Author and stand-up comedian Judy Batalion (2021), a grandchild of survivors and a married mother with young children, introduces herself with the following: “My genes were stamped—even altered, as neuroscientists now suggest—by trauma” (p. 4). But is such a thing possible? Can a person’s experiences be passed down genetically, much the same as the color of their hair or eyes, surfacing in the genetic material of their children and grandchildren? Some researchers have argued that the transmission of trauma from one generation to another is not just possible, but inevitable.

In reality, the descendants of Holocaust survivors and massive historical trauma are not doomed to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or related psychological disorders. Attributions of intergenerational trauma are not only incorrect but potentially harmful as they may encourage survivors’ descendants to believe they have no agency in their lives and are victims of circumstances beyond their control.

Nonetheless, some mental health professionals, researchers, and media continue to repeat a trope that speaks otherwise. The titles of articles in the popular press say it all: “The Science of Suffering: Kids are Inheriting their Parents’ Trauma. Can Science Stop It?,” “Inheriting the Trauma of Genocide: Parents’ Traumatic Experience May Hamper their Offspring’s Ability to Bounce Back from Trauma,” “Genes Under Pressure,” and even “Do Jews Carry Trauma in their Genes?”  Now the focus has begun shifting to transgenerational transmission, referring to the transmission of trauma to the

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grandchildren of survivors, 3Gs (third generation).

In the 21st century, trauma has become a household word, but the term originated with Jean-Martin Charcot, the French founder of modern neurology. (Sigmund Freud based his famous 1886 lectures on trauma on Charcot’s teachings.)  Charcot’s basic concept of trauma is when a person is flooded with an overwhelming number of stimuli that cannot be mastered or avoided. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition defines trauma as a “direct personal experience of an event that involves actual or threatened death or serious injury”; as well as a “threat to one’s physical integrity,” which can occur when “witnessing an event that involves the above experience, learning about unexpected or violent death, serious harm, or threat of death, or injury experienced by a family member or close associate” (American Psychiatric Association, 2014). The “Memories associated with trauma are typically explicit, coherent, and difficult to forget” (American Psychiatric Association, 2014).

The trauma remains in the survivors’ minds, souls, and bodies. The painful experience sways how they function physically, socially, spiritually, and emotionally. Not all survivors of trauma suffer from PTSD, meaning they wouldn’t have any to “pass down,” even if that were possible. Approximately 46% to 55.5% of Holocaust survivors suffer ongoing or sporadic complex PTSD symptoms. Most children of survivors did not personally experience trauma. The exceptions were cases in which traumatized parents are verbally, physically, sexually, or emotionally abusive. Others were traumatized in Eastern European countries under Communism where they experienced antisemitism or had to hide their Jewishness, or undertook traumatic escapes.

For the most part, the American post-war Jewish generation who grew up with Holocaust survivors was not exposed to external stressful conditions that were too overwhelming to adapt to in their everyday life. A traumatic episode itself, in this case, the Holocaust, cannot be transmitted from one person to another, just like a person cannot transmit a joyful encounter to another individual, inducing joyfulness into the other’s personality. One can, however, transmit a story or a worldview that stems from surviving. Therefore, the consequences of being parented by someone who has endured massive collective trauma require a different lens and distinct criteria to better understand the ramifications for subsequent generations.

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How did it come about that second-generation and now third-generation descendants of Holocaust survivors are labeled as having second-generation survivor syndrome or post-traumatic stress disorder? It all started with blaming Holocaust survivor mothers.

In the 1960s, with a few exceptions, most clinicians were clueless about historical collective trauma’s impact on the psyche of survivors’ descendants. Vivian Rakoff, a young psychiatrist, in his Viewpoints article, as well as with his colleague John Sigal, a psychologist at Montreal’s Jewish General Hospital, noticed an upsurge of late adolescents from Holocaust family backgrounds being psychiatrically hospitalized. In their research, they were unfortunately misguided because they were not cognizant of PTSD in survivors and the triggers that evoke symptoms. Nor did they recognize repetition in family dynamics of separation-individuation which was the developmental phase for this population.

