivors peaked between 1980 and 1990 and then declined. Perhaps as the Third Generation matures, they will initiate a new phase of study and writing.

Even without the research, it is clear that the Holocaust plays an important psychological role in the identity of Third Gens.

One noticeable attribute of this third generation is the close bond they have with their grandparents. According to the Eva Fogelman, "a very interesting psychological trend is that the third generation is a lot closer to their grandparents and that it's a lot easier for grandparents to communicate with this generation than it was for them to communicate with the second generation."

Given the less intense relationship with their grandchildren than with their children, many survivors have found it easier to share their experiences with the Third Generation than with the Second. In addition, by the time the grandchildren were old enough to understand, it was easier for the survivors to speak.

The Third Gens are the ones who will be alive when all the survivors have passed on when remembering the Holocaust becomes a new challenge. As the last link to the survivors, the Third Generation will be the one with the mandate to continue to tell the stories.

Some Third Gens are getting to the age where they are having their own children. Thus, some Second Gens are now becoming grandparents, becoming the grandparents they never had. By living what they were not able to experience themselves, a broken circle is being mended and closed.

With the arrival of the fourth generation, once again the Jewish family is becoming whole. The ghastly wounds suffered by Holocaust survivors and the scars worn by their children and even their grandchildren seem to be finally healing with the Fourth Generation.