Intergenerational Transmission of Trauma from Holocaust...


Intergenerational Transmission of Trauma from Holocaust...
Intergenerational Transmission of Trauma from Holocaust...
Intergenerational Transmission of Trauma from Holocaust
Survivors to their Children
Diane Harvery
The Holocaust had and still has a deep effect on the children of survivors. “They grew up in the shadow of psychic conflicts
stemming from bereavement, mourning, guilt feelings and anxiety, which often resulted in overprotection and over expectation”
(Wardi, 1992, p.x)
During their childhood, children of Holocaust survivors or 2 nd generation survivors, as they have come to be known, have
been the unwitting recipients of their parent’s trauma. Survivor parents have unconsciously transmitted onto their children
much of their own traumas, as well as investing them with all their memories and hopes.
The study of transgenerational transmission of the Holocaust trauma is full of complexities. It becomes almost impossible to
precisely understand what kind of parents, having experienced what kinds of trauma, at what age, and in which context, will
transmit what kinds of message, in what ways, to what kinds of children, and with what consequences (Gottschalk, 2003).
There are common sensitivities that all 2 nd generation survivors feel including: the desire to protect their parents; feelings of
mourning and loss; not wanting to be a burden to their parents; heightened sensitivity to suffering people in general; and,
prevalent feelings of guilt and anxiety.
While survivor’s children are bent under the weight of the burden placed on them, they become stronger at the same time.
There is psychological strength and stamina that is created as a result of living daily with traumatized parents. Some 2 nd
generation survivors have a greater ability to identify with other people and want to help the disenfranchised and some
research indicates that 2 nd generation survivors are overrepresented in the “helping” professions of social work, psychology,
law, psychiatry, medicine, and teaching (Wardi, 1992).
Taking into consideration all the variations and differences amongst the children of survivors, researchers still report similar
psychological tendencies within 2 nd generation survivors. All are believed to have been shaped by a matrix of unhealthy
relationships with their parents with whom they try to both attach and differentiate from at the same time.
A number of authors like, (Sigal, Silver, Rakoff & Ellin 1973, Rakoff 1969, Trossman, 1968 and others as cited in Wardi, 1992)
stress the intensity of the survivor parent’s expectations from their children:
that they [the children] would infuse content into their empty lives and serve as compensation and a substitute for their
relatives who had perished, their communities that had been wiped out and even for their own previous lives. For if they could
not consider their new children a continuation of the loved ones they had lost, all their suffering and their efforts to survive
would have seemed to them a worthless sacrifice. (Wardi, 1992, p.27)
As a result of survivor parents transferring all of their hopes and expectations onto their children, it is not surprising that these
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children grow up with a special burden, responsibility, and additional stress. The assumption that these expectations would
diminish over time proved false. Not only did they not disappear with time but as the survivor’s themselves began to age and
became more demanding, the sense of burden, and responsibility the children felt became more extreme in their intensity.
Much has been written on the topic of children of Holocaust survivors, but for the purpose of this paper, I am going to
concentrate on how the intergenerational transmission of the Holocaust trauma onto the 2 nd generation has impacted their
ability to separate and individuate. By relating to their children as an offshoot of themselves, the parents satisfy their inner
need for identity and identification and in this have inadvertently prevented their respective children from being able to
individuate and to create a unique identity (Barocas and Barocas, 1973 as cited in Wardi, 1992).
The most obvious manifestation of one’s identity is in one’s name. In following the Jewish tradition of being named after a
deceased relative, being named after dead relatives killed in the Holocaust carries a tremendous responsibility and weight.
Some 2 nd generation survivors feel they are now literally carrying the dead on their backs. When given the names of
deceased family members, the burden of filling the emptiness can be all encompassing for a young child. In the movie “A
Generation Apart”, one of the people interviewed explained that he was the 1 st born in his family and named after both of his
grandfathers. He felt tremendous pressure to be good, to be the best and to never cause grief to his parents. Like many 2 nd
generation survivors, he feels that he represents all the perished people in their family. This same person stated (when
referring to his father), “what he can’t figure out is why I might be my own person g-d forbid, instead of what he wanted me to
be” (Fisher, 1986).
The danger in being named after deceased relatives is that parents may only see the dead relative in their children and
therefore not ever really see or know their own child. Being named after those who died in the Holocaust makes this reality
even more pronounced for the parent and the child. For the 2 nd generation survivor, this may mean that the child in turn may
grow up having a blurred or undefined identity as a result of this (Wardi 1992).
Another child of Holocaust survivors takes this one step further and recounts, “I remember my father telling me that I had his
mother’s soul. He always told me that she had the heart of a Saint; she would give food to the poor in their town. I felt so
honored to have her soul in my father’s eyes, yet I worried about how I would ever live up to her. It killed me to think of letting
down my father” (Zilberfein, 1994, p.6).
The message given to children of Holocaust survivors is overt, covert, and subliminal. It is their obligation and privilege to
maintain the nation, to reestablish the vanished family and to fill the void left by the Holocaust (Wardi, 1992). Many survivors
could not talk about their experiences but were able to still transfer their burden onto their children with a heavy sigh or through
a sudden outburst of tears or nightly nightmares.
