Children of Holocaust survivors grew up with adults possessed of unimaginable courage and determination. Yet many of them carry with them the scars of the past
“Similar to radioactive waste the emotional trauma cannot be seen or detected. It remains hidden in the dark abyss of the unconscious with its toxic and hazardous influence threatening the health of humans for hundreds of years” writes Dr. Natan Kellerman
o close to greatness yet burned at times by the pain the second generation still lives under a cloud of fear and foreboding:
“I was glad that I was a chubby kid because I knew the skinny kids would die first if the food ran out.”
“When I chose my wife I wanted someone who I felt would be able to run away from the Nazis when the time came someone who was strong physically and emotionally who could shoulder the burden of caring for children in a difficult time.”
“Any change in the political world almost anything in the news will have me frightened and fearing for my children’s safety.”
Chilling words that describe trauma stress perhaps even a certain paranoia about the world. The composers of these sentences are clearly fearful — of the unknown of forces beyond their control. They are it seems constantly living and reliving a horrific episode one that occupies their thoughts and pulls at their hearts.
These expressions could have easily been spoken by Holocaust survivors but they were not. These are the thoughts and fears of children of Holocaust survivors men and women who did not live through the war and may have been born decades after its end. Many of these second-generation survivors as they are called grew up in affluent homes have achieved academic or financial success and lead seemingly normal productive lives.
And yet something gnaws at them. It is the feeling as one second-generation adult explained that things are just on the verge of chaos that in the next moment the world will erupt again in a spasm of war and violence and that they will be on the run — like their fathers and mothers before them.
Who are these children of survivors and what are their particular characteristics? Is it fair to single them out as a group or are they really just like everyone else? Is it possible that in the words of one doctor their parents’ headache has become their own?
Yes and No
Dr. Irit Felsen a licensed clinical psychologist with a private practice in New Jersey has dedicated her life to understanding post-traumatic stress disorder and the effects of the Second World War and the Holocaust on the children of survivors.
The daughter of two survivors Dr. Felsen runs a monthly discussion group for second-generation children in Brooklyn organized by the Bikur Cholim Chesed Organization.
Her experience has led her to conclude that some of the children of survivors have internalized the anxieties of their parents but also have been given an extra push to succeed.
“Some of the offspring of Holocaust survivors have been observed to have lower self-perceptions of independence and self-sufficiency but higher achievement motivation and higher self-criticism than non-Holocaust related peers” says Dr. Felsen who is also an adjunct professor of psychology at Yeshiva University. “Some studies of children of survivors show elevated levels of anxiety and depression however these remain within the ‘normative–high range ’ reflecting an absence of serious psychopathology.” Clinical interviews with children of survivors often include descriptions of nightmares deep-seated anxiety and echoes of their parents’ trauma in their own lives.
On the flip side although “second gens” may be more susceptible to certain psychological difficulties Felsen notes that they also display a generally greater compassion and empathy for humanity. Her data indicates that many second gens have chosen careers in the social services.
Dr. Natan Kellerman an Israel psychologist and one of the founders of Amcha (an Israeli support organization for Holocaust survivors) addresses the difficulty of defining the maladies of the second generation in his book Holocaust Trauma; Psychological effects and Treatment.
“How does transmission of trauma occur? How can trauma be transmitted from one generation to another? At first glance the concept of transmission is difficult to grasp. It is as if saying that someone’s headache is caused by the fact that his father was hit on his head by a stone some 50 years ago.”
Indeed Kellerman confirms the headache is very real. He uses the analogy of a nuclear bomb to make his point.
“Like a nuclear bomb that disperses its radioactive fallout in distant places even after a cruel explosion any major psychological trauma continues to contaminate those who were exposed… in the first second and subsequent generations. Similar to radioactive waste the emotional trauma cannot be seen or detected. It remains hidden in the dark abyss of the unconscious with its toxic and hazardous influence threatening the health of humans for hundreds of years.”
