The attempted suicide rate among Holocaust survivors is far higher than among other elderly people, contrary to the widely accepted view in Israel's medical profession, a new study reveals.
The study, conducted by doctors at the Abarbanel Mental Health Center and researchers at Tel Aviv University, was published this week in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry. It is based on suicide rates among Abarbanel's patients.
The researchers found that 24 percent of Abarbanel patients who were Holocaust survivors had tried to commit suicide, compared with only 8.2 percent of the patients who are not survivors. In other words, the suicide rate among Holocaust survivors was about three times higher.
Professor Yoram Barak, who headed the study, said that the myth has prevailed in Israel for years that Holocaust victims, despite the trauma they underwent, are "hungry for life" and therefore do not often commit suicide. As a result, he said, "they are not considered a high-risk population."
But the study found that as they age, Holocaust victims often experience a resurgence of the trauma that they had successfully suppressed for years, leading to depression and, sometimes, attempted suicide.
Barak said that the myth that Holocaust survivors do not kill themselves began with a 1947 lecture to the precursor of the Israel Psychiatry Association given by Dr. Aharon Persikovitz, a gynecologist living in Tel Aviv who had survived Dachau. In his lecture entitled "The Psychological State Of the New Immigrant,"
Persikovitz said that Holocaust survivors were different from other new immigrants. "Holocaust survivors do not commit suicide; they heroically prove the continuity of the Jewish people," he said.
"Generations of Israeli doctors and educators have grown up in the light of this statement, which has become an accepted national myth," Barak said.
"But in practice, this statement was never checked and is not based on anything. For sociological reasons, it was convenient for all of us to adhere to it. No one wanted to think that Holocaust survivors were in unbearable distress. The survivors themselves also did not want to be stigmatized as `sick, weak and broken;' rather, they wanted to join in the myth of the heroic sabra who just recently fought a glorious War of Independence against the enemy. It was convenient to think: `Let's show the Nazis that we're heros, we established a state.' And that was true, but at the same time, they refrained from looking into the terrible experience of the Holocaust, which reverberates to this day."
Earlier studies had shattered another myth, that despite the intense suffering in the concentration camps, few inmates tried to commit suicide. These studies found that while 100 suicides per 100,000 people is considered a very high rate in normal times, the rate in the camps was about 25,000 suicides per 100,000 people, or almost one out of every four people.
"As far as is known, this is the highest suicide rate in human history," Barak said. "We've learned that religious people in Auschwitz and other camps made formal applications to rabbis in the camps seeking permission to commit suicide."