Separating from one’s family of origin is a normal developmental task that one is expected to go through with some ease. In
survivor families where the children have sensed their special place in their family and the strong emotional attachment their
parents have to them, separating, and liberating themselves from them is a very difficult task.
I am one of these children and I work in the Toronto Jewish community where I have clients who are also 2 nd and now 3 rd
generation Holocaust survivors. I have always been interested in the impact of survivor parenting because of the work I am
doing in the community. This paper gave me the opportunity to read about the transmission of trauma and gave me a
theoretical framework to better understand the difficulty this population had and still has with separation and individuation from
their survivor parents.
First I will examine the models of trauma transmission and then look at separation and individuation. In addition to the articles
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and books I read for the paper, I interviewed several adult children of survivors on the topic of separation and will refer to their
responses throughout this paper.
Literature Review
The earliest articles written on survivor’s children emerged in the late 1960’s
(Trossman, 1968 as cited in Schwartz, 2000) when psychiatrists began to observe that offspring of Holocaust survivors, and in
particular adolescent children, frequently presented with symptoms that reflected their parent’s experiences. As more cases
were recognized, the label, “children of Holocaust survivor’s syndrome” was coined. The presence of symptoms in the children
of survivors created a new theoretical and clinical challenge which continues to be studied today.
It almost seems to be common sense to assume that any such massive trauma would have a debilitating, or at the very least,
altering effect on the victim, and that these changes would impact on the nature of the victim’s personal relationships, including
parenting. Yet, curiously, the mental health community was quite slow to grasp what seems fairly obvious and the traditional
psychoanalytic model did not provide an adequate theoretical framework to understand the importance of later trauma and
intergenerational issues. (Schwartz, n.d., p. 64)
The Transmission of Trauma in Holocaust Survivor Families
“I think that all children identify with their parent, and when you’re identifying with a parent who has gone through such an
emotional trauma, it would be hard not to be affected” (Goodstein, 1998).
There is no question that the 2 nd generation is affected by their parents’ experience in the Holocaust, but what in fact was
passed on from one generation to the next and how does the transmission occur? Children of Holocaust families feel the
presence of the Holocaust at home verbally, nonverbally, and in some cases, “having absorbed the menacing experience of
the Holocaust through osmosis” (Danieli, 1985 as cited in Orlander, 2003, p.8).
Clinical findings suggest that the negative effects of concentration camp exposure are passed down through the generations.
(Baracas and Barocas, 1973 as cited in Williams-Keeler et al., 1998) This results in the next generation acquiring symptoms
very similar to that of the survivor generation. These symptoms resemble the common Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
symptoms of: intrusive images, nightmares, difficulty containing anger, restricted emotional range, fear of death, and other
associated symptoms such as depression and guilt over surviving the Holocaust.
There are four prevalent theories of trauma transmission that can help to explain how trauma is transmitted. A review of the
literature suggests that there are a multitude of different terms that describe trauma transmission. Emphasizing the
generational interchange specifically from parent to child, the transmission process is delineated as transgenerational (Felson,
1998), intergenerational (Sigal and Weinfeld, 1987), multigenerational (Danieli, 1998), or cross-generational (Lowin, 1983 all
cited in Kellermann, 2001). And, finally, the suggestion that because the trauma is passed on from one or both parents,
perhaps “parental transmission” would be a better term (Kellermann, 2001).
Trauma may be transmitted but the offspring are still able to become healthy effectual adults (Albeck, 1994, as cited in
Williams-Keeler et al., 1998). He uses the term “empathic traumatization” to describe the offsprings’ attempts to understand
their parents’ wartime experiences and pain as a means of establishing a connection with them. These offspring, (the second
generation from the trauma), may thus bear ‘the scar without the wound’, since they are significantly, if only indirectly affected.
The offspring literally maintain their familial ties by integrating their parents’ experiences.
Impact of Trauma Transmission
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Before examining the theories of how the trauma is transmitted, it is important to look at the impact of the transmission. The
existence or nonexistence of any psychopathology in the children of Holocaust survivors has been the subject of many
disagreements. The positive theorists feel that the history their parents have shared with them is “their legacy” and that these
children have a greater capacity for resiliency as a result of their parenting. A more common belief is that their parent’s trauma
has negatively affected them and these 2 nd generation children suffer from some form of psychopathology.
“A recent overview of the empirical research concluded that most controlled studies failed to confirm the assumption of
increased rates of psychopathology in the offspring of Holocaust survivors compared with control groups” (Kellermann, 2001,
p.3). However, these children do show signs of stress and specific disturbances. They have difficulties in coping with stress
and a higher vulnerability to PTSD.
Kellermann (2001) found that the problems this population struggled with were in the areas of self, cognition, affectivity and
interpersonal functioning. Those who sought out counseling had impaired self esteem with persistent identity problems. They
over identified with their parents, felt they needed to be super-achievers to compensate for parental losses, and experienced
the burden of being “replacements” for lost relatives.