Unlike Kellerman’s hidden influences some markers for trauma can in fact be detected and measured. Researchers now study how external or environmental factors can actually change the cells that send messages to the DNA. “Epigenetics” is the scientific theory that offspring can inherit the altered DNA of parents that was modified by events or trauma that the parent experienced.
In 2000 Dr. Rachel Yehuda and her associates reported in the American Journal of Psychiatry that low cortisol levels (the stress hormone that helps the body return to normal after trauma which can plummet when the stress response is overactive) in adult offspring of Holocaust survivors appeared to be a factor in a greater risk for PTSD. In fact comparable results were found in studies of cortisol level in post 9/11 subjects.
More recent studies by Dr. Yehuda — who is a professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at Mount Sinai School of Medicine — found the same lower levels of cortisol in descendants of Holocaust survivors. Yehuda explains that “this adaptation makes sense: Reducing enzyme activity keeps more free cortisol in the body which allows the liver and kidneys to maximize stores of glucose and metabolic fuels — an optimal response to prolonged starvation and other threats.”
Epigenetic changes Yehuda points out “often serve to biologically prepare offspring for an environment similar to that of the parents.” Ironically for post-Holocaust offspring although the environment is one of plenty the body continues to assume stress and food deprivation and releases these hormones. This could then make children of survivors who now enjoy an abundance of food possibly more likely to suffer from obesity diabetes heart disease and even PTSD.
Dr. Yehuda stresses that the study of epigenetics in this area is just beginning and these recoded molecular changes cannot be definitively linked to greater risks or benefits.
It is beyond doubt however that children of Holocaust survivors are the recipients of varying degrees of emotional and even physiological inheritance.
Talk It Out
Perhaps that’s why they come to a monthly discussion group, officially called, “Survivor Families; Our Parents, Ourselves, Our Changing Lives,” that meets in the century-old Boro Park YMHA. Funded by a grant from the Jewish Federation’s Center for Advancing Holocaust Survivor Care, the goal of the group, which has been meeting since May — is to aid the adult children of the survivors by giving them insight into their own and their parents’ lives.
The medium-sized room is filled with 60 to 70 chairs set up in a semicircle, creating an informal mood. In the back corner there is a table with coffee, pastries, and drinks. As the hour nears, men and women of all ages start trickling in. They are religious and not, younger and older, some attired in business suits and others in post-work out sneakers.
There is a chorus of warm hellos and greetings as Dr. Felsen, the group’s facilitator, enters with her briefcase and material in hand. In addition to her private practice in New Jersey, Dr. Felsen is a member of the Yale University Trauma Study group and contributes to its Genocide Studies Program.
Today’s topic of discussion is the particular strengths of children of Holocaust survivors, along with the known challenges. In Dr. Felsen’s words, the “keen sense of the precarious and fragile nature of life, associated with elevated anxiety… is also associated with a unique appreciation of the preciousness of life….” What is called “post-traumatic growth,” or a capacity to appreciate life, she says, has also been shown by research to coexist with post-traumatic symptoms and in fact, has been found to correlate with them.
Today, Dr. Felsen shows a clip of a Holocaust-themed movie in which a clearly warm and loving father suddenly lashes out at his young son for throwing out a half-eaten apple. “That we could have lived on in the camps!” he says, his eyes bulging and his son bewildered.
Everyone in the room is silent as the sadness of this scene sinks in. There is a murmur of recognition, and some express how familiar it feels — both the inordinate concern over wasted food and the unpredictable and sudden change of mood based on a triggered memory.
That unpredictability, along with the guilt of shouldering a parent’s difficult past, often stripped children of survivors of their own emotions. Gathered in the YMHA decades later, many admit that they still have trouble accessing and expressing their feelings.
Sheila Cohen, a speech therapist who grew up in New York, says that she avoided complaining about any difficulty, lest her survivor father respond: “You call that suffering? Try standing in the snow without shoes for hours.”
