Study: Women Who Fled Holocaust Have High Suicide Rate

Those who came to Israel during the war are three times as likely to take their own life than those who survived the Holocaust in its entirety, new research shows.

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Holocaust survivors walk through the main gate of the former Nazi death camp at Auschwitz, in Oswiecim, Poland, January 2016.
Holocaust survivors walking through the main gate of Auschwitz, January 2016. The UN now calls it Auschwitz-Birkenau: German Nazi Concentration and Extermination Camp (1940-1945).Credit: AP
Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati

Women who escaped Europe and came to pre-state Israel during the Holocaust are three times as likely to commit suicide as women who survived the Holocaust in its entirety and came to Israel only after World War II, a new study shows.

The research, conducted at the University of Haifa and recently published in the PLOS One journal, also shows that these women are also 4.6 times more likely to take their own lives than women who came from Europe before the Holocaust started.

Seventy-one years after the death camps were liberated, researchers are still trying to document and understand the psychological effects of the Holocaust on survivors. The study was conducted by Prof. Stephen Levine and Prof. Itzkhak Levav of the university’s Department of Community Mental Health, in conjunction with the Health Ministry, the Interior Ministry and the Central Bureau of Statistics. It used data on more than 220,000 men and women who were born in Europe between 1922 and 1945 and immigrated to Israel up until 1966.

The data for both men and women didn’t show much of a difference in suicide rates between those who lived through the Holocaust in its entirety and those who came to Israel before the Holocaust began. However, those who came to Israel when the Holocaust was still raging were 1.7 times more likely to commit suicide than those who had arrived before the war.

The differences became sharper when separate calculations were made for each gender. Among men, it turned out, there was little variation in suicide rates among the three groups, but among women, the differences were dramatic.

The researchers also sought to determine whether the age at which the women lived through the Holocaust affected their suicide risk later in life. They found that women who had been 13 years old or older during the Holocaust were 2.4 times more likely to commit suicide than peers who lived in Israel for the duration of the war.

Since the Holocaust was a complex web of events, processes and traumas that were experienced differently by different people, depending on where they lived in Europe as the war unfolded, it is difficult to draw conclusions from behavioral research based on statistics. Nevertheless, a study based on 220,000 subjects, more than 115,000 of them women, clearly indicates that women who fled the Nazi horrors before the end of the war were more likely to take their own lives than even those women who experienced the war in its entirety.

“In general, the tendency toward suicide is more prevalent in men, and here we have other findings,” said Levine. “We know from past studies conducted elsewhere in the world, like Scandinavia and other places, that suicide is generally seen more in women as a response to a loss, like the loss of a child or another relative at an early age.”

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