In the area of cognition difficulties, this 2 nd generation experienced catastrophic expectancy, the fear of another Holocaust, a
preoccupation with death, and stress upon exposure to stimuli that symbolizes the Holocaust (Kellermann, 2001).
As for affectivity, this population experienced annihilation anxiety, nightmares of persecution, frequent dysphoric moods
connected to feelings of loss and mourning. They suffered from unresolved conflicts around anger complicated by guilt and
generally they had increased vulnerability to stressful events (Kellermann, 2001).
This last area, interpersonal functioning, addresses the difficulties this generation had in separating from their parents.
Findings indicate exaggerated family attachments and dependency or exaggerated independence and difficulties in entering
intimate relationships and in handling interpersonal conflicts. Some had parents who smothered them with care, solicitude, and
their ever present and all encompassing anxiety. Others had cold distant parents unable to demonstrate their love for fear of
losing their loved ones all over again.
In any event, there is no disagreement that the Holocaust had an impact on the 2 nd generation survivors. There are mitigating
and normative factors that must be accounted for when looking at impact and these will be looked at later in the paper.
Psychodynamic and Relational Models of Transmission
According to psychoanalytically oriented theories, emotions that could not be consciously experienced by the first generation
are given over to the second. The child unconsciously absorbs the repressed and unfinished Holocaust experiences of their
survivor parents (Kellermann, 2001).
It has been suggested that the intergenerational transmission of trauma occurs when the traumatized parent implants their
own emotional instability onto their children (Chazan, 1992 and Freyberg, 1980 as cited in Williams-Keeler et al., 1998). The
child internalizes the parents’ stress and social mistrust which in turn leads to enmeshed family relations where the child
remains confused about the boundaries between themselves and their parents. Additionally, the child becomes the reservoir
for the unwanted disturbing parts of that adult. Because the child is influenced by the adult, they absorb their parent’s wishes
and expectations. Therefore in the case of Holocaust trauma, one of the tasks of the child is to mourn and attempt to reverse
the humiliation and feelings of helplessness that their parents experienced.
The birth of a baby brings with it a whole new set of possibilities. Some mothers remain depressed after birth and feel
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compelled to hand over their infants to the care of others. Some survivor mothers gain a sense of meaning and purpose with
the birth of a child. They draw physical and psychological powers from their infant. These positive feelings overpower their
depressive and guilty feelings. Some survivor mothers cannot attach to their baby and become busy out of the house in an
exaggerated active life in an effort to escape.
The survivor mother feels a very strong sense of belonging towards their children. They are emotionally attached to the infants,
they need them and are dependent upon them, upon their presence, and especially upon their very physical existence at their
side; but at the same time they are full of anxieties and conflicts and are not free to sense their children’s true needs. (Wardi,
1992, p.74)
The attachment between a Holocaust survivor mother and her infant includes dependence, anxiety, and worry, causing them to
become overprotective. There is no room for calmness and a sense of tranquility that is vital for a healthy infant.
Overall, survivor parents have been found to be overprotective, limited in their ability to inspire a smooth transition to
separation and individuation in their offspring, highly expectant of the aspirations of their children, and burdened with traumatic
memories which they pass on to the next generation. (Freyberg, 1980; Halik, Rosenthal, & Pattison, 1990; Mor, 1990;
Rosenman & Handelsman, 1990 as cited in Williams-Keeler et al,1998, p.4)
This struggle which has its origins in the early stages of development and parent child bonding is what comes into play at the
time of separation from their parents in young adulthood. The emotional confusion is overwhelming. The child is juggling their
own emotions along with the messages they have been living with all of their lives. The child wants to do the “right thing” all the
time sensing that the right thing for the child may often be the wrong thing for the parent. This conflict has led children of
survivors into making difficult decisions with major life altering results.
Sociocultural and Socialization Models of Transmission
This model stresses the social aspects of the transmission. The family’s culture, social norms and beliefs are passed down
from one generation to the next. What is special in Holocaust survivor families is how the child forms their own images when
dealing with their family taboos, prohibitions and fears. Different than psychoanalytic theory that is focused on the
unconscious, social learning theories emphasize conscious and direct effects of parents on their children.
Holocaust parents had difficulties parenting due to many factors. Their multiple losses were assumed to create child-rearing
problems around both attachment and detachment (Kellermann, 2001). Some of the parenting messages from survivors can
be viewed as overt conditioning in which the Holocaust parent gave their children warnings such as, “don’t trust anybody”, “be
careful”, and “one must not rely on anyone outside the immediate family”. These messages left their mark on their children.
These exaggerated worries from anxious parents may have conveyed a sense of impending danger that the child has
absorbed. Paradoxically they try in every way possible to prevent their children from experiencing pain and suffering yet in the
end their compulsive anxiety tends to be transmitted to their children, raising their own anxiety and keeping them closer to
All children are influenced by their parents both by how they parent and by who they are as parents. Children learn vicariously
by observation and imitation. Therefore, children of survivors may have taken upon themselves some of the behaviors and
emotional states of their parents.