Chaya Klein, a child of Holocaust survivors who grew up in the Midwest, echoes Cohen’s feelings. “My mother cared for us but I always felt that they were very fearful of not having enough so I never asked them to buy me anything,” she explains. “When I got married, my husband couldn’t understand how I would worry if I spent an extra ten dollars on a dress and would consider returning it several times over.”
Klein says that she had great admiration for her mother, who she describes as caring deeply about others, “but there were moments when she seemed to be in a distant place, which could be frightening.”
Miriam remembers the emotional struggles of her mother, who was very young when the war broke out and spent the duration of the war years in an orphanage. Her father, who was also a survivor, protected her mother and held the family together. In fact, he built a successful business, starting out with a candy stand and creating an empire.
But much as her father tried to heal, the scars ran deep. Miriam’s eldest brother went to school on the West Coast and “never came back.” She and her sister remained close to their parents, working in the family business. Miriam was divorced and married a second time. She admitted that in her first marriage, her husband complained that she was remote and unable to connect emotionally.
Dr. Felsen explains that survivors and their children became very good at “steeling,” the capacity to work hard and postpone gratification and ignore discomfort and difficulty, despite physical and psychological distress. That skill was necessary for survivors to withstand the horrors of the Holocaust and succeed in building entirely new lives. Those same skills were transferred to the children of survivors, who never experienced the horrors of war.
Macabre Club When they describe their childhoods, many second-generation adults say they feel as though their families belonged to an exclusive “club” with its own unique language, experiences, and vernacular that marked them as different from the average American.
Dr. Miriam Schnell is a popular pediatrician in the New York area and the daughter of two survivor parents. Her mother, the sole survivor of her family, was separated from her mother and siblings when they were taken from Lodz to Bergen Belsen.
Miriam’s father, who was also from Lodz, survived Auschwitz. He was 20 years old when the war ended and met Miriam’s mother in Bergen Belsen. They married and Miriam’s older sister was born there. A distant cousin sponsored them and brought them to Chicago.
“We moved into their attic, my mother told me, on a Thursday night and my father went to work at their upholstery factory on Monday morning,” she relates. “He didn’t speak a word of English but learned to hold the nails in his mouth and bang them into the wood frames. He never spoke of his family or his experiences in the war. But he suffered from nightmares and night terror all his life.”
But the screams were never explained to little Miriam. Her mother spoke of her childhood and her family, but only of the good years. “It wasn‘t until she was much older, after my father died, that she spoke of experiences during the war.”
Still, Miriam didn’t feel that she was living a freakish or dysfunctional childhood, primarily because all the people in her Chicago community were children of survivors as well. “No one had grandparents, and aunts and uncles or cousins were a rarity. Our parents would meet with other survivors on Shabbos or on a Sunday afternoon and they would speak in Yiddish as we children played.”
All the children in that little group experienced the same peculiarities. Everyone’s parents made them call when they reached their friends’ houses and made them detail when they would return home. “It wasn‘t until I went to high school and met people who had been born in America that I realized that mine was not a typical upbringing.”
For Miriam’s sister, realization hit hard when she went to college, and someone asked her why she hadn’t put up pictures of her grandparents or extended family. “When I heard that, I realized just how different my childhood was from my peers whose parents were born here,” Miriam says. “There were no pictures or candlesticks or Kiddush cups from grandparents, no remembrances of an earlier time and place.”
That package of experiences made Miriam feel as though she wanted to protect her parents from any further hardship, a desire that fueled her own drive to succeed. “I very much wanted to succeed in school and in my career because I knew it was so important to them.”
Miriam’s description resonates for Sara Gross of Boro Park, a child of survivors now in her 60s.
“Other survivors were our family and our friends,” Sara says. “I would hear them talk about the ‘lagers’ and I asked what it meant. My mother told me it was about life in the ‘camp.’ I didn’t know what it really meant but I knew it was a bad thing. When I was older, and [my mother] asked if I wanted to go to camp, I could not understand why she would even suggest it.”