Since separation during the Holocaust often meant never seeing a loved one ever again, this stage was emotionally challenging for Holocaust survivor parents. Having their teenage children stake their independence could at times feel like they were pulling away from their parents, even abandoning them. In response, their parents might have overreacted to normal dynamics during this period in their children’s lives, while their children may have acted out because of their parents’ anxiety and fears.

Rakoff et al. (1967) attributed the mental illness of the children of survivors to their mothers, who had survived massive psychic trauma during the Holocaust, claiming that they had been inadequate or negligent in their maternal duties. The rationalization behind this fallacy was that these women were too preoccupied with mourning their losses to be effective mothers. Since most researchers agree that the quality of early caregiving is critically important in preventing mental health problems, survivor mothers were portrayed as incapable of healthy emotional attachment to their children in the wake of the Holocaust.

This pigeonholing of survivor mothers requires some dissecting. If one begins with a premise that the early years for most children of survivors were not tarnished by mothers who were unavailable for the necessary attachment, that they actually had attuned and attentive mothers, then the prognosis of the well-being of the second generation of survivors can be viewed with a different lens.

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Even under ordinary circumstances, almost 50% of new mothers experience the “baby blues,” feelings of sadness and worry during the first two weeks after giving birth. Meanwhile, one out of eight new mothers develop postpartum depression within six months of giving birth. Some of the causes are a biological propensity to depression. Systematic studies have not demonstrated that female Holocaust survivors suffered more than these averages.

Research overlooks the immediate years after liberation. Parents who had survived the Holocaust felt jubilant with each child brought into the world—a life reborn in the face of so many that had been taken. Newborns also brought communal pleasure and rejoicing, influencing the well-being of the newborns. Many of the survivors’ babies born in the post-war years resided in displaced persons (DP) camps in Germany, Austria, and Italy, surrounded by a supportive milieu. The loss of immediate family was replaced by new acquaintances who substituted for the family in this makeshift temporary community. Research shows that anxious mothers who are part of an extended social group tend to become more attentive mothers in their care for their children. Further, the vibrancy in the DP camps was bursting with cultural events such as theater, concerts, choirs, newspapers, celebrating Jewish holidays, schools for children, classes for adults, and training for trades. Amidst the grief and sorrow, there was also joy.

The high rate of births in the DP camps also attests to the sexual drive, libido, and desire for intimacy that spurred the antidote to Thanatos, the death instinct so ever-present during the years of persecution. It also represented faith in the future. For many survivors, mourning losses was delayed until years later. New intimate relationships, newborn children, and a search for a permanent home required their full attention. Of course, exceptions to the norm did exist in these early years. A small percentage of offspring were cared for in institutions because mothers continued to suffer physical ailments such as tuberculosis and the aftereffects of typhus, diphtheria, malnutrition, severe headaches (from being hit over the head), or psychological limitations. Other mothers had escaped from communist countries under life-threatening conditions or were forced to move to several different countries until they found a permanent refuge. Their children, separated from their mothers, experienced their own trauma in early childhood; but for the most part, the offspring of survivors were spared traumatic occurrences.

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If intergenerational transmission of trauma is not a personality syndrome, what are the psychological effects of growing up in the shadow of the Holocaust? The impact on the well-being of second and third-generation Holocaust survivors influences their identity, emotions, behavior, and worldview, as well as in some cases biological and epigenetic factors. However, the degree and particulars vary according to the impact of the massive collective trauma on the mother and father, the developmental experiences of the child, communication about the persecution and losses, other situational factors such as the trauma the child may have personally suffered, or a predisposition to psychological disorders.

The identity of survivors’ children and their children is influenced not only by their perception of their parents and grandparents but also by society’s reaction views of the Holocaust survivors in their midst. There is a continuum among the children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors of embracing a second-generation self, a third-generation self, or hiding that part of the self. An important paradigm shift has occurred between the second and third generations. As the world validated the suffering and resilience of the Holocaust survivors, the central dynamic has been the transformation of identity from shame to pride in the descendants.

The identity of Holocaust survivors’ descendants also encompasses how they feel about being Jewish and how it manifests itself behaviorally. Psychologist Ingrid Tauber’s 1980 California School of Professional Psychology doctoral dissertation explains how the social milieu of growing up with many children of survivors, along with a few or no others, formed one’s self-esteem and identity as a second-generation member. What also differentiates descendants of Holocaust survivors from their peers is how, growing up, they felt different, at times leading to a sense of not belonging. Some of these emotions were triggered by living with parents or grandparents who did not speak English or spoke with an accent and did not know American culture of sports, humor, dress codes, or how to celebrate national holidays.