A good example of this can be found in the narrative of a middle-aged child of two Holocaust survivors who describes herself
as having a low tolerance for stress:
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My father used to scream during the night and my mother screamed during the day. Both were highly disturbed and could not
tolerate anything that might upset them. I had to be careful always as a child not to come home late, not to be ill, not to show
signs of distress and to be as quiet as I possibly could be. (Kellermann, 2001, p.6)
Growing up in this environment clearly contributed to this woman’s high level of anxiety, or what she so aptly describes as her
low tolerance for stress.
Family Systems and Communication Models of Transmission
In families where children only came into contact with their parents, siblings, and other survivor families, parents were fully
committed to their children. In this tightly knit system, both the parent and the child each try to shield the other from painful
experiences. Through mutual identifications, parents live vicariously through their children, and children live vicariously in the
horrific past of their parents (Kellermann, 2001).
Considering the powerful dynamics of such families, it is no wonder that this 2 nd generation survivor experiences problems
around separation and individuation. Parents who care too much or become overly involved and intrusive tend to become
enmeshed with their offspring. They drag their children unwittingly into their own emotional problems and bind their children
unto themselves in a manner that makes independence very difficult for that child.
These offspring are struggling with issues of personal contentment and identify strongly with their parents’ expectations
(Leventhal and Ontell, 1989 as cited in Williams-Keeler et al., 1998). Others have reported separation difficulties among
survivor families as a result of tightly enmeshed boundaries.
Danieli (1980) tries to explain the boundary issue from the parent’s point of view, “the parents see their children’s attempts at
establishing natural boundaries and partitions among themselves as a threat to the family’s unity and wholeness; to be
separated from one another means to disappear and to be lost forever” (Danieli, 1980 as cited in Wardi, 1992, p.122).
Mahler (1972) believes that separation-individuation is at best partial (Mahler, 1972 as cited in Zilberfein, 1994). Holocaust
survivor families have not set eventual separation of parent and child as a goal and strong efforts are made to maintain the
symbiotic bond and thus impede individuation. The child’s independence, anger and separateness are viewed as threatening
by the Holocaust survivor parents, with the mother usually feeling more threatened by the loss and as a result becoming more
emotionally unavailable when the child attempts individuation.
Growing up in a survivor family, it is not uncommon for the child to adopt the task of protecting their parents, and taking care of
their emotional well-being. This includes calming their fears and anxieties. As a result of this, these children are granted
enormous emotional power over their parents early in their lives, a power they neither desire nor know how to manage or avoid
(Gottschalk, 2003).
Survivor parents typically depend on their children for help, advice, obedience and sympathy. Such was the case of Carol,
(personal communication, February 26, 2006) the daughter of parents who survived concentration camps and had Carol and
her younger sister who were 14 months apart. When she was 19 years old her father passed away and Carol was made to feel
that she had to stay home and take care of her mother and younger sister. She described feeling that she “owed” her mother
all her attention. Her guilt kept her at home but she was desperate to move out. She married at 22 with her mother’s approval.
She remembers feeling that everything revolved around her mother and taking care of her was her main focus in life.
H. Klein (1971) studied families of survivors in Kibbutzim in Israel, and refers to the intense feelings of the 2 nd generation
survivors towards their parents as expressed through their close link to their family home. His findings show that children of
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survivors visit and stay at their parent’s home more than children of non-survivors (H. Klein, 1971 as cited in Wardi, 1992).
Zwerling’s (1982) research on survivor children in the United States supports Klein’s (Zwerling, 1982 as cited in Wardi, 1992).
He notes that after they have left their parents home, the survivor’s children visit their parents more often and express more
homesickness than the control group. In addition, he found that this group of children feels obligated to protect their families,
especially their mother, from illness or emotional difficulties more than the control group.
Zilberfein spoke to this in her article entitled Psychological Aspects of Parenting (1994).She describes a client from her clinical
practice who stated that she was convinced that her father’s untimely and sudden heart attack was connected to her leaving
home, further illustrating her own findings and the findings of others.
Survivors who are frequently self absorbed can consciously ask their children for support or they can manipulate their children
into submission. In acting childlike or helpless in spite of their role as the parent, they create a scenario in which the 2 nd
generation survivor child has no choice but to spring into action and respond accordingly.
The most extreme and dramatic examples of such unconscious requests take the form of sudden depressive (and sometimes
psychotic) breakdowns as well as a host of worrisome psychosomatic symptoms, which would strike parents at the precise
moment when their children would decide to leave home- either temporarily or permanently. (Gottschalk, 2003, p.359)
As a child of survivors, I will offer a scenario from my own life to illustrate that this was the case when my older sister decided
she had no choice but to leave home. As a result of my sister’s plans to move out, my mother became clinically depressed. My
sister felt she was being “smothered” by our parents and was unable to live the life she wanted to live. She felt she had no
other choice but to physically separate from my parents, causing my mother to breakdown.
By way of explanation I would suggest the following from current findings be considered: “the symbiotic enmeshed attachment
between the child and his [her] mother frees the survivor mother from her sense of loneliness and from the necessity of dealing
with her complicated inner world and with the problematic intimate relationship between her and her spouse” (Wardi, 1992, p.