Dr. Khaya Eisenberg, the project coordinator for the support group, said that understanding the various issues that second gens face was the motivation for establishing the group. “When adult children of Holocaust survivors learn about common patterns among many survivor families, they can develop a different understanding of their experiences and the relationships they grew up with,” Eisenberg says. “Then they have the opportunity to learn new ways of responding in the present — as caregivers for their aging survivor parents, as siblings, and as the resilient adults they are. Our aim with the discussion series is to create a sense of social support and to equip them with new perspectives that create the possibility of positive change.”
For Adele, a Boro Park resident who has been attending the meetings since they started in May, the group’s lessons are illuminating.
“I explained to my brother that when I go to visit my parents, I am in the same place as I was as a child,” she says. “My father was very critical and never liked what I wore or how I looked. Dr. Felsen has really helped me to understand my parents. They really wanted to do everything for us but now I can see the difficulties I had with them were not about me.”
Moshe, who lives in Flatbush, is attending the meeting for the second time but has found it comforting that so many of his personal challenges seem to be shared by others.
“This has been a very difficult period,” he adds, “as my brother and then six months later, my father passed on, and my mother who lives alone with an aide has really deteriorated both mentally and physically. Though I haven’t really gotten to know other people in the audience, I feel like we have the same issues.”
Transfer of Trauma
Dr. David Pelcovitz, an internationally renowned expert in PTSD, has described the children of survivors as possessing the emotional scars without the actual wounds that their parents suffered.
This idea is close to the heart of Dr. Norman Blumenthal, a clinical psychologist with a private practice in Cedarhurst, New York, who told how his mother lived through seven concentration camps. He said it was no coincidence that his choice of profession, as well as his PhD dissertation topic, was related to second-generation survivors.
“I originally chose adoption for my PhD dissertation, then suddenly asked myself why I had chosen that subject. I’m not adopted. On the other hand, children of survivors have similar issues. There are no grandparents, aunts, uncles. You have no picture of them.Your parents grew up in a foreign country and speak a language you really don’t understand. It’s like you are artificially transplanted to this country.”
Dr. Blumenthal said it took him quite a while to tell his mother about his dissertation topic. When he did, she replied: “I knew I was damaged, but my children also? That is intolerable.”
Dr. Blumenthal stresses that, statistically speaking, children of survivors do not have a higher incidence of severe mental or emotional issues than the general population. However, there is something called “anniversary syndrome” which takes place when offspring suffer a trauma at an age similar to that of the parent. If there is a severe mental breakdown, Dr. Blumenthal said, 50 to 75 percent are hospitalized at the age at which their parent was deported or incarcerated.
“One of the patients had suffered a mental breakdown after being sent to jail in spite of repeated warnings for drug abuse, He was 19 years old at the time, the same age his father had been during the Holocaust when his hiding place was disclosed by a gentile neighbor and he was sent to a concentration camp.”
What factors does Dr. Blumenthal pinpoint in the multigenerational transfer of trauma?
“The typical American-born child, whose parent describes his school, his childhood — even if it’s not exactly the same, can still identify with it. But what if his parents’ climactic event is standing before Dr. Mengele or jumping off a cattle car or deportation to Auschwitz? The child searches his data bank and has no experience in Flatbush that replicates it.
“Children want to know and connect with their parents. A healthier child may read all the Holocaust literature or become involved in a movement — Soviet Jewry, Zionism — or become preoccupied with the topic. I wrote a dissertation. Or they may go back and visit the concentration camps to attempt to understand their parent. They may relive their parents’ experience to resolve this schism and attempt to connect to their parents. In a more fragile subset, this may cause neuropsychological trauma.”
Parents as Heroes
On the anniversary of the day that Dr. Blumenthal’s mother was liberated from Bergen-Belsen, she was interviewed by the BBC. Several weeks later, when asked to view a film about the British liberation of the concentration camp, she cried because the film couldn’t capture the real experience. “You learn that there are impactful experiences,” he says, “and there’s no way to connect. You can’t touch it.”