A distinct emotion for this population is mourning not the direct loss of someone they loved but the memory of someone they feel they have lived with without ever having known that person (Fogelman, 1988). Many children of survivors are named after a person who was killed in the Holocaust. Some grew up hearing that they look like an aunt or grandmother or have a cantorial voice like a grandfather. Some are replacement children in their families.

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Mourning has its distinct phases from “shock” of finding out about the persecution and murder of ancestors. This is followed by a period of “denial,” not being eager to find out details of the deaths of relatives or the suffering of their parents and grandparents. A “transforming moment” can shift an individual from denial to the phase of “confrontation.”  The denial is disrupted when a parent gets ill or has died, watching a movie, experiencing an anti-Semitic incident, or some other experience of fear of annihilation. One becomes immersed in searching their family history, particularly the lives of those who were murdered. Learning the depths of the barbarism that family members experienced evokes the phase of “emotions,” such as survivor’s guilt, anger, rage, helplessness, wanting to undo the pain of the parents and grandparents, grief, and personally identifying with the victimization.

Tragically, those who remain in the emotional phase of mourning are challenged with “transposition,” coined by psychoanalyst Judith Kestenberg (1989), which is a dual existence of “living in the present and in the past” (p. 70). This time tunnel, sometimes serving as a replacement for mourning, can be subtle and unconscious. For example, people who put themselves in a dangerous situation in order to survive. To overcome these emotions, one can channel them in constructive ways that express a “search for meaning.”  This final phase in the mourning process connects us with the life that was destroyed and can take many forms. Some choose to raise consciousness about the Holocaust, racism, genocide, and human rights through political action, education, or the visual and performing arts. Others want to revive Jewish culture and traditions that were destroyed, such as the Yiddish language and theater, studying Jewish religious texts and education. Becoming aware of the parents’ and grandparents’ suffering increases a heightened sense of empathy, which influences many to pursue various jobs in the helping professions. It is through the process of mourning that descendants of survivors come to identify with those aspects of the deceased that are positive and life-affirming rather than identifying with images of the deceased as victims or heroes.

The values and worldviews that the descendants of Holocaust survivors embrace and act upon are influenced by their parents and grandparents. Those who heard that the world is a hostile place, no one outside of the immediate family can be trusted, choosing an occupation that can be transferred anywhere, preparing for a catastrophe, and keeping a low profile as a Jew behave differ-

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ently from those who learned a more positive perspective of the world. When survivors taught their children more life-affirming worldviews, such as there are good people in the world, to be proud Jews, and to value independence and competence, they became less fearful to trust and interact with people outside of their families.

As for the third generation of survivors, they take “great pride in being the scion for the family that survived the Holocaust” (Yoslow, 2007). Mark Yoslow’s (2007) study shows that the grandchildren of survivors have a deep affection for humanity, a transformation of post-Holocaust trauma, in which the emotional effects of the Holocaust are diminished by letting go, thus increasing the quest for meaning in one’s life and concern for social issues. A 1989 Montreal survey by John Sigal and Morton Weinfeld found that 3Gs function better than similar groups whose grandparents came to Montreal before World War II. They tend to be more affectionate, happy, in good moods, friendly, self-confident, peaceful, and easygoing. Another significant finding by New York psychologist Elissa Ganz in her Adelphi University 2002 doctoral dissertation is that, as a group, grandchildren of survivors are higher achievers than their peers, and 3Gs, like 2Gs, are twice as likely to choose an occupation in the helping professions.