One cannot talk about family systems without talking about boundary issues in survivor families. When parents impose
unreasonably strict boundaries children want to rebel, but rebellion in the 2 nd generation survivor leads to a heightened sense
of guilt. How can a child of Holocaust survivors be angry, resentful, or hostile towards their parents who had gone through so
much in their life?
Healthy boundaries refer to a child developing an autonomous self that exists apart from parent projections and definitions.
Inherent in this definition is a certain psychological private “space” wherein children experiment and develop. “Such boundaries
are often too porous in survivor families, and the survivor offspring relationship lacks precisely such private space, which they
have to continuously fight for, secure and defend”( Auerhahn, 1998, Danieli, 1998, and Hass 1990 as cited in Gottschalk 2003,
It is precisely this enmeshment of boundaries that causes 2 nd generation children to have to “runaway” or “escape” their
restrictive family environment. When enmeshment exists there is no room or distance between the parent and the child,
leading to impatience and hostility when interacting with one another. One of the 2 nd generation survivors in the article by
Gottschalk (2003) reported that he simply refused all contact with his parents for two years to “protect” himself, and get “some
breathing space”.
Not all trauma transmission is communicated verbally. In fact, much of the trauma transmission in the family may be explained
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as occurring through non-verbal, ambiguous and guilt-inducing communication, especially through the widespread “conspiracy
of silence” (Danieli, 1998 as cited in Williams-Keeler et al., 1998).
Mor (1990) explains that although the silence was meant to be protective, it led to a fearful reflection of the horrors that were
inflicted upon the parents and missing relatives (Mor, 1990 as cited in Williams-Keeler et al., 1998). Where the information was
missing, the children of survivors filled it in with their distorted imaginations.
No matter which style of communication the survivor parent uses, either silence or preoccupation with the Holocaust, these
messages are transferred at times subliminally to their children. The offspring learn about the Holocaust through their parents’
communication and use these messages to create a bridge between themselves and their parents’ past traumas.
Biological/Genetic Model of Transmission
This model is based on the assumption that there may be a genetic and/or a biochemical predisposition to the etiology of a
person’s illness. There is evidence to support that some mental illness can be hereditary or at least raise the likelihood that if a
parent suffers from some mental illness their offspring has a greater chance of contracting the same. Holocaust traumatization
may be similarly passed on. Memories of fear can thus be carried across generations through physiological processes and get
“picked up” by another mind and elements of the collective experience of the species are thus reflected in the genome (Perry,
1999 as cited in Kellermann, 2001). Children of Holocaust survivors who are born to severely traumatized Holocaust survivor
parents would then be “predisposed” to PTSD.
Aggravating and Mitigating Factors
The four models explain different theories of trauma transmission and the aggravating factors that are assumed to increase the
likelihood of these children developing some psychopathology as a result of their parent’s trauma. In addition to these models,
clinical experience suggests that trauma transmission is more likely to occur when:
offspring were born early after the parents’ trauma (between 1945-1955);
offspring were either the only or the first-born child;
both parents were survivors;
offspring were “replacement” children to children who had perished; and
parents had endured extraordinary mental suffering and significant loss of close family and were highly disturbed as a result.
(Kellermann, 2001, p.7)
With all of this said, many children of Holocaust survivors adjusted well despite having grown up in a dysfunctional family
where there were major risk factors. Perhaps these children developed unique coping mechanisms that better enabled them to
deal with their parent’s psychological burden. Numerous studies of these children have reported a wide spectrum of mitigating
circumstances that may account for the resiliency of the unaffected child.
A major difference between functional and hospitalized patients seemed to be that while growing up, the functional children
were exposed to fairly open discussion of parents’ camp experiences in a “nonfrightening” way (Axelrod, Schnipper, and Rau
1980 as cited in Kellermann, 2001). These functional children were not socially isolated and some families were involved in
survivor organizations that may have provided support and a sense of extended community. Being accepted into such a close
community as well as the absence of renewed anti –Semitism may also play an explanatory role.
Furthermore, children who got involved in school, youth movements, summer camp and in other social support systems
seemed to have been less affected by their parents’ trauma. Perhaps the time spent away from the family and in the
mainstream of society helped these children differentiate from their parents and enabled them to appropriately separate and
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“Many psychologists have marveled at the robustness of development; despite vast differences in the way their parents treat
them, most children turn out all right” (Harris, 1995 as cited in Kellermann, 2001, p. 458). In light of this it would stand to
reason that those children who did not experience “nonfamilial” social support during their childhood may be at higher risk to
absorb the trauma of their parents and to develop mental distress.
With all the research that has been done in the area of trauma transmission there is insufficient empirical data to show how all
of the above come together to produce or prevent trauma transmission. There is sufficient support in the literature to advocate
the exploration of secondary traumatization with second generation Holocaust survivors. This research is important not only for
the 2 nd generation survivors but to all generations following the Holocaust generation. Perhaps the results of this research
can be transferable and may be used to shed light on the intergenerational transmission of trauma amongst other traumatized
Separation Difficulties
“They and they alone, bore the obligation to compensate their mothers and fathers for their enormous losses, and they could
not allow themselves to cause their parents any additional pain” (Wardi, 1992, p.78).
