Holocaust survivors protest - Dan Keinan - 2009
Holocaust survivors taking part in a protest in 2009. Photo by Dan Keinan
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One of the most controversial subjects in academic research on the Holocaust is the trauma's impact on future generations. A new study carried out by Haifa University argues that Holocaust trauma signs can be identified among third-generation grandchildren.

The study, carried out by Dr. Miri Scharf and Prof. Ofra Mayseless from Haifa University's Education Department, detects unprocessed, indirect signs of post-trauma, or problems in communication and interaction systems, among second-and-third-generation descendants of Holocaust victims.

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The study is based on in-depth interviews conducted with 196 Israelis who are second-generation descendants, and are considered functioning adults who do not suffer from psychological disturbances, and their children, third-generation descendants, a group with an average age of 18. The researchers identified three experiential patterns of distress that are liable to be passed down from generation to generation.

Threatening reality

Initially, the research discerned a tendency to focus on matters connected to survival. Second-generation participants in the study testified that their Holocaust survivor parents were emotionally engaged in a survival struggle in which the world was viewed as a threatening reality filled with unexpected events; the parents continually prepared themselves for the unknown.

Some participants in the survey said that their parents were overly protective, and prevented them, when they were children, from going out on outings, or visiting friends.

Many participants recalled that their parents were worried that they (the children ) would suffer harm, or die suddenly. As a result, many second-generation participants developed fears about harm being caused to their parents, or about their parents' deaths. In addition, fears among the parents were expressed via preparation for some future calamity - parents would hoard food and other items, and would make efforts to feed their children so that they would gain weight and be immune to danger.

The study argues that these survival concerns are often passed down from generation to generation, and can now be documented among teenagers who belong to the third generation.

These teenagers testified that the survival worries of their second-generation parents focused mainly on anxieties about hunger and the development of disease. According to the researchers, despite the fact that second-generation daughters mainly considered their parents' anxieties a nuisance, some of them passed down the very same anxieties to their own children.

Lack of support

The researchers compiled testimony provided by second-generation participants, relating to the perceived lack of emotional support given to them by their parents. Some participants in the study reported that their parents were unable to develop warm, supportive relationships, when they needed such support in their childhood years.

Survivor parents were perceived by some second-generation children as being inaccessible, cold and distant. And even though these second-generation participants described their parents' inaccessibility as being problematic, some of them were perceived by their own children as being remote and cold.

Out of 30 women in this second-generation group who testified that their parents were cold and distant, 20 of them have teenage children who complain of similar experiences with their parents. The same dynamic was reported by 14 children of 30 second-generation fathers.

Finally, the researchers identified a tendency among second-generation participants to try to please their parents, and make them happy; this trait has been passed along to third-generation teenagers.

As the researchers put it, "the child's need to worry about his or her parents' happiness represents a way of trying to draw closer to his or her parents."

Problems aren't extreme

The authors conclude that this new study reinforces findings in previous research studies about the generational transference of Holocaust trauma.

Yet, while the personal narratives provided by second-generation participants feature reports of deep emotional distress, this study did not find extreme behavioral problems among the third-generation teens. Scharf and Mayseless claim that their findings have important implications with respect to the mental health of second and third generation descendants.

They say that health care professionals should be aware of ways in which trauma is passed along through generations. The findings were published in November 2011, in the Qualitative Health Research journal.

Scharf notes that "Holocaust trauma includes extreme, difficult experiences, and it bears mention that survivors did everything they could to cope with these experiences.

A strong majority of them managed to raise exemplary children and grandchildren, and I am full of admiration for them."

The issue of intra-generational transference of trauma is controversial in academia. In the 1980s, preliminary findings about the impact of the Holocaust upon the third generation were presented by Dr. P.A. Rosenthal, a child psychiatrist from New York, and his wife Dr. S. Rosenthal.

The two called on the psychiatric community to develop a psycho-historical approach to care for third generation descendants of Holocaust survivors.

A research study conducted five years ago at the Ruppin Academic Center argued that eating disorders among third-generation female students can be linked to eating problems suffered by their second-generation mothers, and also to the extent to which their grandparents exposed them to Holocaust realities.

But a study published in June 2008 by a team of Israeli researchers, headed by Haifa University's Prof. Avi Sagi-Schwartz, cast doubt upon the influence of the Holocaust upon third-generation descendants.

About half a million Holocaust survivors immigrated to Israel after World War II. Some 200,000 are thought to be living in the country today.