The Role of Biology and Neurology: Curse and Legacy

Rachel Yehuda (July 1, 2022), a leading researcher on cortisol levels and epigenetics in generations of traumatized populations, recently concluded that “alterations in stress-related genes, particularly those reflected in offspring of traumatized parents, are not necessarily markers of vulnerability or whether they may reflect a mechanism through which offspring become better equipped to cope with adversity.”  She also found that “Some of these stress-related and intergenerational changes may be reversible” (July 1, 2022). As mental deficiencies started being examined through biology and neurology in the 1990s, Yehuda—a neuroscientist and director of the Center for Psychedelic Psychotherapy and Trauma Research at Mount Sinai—pioneered the study of the Holocaust’s impact on the survivors’ and their children’s cortisol levels, a steroid hormone that helps regulate the nervous and immune system’s response to extreme stress. Yehuda and her colleagues’ (2008) studies found low cortisol levels in children of survivors whose mothers suffered from chronic PTSD, and who had been exposed to traumatic stress or had reported significant stress associated with their upbringing.

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In the 2010s, Yehuda spearheaded epigenetic research, the study of how behaviors, environmental cues, and stressors can cause changes that impact the way genes function. She found that trauma is transmitted from one generation to the next through a mechanism that controls a stress gene linked to PTSD—known as FKBP5—that affects depression, mood, and anxiety disorder. This gene’s expression of epigenetic changes in survivors who were exposed to trauma is also found in their children’s genes.

A leading expert in posttraumatic stress disorder at Yale University Medical School, John Krystal, son of the late psychoanalyst and Auschwitz survivor Henry Krystal, understands this anomaly to mean that the children of Holocaust survivors “may inherit traits that promote resilience as well as vulnerability” (John Krystal, personal communication). He goes on to explain that “it may help to avoid equating changes in cortisol or FKB5 regulation as directly causing risk. Reductions in cortisol are indeed observed more frequently in PTSD than in depression or in healthy people. We do not know whether cortisol reduction in children of survivors convey risk or protection” (John Krystal, personal communication). For Krystal, these findings point to the possibility of some transgenerational transmission of the risk and resilience mechanism, but the significance and meaning of the findings for children of survivors and other descendants of traumatized groups are unclear.

Descendants of Holocaust survivors are much more than their genes. Our biology, and the biology of those who have come before us, is not our destiny.

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References:

  • American Psychiatric Association (2014). Online assessment measures.
  • Batalion, Judy (2021). The Light of days: The untold story of women resistance fighters in Hitler’s ghettos. William Morrow.
  • Fogelman, Eva (1988). Therapeutic Alternatives for Holocaust Survivors and Second Generation. In R. Braham (Ed.), The Psychological Perspectives of the Holocaust and of its Aftermath. Columbia University Press, 79-108.
  • Kestenberg, Judith (1989). Transposition revisited: Clinical, therapeutic, and developmental considerations. In Paul Marcus & Alan Rosenberg (Eds.), Healing Their Wounds: Psychotherapy with Holocaust Survivors and Their Families.
  • Rakoff, Vivian; Sigal, John; & Epstein, Norman (1967). Children and parents of concentration camp survivors. Canada’s Mental Health, 14, 24-26.
  • Yehuda, Rachel; Bell, Amanda; Bierer, Linda M; & Schmeidler, James (2008). Maternal, not paternal PTSD, is related to increased risk for PTSD in offspring of Holocaust survivors. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 42(13), 1104-1111.
  • Yehuda, Rachel (July 1, 2022). Trauma in the family tree. Scientific American, 327(1), 50-55.
  • Yoslow, Mark (2007). The pride and price of remembrance: An empirical view of transgenerational post-Holocaust trauma and associated transpersonal elements in the third generation, doctoral.

Authors:

Eva Fogelman

Eva Fogelman, PhD, is a social psychologist, a psychotherapist in private practice in New York, a filmmaker, and the author of the award-winning Conscience and Courage: Rescuers of Jews During the Holocaust (1995). She was Co-Founder and Co-Director of Psychotherapy with Generations of the Holocaust and Related Traumas, TIMH. She was the Founding Director of the Jewish Foundation for Christian Rescuers, ADL (originally the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous). She is currently the Co-Director of Child Development Research. She moderates the podcast The Blue Card Stories of the Holocaust: Overcoming Historical Traumas and a Zoom program, “Transforming Moments: Second Generation of Holocaust Survivors,” for the Museum of Jewish Heritage. She may be contacted at .

How to Cite This:

Fogelman, E. (2023). Resilience in descendants of holocaust survivors. Clio’s Psyche, 29(2), 215-223.

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