Children of survivors who have been interviewed reported that they found it difficult to enter into arguments with their parents.
They found their parents to be hyper-sensitive and fragile, and it is because of their parent’s perceived emotional fragility that
their children avoid discussing certain topics. The children feel that once again they need to protect their parents against
emotional upset. Separating from them may bring back their memories of separating from their own families of origin, never to
see them again. A separation or leaving home may retraumatize an already traumatized parent.
As one survivor so clearly points out:
We have no memory of how it was for us to be a young adult attempting to separate from his or her parents. The issue of
separation, therefore is, especially difficult, not only because to many of us our children are everything we have, but also
because our separation was abrupt and never truly resolved....This dilemma plagues many of us and it is, I believe, one of the
greatest difficulties in the relationship with our children.
(Frankle, H. 1978 as cited in Zilberfein, 1994, p.5)
Given their own experiences with separation, it is not surprising that survivor families might not have values that emphasize
autonomy and separateness.
H.Klein (1971) describes the conflicts generated in the children’s psyches in relation to their parents and their tendency to
deny these conflicts. Whenever the survivor’s children feel the least bit of aggression towards their parents, it immediately
arouses harsh guilt feelings within them. In all likelihood these children have been raised in homes where the outward
expression of aggression was discouraged and their anger had to be channeled inward towards their self, resulting in
depressive symptoms
(H. Klein, 1971 as cited in Wardi, 1992).
Therefore the 2 nd generation survivor feels they must adjust to their parent’s perceived emotional inaccessibility and fragility
a) inducing parents to display appropriate emotions or repressing their own emotional needs for parental attention
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b) controlling the expression of angry emotions or any behavior that might trigger unpredictable violence, and
(c) avoiding topics of conversation, behaviors, or situations that might exacerbate their parents’ emotional fragility. (Gottschalk,
2003, p.375)
If they were to disagree with their parents they would feel guilty over the stress they would cause their emotionally over-taxed
parent. The child does not want to inflict more pain on their parent who has already experienced so much anguish and the
child is left internalizing much emotion without the normal adolescent outlets of complaint and rebellion. Once again this leaves
the adolescent feeling responsible for their parent’s happiness and therefore suppressing normal adolescent instincts.
In my interviews with survivor’s children I encountered Flo, (personal communication, March 9, 2006) a woman who was such
a child. She was always compliant and never gave her parents any cause of concern, unlike her younger sibling who was
more challenging of her parents. Flo’s mother was 13 years old when she was taken to Auschwitz with her two sisters. She
remained in the concentration camp for five years. Flo’s father fled Poland for Russia at age 19 where he fought in the Russian
army, and worked in the coalmines.
When it came time for Flo to apply to university she made application to universities in the city in which she lived as well as out
of town. She was accepted to both and wanted to go to the out of town university for the experience, not to get away from
home. Her mother offered to help her pack but informed her that she was not going to pay for university and living expenses
for an out of town school. Flo easily accepted that she had no choice but to stay at home.
Flo remembered never arguing with her parents because she didn’t want to hurt them. She accepted all their restrictions in an
effort to continuously please them. She felt she did not have the right to be sad or difficult after all they had been through.
One of the informants in Gottschalk’s article stated that at age 16 years he started to openly rebel against his father’s
uncompromising authoritarian regime. He left home and refused all contact with him for five years. On reflection, he
understood that his father could not relate to his rebellion because when his father was 16, he was in a concentration camp
and was not able to rebel or take a stand for himself.
Russel (1974) confirms that although some children of survivors sometimes try to rebel, their feelings of guilt generally prevent
them from going very far and their rebellion is nipped in the bud (Russel ,1974 as cited in Wardi,1992).
Separation and individuation was one of the tasks that these 2 nd generation survivors found difficult. For these children of
survivors the act of leaving their parents home was seen as an act of rebellion, leaving them feeling guilty and anxious over
the possible pain they had inflicted on their parents. Many suffer from guilt simply because their lives are so much better than
their parents. The parent’s over protectiveness accompanied by their wish to provide a secure world made it exceedingly hard
for many offspring of survivors to leave home. In part, this accounts for many references in the literature to the difficulties of
separation and individuation (Barocas &Barocas, 1980 as cited in Krell et al., 2004).
The 2 nd generation survivor felt the need to establish emotional boundaries for themselves and between themselves and their
parents. This was no easy task. While they were trying to separate, their parents were resisting their efforts and attempting to
hold on to them through confrontation or manipulation. Trying to protect their parents at the same time as individuate from
them caused many 2 nd generation children to internalize their own pain along with their parent’s pain, possibly minimizing
their own suffering by comparing it to that of their parents. Regardless of their outcome, their own feelings came second to
those of their parents.