But the survivor, and their children, do feel it, sometimes in odd ways.
“When I was in college I was at someone’s home and they served a vegetable soup that I didn’t recognize,” Dr. Blumenthal explains. “The hostess said it was turnip and I automatically spit it out. We didn’t eat turnips in our house. In Europe that was considered animal food and that’s what they served the inmates in the camps. If the kapo wanted to do something nice for you, he would put a little piece of turnip in the ‘soup.’ Eating it would have been a betrayal to my mother.”
With age and maturity, however, Dr. Blumenthal learned to see his upbringing as a gift.
“On vacation in college, I saw these small-town New England high school students. Their lives seemed so different from mine. I was consumed with jealousy. Today I wouldn’t be jealous. We are unique. Statistically, I should not exist at all, let alone be a father and even a grandfather, so I feel that I must make a contribution to humanity. As a young person, I may have viewed this perspective as damaged, almost a pathology — but now I feel truly blessed.”
In fact, second-generation children express a deep admiration for their parents, despite the emotional pain they’ve bequeathed.
Dovid Cohen, who described choosing a wife who could shoulder the burden of running away at a moment’s notice, says he regards his parents as his heroes.
“There was a lot of silence in my family,” he says. “I didn’t realize until I was almost an adult what really happened to them. The conversation in my house was filled with stories about the Holocaust, of the successful billionaire who survived the camps, or the scientist or rabbi who clawed his way back to life. The sense always was: Isn’t it amazing that so many made it?”
This gave him the feeling, he says, that his parents were strong beyond measure, not only for what they went through during the war, but also after it. “There is everything good about them from this aspect, and I learned many positive qualities by watching them live,” Dovid says. “I feel utterly privileged to be their son.”
The second-generation survivors have now birthed another generation. What is the continued legacy of the Holocaust?
The impact on the third generation seems to be strongly affected by their relationship and exposure to the survivor grandparents. Often older grandchildren show a much greater identification with their grandparents’ and parents’ experience. For instance, Sara Gross’s daughter said that she was very conscious of the deprivation that her grandparents had suffered. She had heard her grandmother cry over her loss and therefore avoided complaining about any difficulty in her own life.
“I felt that I had to succeed, and in school I knew it was important that I be class valedictorian. We lived in close proximity to my grandparents. I tried not to ask my parents for anything, to manage on my own, since everyone had had such a difficult life.”
She also learned about the importance of names. “They were almost, I might use the word obsessed, with using names for those they lost,” she says. “I couldn’t understand how my husband’s family just casually chose a name for a new baby because they liked the sound or the meaning. It bothered me that it was such a waste of an opportunity to remember someone who was gone and had no one to remember them.”
Leah Stein’s daughter, now a wife and mother, also described growing up in a home in which everything was carefully measured.
“My mother would never fargin herself anything special. So I thought that was how everyone views things. When I got married, my husband couldn’t understand why I wouldn’t buy something I liked, even if it was a few dollars more than I wanted to spend.”
As a child, Shoshana felt protected against starvation by her chubbiness. In retrospect, she feels that she modeled her relationship with her mother on her mother’s relationship with her grandmother. “They were best friends and my mother is my best friend. I felt very cherished by my parents and grandparents. I felt that I was a miracle they never really believed could happen and that gave me a very strong sense of self-worth — even if it carried extra responsibility to make them proud.”
For Sheila Cohen’s daughter, the pride went in the other direction. “I viewed my Holocaust grandparents as a source of great pride,” she says. “We didn’t have a lot of yichus as some in my circle seemed to have, but whenever there was a discussion of the Holocaust in school and the teachers would praise those who survived and built new lives, I knew they were talking about my grandparents. In fact, when we had a speaker about the Holocaust come and talk, it was my grandmother.”
She has only one regret, she says. “I wish I had realized how much she had to tell us about her life and how much there was to learn from her.”
(Originally featured in Mishpacha Issue 647)