Such was the case of Susie (personal communication, March 9, 2006), who wanted to leave her parents home after she
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secured a full time teaching position. Her parents made it clear that they depended on her and her alone as their only child.
Her parents were both ill as a result of their Holocaust experiences. Her mother developed Rheumatic fever at the end of the
war and was left with damaged heart valves. Her father was married before the war and lost his wife and two daughters along
with his parents and some siblings. He was never the same after the war. He remained chronically depressed and emotionally
unavailable. He sublimated whatever energy he had into his business, a variety store.
While Susie wanted to move out and live on her own, she felt she couldn’t leave her parents because they “suffered so much
and they needed me.” She described her relationship with her mother as being close and recognized that her mother lived
vicariously through her. Susie supported this insight about their relationship with examples like how her mother would rehearse
conversations she would have had with Susie’s dates as if they had been her own dates.
Susie remembers two “stories” that shaped her life. The first one was when Susie was working full time as a teacher and was
not required to pay her parents any remuneration for her living at home so she had money of her own to spend as she
pleased, or so she thought. She decided she wanted to buy herself a rocking chair. When her mother heard about her desire,
she began to rant about how stupid an idea this was; focusing on how unnecessary the item was, ignoring her daughter’s
feelings or thoughts. Susie, always the compliant daughter, dropped the idea of the chair but thought of other items she could
afford to buy herself. She reports having purchased a very expensive gold watch and fur coat, explaining in retrospect that she
had to provide material goods to satisfy her need for independence because she felt she had no choice but to stay at home
with her elderly, sick parents.
The second story was when her mother had heart surgery and she and her father were the only ones at home. Susie was
having difficulty sleeping, no doubt out of concern for her mother. She took one sleeping pill then two others, until she started
to feel unstable and scared. She told her father what she had done and then describes how this quiet man she had come to
know, a father who was always in control, began yelling, screaming and crying. For the most part his hysterics were centered
on asking her “why are you doing this to me?” He had no ability to see his daughter’s emotional needs. He was facing the
possibility of losing his 2 nd wife to surgery while his daughter was requiring some emotional support. In reality, he had nothing
to give either one of them and this was painful for Susie to see at the time and in the years that followed
Susie did eventually find some boundary between herself and her parents but this too was a painful journey. Susie dated many
men and she wanted children very much. She married at a relatively late age to a man she respected and thought she loved.
They fought before they were married and this carried on into their brief marriage. Susie became pregnant very early in the
marriage and was thrilled about having conceived; her husband was not as happy about her pregnancy. Susie spoke to her
mother about her unhappy marriage and told her mother that if they were to separate, she was not coming back home. To her
surprise, when she did separate, her mother supported her living independently.
Freyberg (1980) identified “boundary blurring” as being fundamental to the difficulties with separation-individuation seen in 2 nd
generation survivors as early as 16-24 months old. As the young child is beginning to explore the world around them their
primary caretaker’s reaction and response to their attempts at independence is critical in their development. If the parent is
overprotective and transmits the message that the world is a very scary and dangerous place and they are only safe at home
with them, that child grows up anxious and afraid to individuate (Freyberg, 1980 as cited in Williams-Keeler et al, 1998).
The Holocaust stamped the psyches of the survivor mothers with a constant fear of catastrophe; a feeling that something bad
may happen at any time. This is reflected in the stories of children of survivors who remained in their parents’ home until a
relatively advanced age. This also explains their tendency to overprotect and control their children. The traumatic memory of
absolute helplessness is still alive in the hearts and minds of the survivors and they fear being trapped again in a situation that
resembles the one they experienced (Wardi, 1992).
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Exercising control over their children’s lives helps the survivor parent regain control over their own life. The danger for the child
is obvious. With such a mother’s totalitarian control, how is a child able to construct a differentiated and independent ego.
Janet’s mother was 12 years old when as a young girl she was taken to the camps. She worked in the ammunition
department. Her father was 17 years old when he escaped the camps and became a partisan. Janet, (personal
communication, March 7, 2006) the daughter of these survivors, describes herself as always have a feeling of impending
doom. She is always looking around the corner and expecting a catastrophe of some kind and when a trauma occurs like it did
with 9-11, she gets into a panic. She needs to know where her adult children are at all times. She still speaks to them daily in
spite of the fact that they are grown up and living independently. She feels this is a direct result of the message she received
from her own mother. She reports repeatedly being told not to trust anyone, and to this day Janet finds herself suspicious of
everyone. Janet is able to see the effect her parents’ trauma has had on her and the effect it has on her parenting of the next
generation, the 3 rd generation survivor.
Overall, survivor parents have been found to be overprotective and limited in their ability to facilitate a smooth transition of
separation and individuation in their children and Evelyn’s parents were no different. Evelyn, (personal communication, March
7, 2006) a 2 nd generation survivor was 27 years old when she moved out of her parents’ home. They had always told her she
had to live at home until she got married. When Evelyn decided it was time to move out (with no husband in sight) her mother
cried for a month, unable to understand why she was leaving a nice home where everything was free and comfortable for her.
Evelyn was forced to trailblaze a path for herself, facing the pain her parents felt yet moving herself forward to the best of her
ability on the path of individuation.
Unlike Evelyn, I was not the first child in my family to leave the home of my survivor parents. My sister likes to believe that she
“paved the way” for me to leave home, somehow thinking the same act of leaving home would be easier for me. However,
after the upheaval her leaving brought on to our family I was very concerned about how I would be able to leave when it was
my turn. I was still 15 years old when my sister moved out, causing all kinds of stress on both my parents and on myself. I was
both resentful of my sister and angry at my parents, witnessing the pain my sister’s leaving had caused my parents, knowing
for certain that I couldn’t do that to them again.
Knowing all of this and trying to both leave home and manage the pain at hand I felt it necessary to devise a plan. I booked a
consultation session with a psychiatrist who specialized in working with Holocaust survivors. I met with him to get ideas on how
I could leave without causing stress on my parents. I don’t remember him being very helpful and at that point I realized I’d
need to develop my own plan.
I then decided to share my concerns and plans with my parents far in advance of my exit date with the intention of slowly
acclimatizing them to the idea of my leaving home. I started three years in advance of my leaving, explaining that once I
finished university and had a job that would allow me to support myself, I would move out. I reminded them of this regularly.
They were not visibly upset with these discussions but I didn’t know how they felt about it. I held on to the idea that I was being
responsible in preparing them for this difficult point in our lives and this made me feel less guilty.
When the time came for me to move out, I left when my parents were vacationing in Florida. My departure date was
deliberately chosen not from a fear of having to confront them but rather, from a desire to protect them. I decided I didn’t want
them to witness my furniture and belongings leaving their house. I wanted to move and yet still show my utmost respect for
them, their values, their past traumas and their discomfort over the whole situation. I let them know in advance that regardless,
I would be going ahead as planned. To my surprise, they bought me a housewarming gift in Florida and on their immediate
return they came to see my new apartment. I was very relieved that my leaving went as smoothly as it did and I know I owe a
lot of credit to my sister who paved the way. I learned and to some extent I’d like to think that my parents also learned, from
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that negative experience almost ten years earlier.
Freyberg (1985) felt that perhaps the most profoundly unique aspect of the psychological life of a child of survivors is that his
whole existence is living someone else’s life, and someone else’s history. The children of survivors were in no way directly
victims of persecution and cruelty as their parents were. Yet, because of their parent’s experiences, and because of the
transmission of trauma onto their children, these children do not oftentimes psychologically live in their own world but in the
world of their parents (Freyberg, 1985 as cited in Zilberfein, 1994).
According to the history books, the Holocaust ended in 1945 along with the war, but for the survivors, in many ways it never
ended despite their silence or as a result of it. The results of the Holocaust have even managed to make its way into the next
As the post –Holocaust period opened the door to the study and recognition of the psychological and social impact of massive
psychic trauma, the observation that children of survivors display symptomatology related to their parents’ wartime experience
likewise opened the door to a new field of study regarding the intergenerational consequence of parental trauma. (Schwartz,
n.d. p. 65)
Theories of trauma transmission suggest that children of survivors had to face overt or subliminal Holocaust messages when
growing up. Some 2 nd generation survivors have been able to effectively manage their own feelings along with their parents
whereas others may have internalized their parents’ trauma as their own. There appears to be enough support in the literature
to support the idea of looking at and exploring the notion of intergeneration transmission of trauma. The qualitative research
alone supports the idea of trauma transmission. By studying the 2 nd generation and the effects of their parents’ trauma on
them, perhaps the results can be generalized into the field of traumatology and can be used to help other traumatized
An obvious lesson learned from the 2 nd generation survivor research is that when left unattended, the traumas suffered by
one generation continue to be visited upon generations that follow. This is important information to know because of the world
we live in. Human-made disasters continue to brutalize people worldwide.
Perhaps focusing on the “survival” story rather than the “suffering” story that the 2 nd generation survivor was subjected to
would be a good strategy to employ when transmitting the lessons of the Holocaust to the 3 rd generation survivor.
Additionally, this could be useful information for helping other survivor populations transmit their experiences to their children.
The Holocaust, along with the establishment of Israel, have been the two most profound events for the Jewish people in the
twentieth century. On the one hand, the Jew is seen as the ultimate victim, while on the other, the Jew is seen as a fierce
warrior. It is in between these two poles that Holocaust survivors and their children must find a place to exist. In some ways,
this may determine not only their future as individuals and families, but the future of all Jewish people living in the post
Holocaust world
(Schwartz, n.d.).
Carol (Personal communication, February 26, 2006)
Evelyn (Personal communication, March 7, 2006)
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Flo (Personal communication, March 9, 2006)
Goodstein, D. (Director/Producer). (1998). Voices from the Attic [video]. Direct Cinema Ltd.
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Janet (Personal communication, March 7, 2006)
Kellermann, N. (2001, Fall). Transmission of Holocaust Trauma-an integrative view, 64 (3),
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Susie (Personal communication, March 9, 2006)
Wardi, D. (1992). Memorial Candles: Children of the Holocaust. London and New York:
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