By Dr. Irit Felsen
The second meeting of the Discussion Group for Children of Holocaust Survivors, sponsored by Bikur Cholim Chesed Organization, took place at the Boro Y on June 28th.
Again, the room was packed with nearly fifty participants who gathered together to better understand the legacy that binds us together. Further deepening some of the themes raised during the previous meeting, the discussion focused in particular on the question, how did effects related to the Holocaust get transmitted to the children of survivors.
Is there such a thing as transmission of effects related to the Holocaust in the Second Generation?
This question was raised in the 1970’s-1980’s, after the first reports describing psychological problems among children of survivors, based on children and adolescents that were seen in psychiatric clinics.
Critics opposed the generalization of such findings to the entire group of families of survivors. Indeed, many survivors functioned very well in their post-war lives. Some functioned very well in every arena, some only in certain domains, such as work outside the home, but not so well in their intimate relationships and family life.
Yet others functioned very poorly across the board, as described in my 2016 article in the online journal, Kavod: Honoring Aging Survivors. The Holocaust engulfed many people, and the variability in individual responses is indeed vast.
At the group’s June meeting, a study was presented, analyzing research on the physical and mental health of Holocaust survivors across the globe. The findings reveal that there were no significant differences between survivors and their peers on most aspects of health.
Significant differences were clearly observed in one area only. Holocaust survivors had much higher levels of post-traumatic symptoms than others who did not live through the Holocaust. These findings clearly suggest that many of the Second Generation grew up with parents who functioned well in the community yet suffered from elevated post-traumatic reactions.
It is through direct experiences in the relationships with parents that the effects of the Holocaust are transmitted to the Second Generation. The concept of “Dual Reality” of the Second Generation, introduced in the first meeting, was further explored as two parallel psychological systems of reference. One frame of reference focuses on the reality of the here-and-now, and the other references the reality of catastrophic trauma.
In the reality associated with the lives of the Second Generation, who did not experience the Holocaust, the world is portrayed in the context of school and the surrounding culture as essentially benign and just, where one is expected to behave in socially desirable ways such as be polite, wait one’s turn, and demonstrate prosocial behavior.
In the reality associated with parental Holocaust trauma, the expectations for behavior are very different, and are determined by survival.
The metaphor of a “glass floor” was suggested in order to describe the relationship between the two realities that exist in the psychological world of the children of survivors.
Underneath the glass floor, always in sight, forever present, lies a gruesome view of how people behave and what the world can be like in a catastrophe. This underworld holds feelings, images, behavioral expectations and anxieties that have to do with what the Second Generation absorbed from their parents. It refers to a reality completely different from that which they experienced in their own lives.
The reality glimpsed underneath the glass floor is always there, sometimes fading into the far periphery of one’s awareness, at other times swiftly moving to the foreground, in response to external or internal triggers.
The absorption of the reality of trauma has little to do with informational knowledge of the facts of the Holocaust or the events that took place. Rather, it is a knowledge that emanates from the relationships with the parents and from the emotional reactions of the parents to the events within these relationships.
Beginning in the 1980’s, the professions of psychiatry and psychology have accepted the diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and recognized that people are affected by traumatic events, sometimes for a very long time.
Since then, many studies have shown that parents who suffer from persistent post-traumatic reactions behave differently in the relationships with their children. Due to the persistent impact of trauma, they respond in different ways to reminders of memories, to things that upset them, and because of their post-traumatic symptoms they have trouble tolerating experiences of anxiety that are inevitable in the course of raising children.
For example, it is natural for children to attempt to become more autonomous, to get involved with peers and activities that take them further away from their parents and help them establish their own sense of self. However, for parents who lost many of their loved ones, it was often difficult to contain their anxiety about the safety of their children.
Children had two options with regard to their parents’ anxieties: they could internalize them, feeling that the world is very dangerous, that they are vulnerable, and that their parents don’t trust them to be safe. Or children could rebel and reject parental worries, and do what they wished to do despite the distress it caused their parents.
Gender was an important factor in the way children coped and adapted to the anxieties of their parents. Boys, according to the expectations of the culture at large, were typically supposed to be more autonomous and assertive, and to show more independence. If survivor parents communicated that their children’s actions were too dangerous, or too anxiety-arousing for them to tolerate, the children — especially boys – sometimes had to rebel if they were to develop a sense of autonomy, assertiveness and selfhood.
Children and adolescents of the Second Generation who succeeded in acting independently, as their development required, often found that this accomplishment came at a great cost. They may have internalized a sense that one’s needs come at the expense of the parents’ suffering. They may have concluded that it is a selfish thing to put one’s own needs ahead of others’ needs.
One participant volunteered a personal example. As an adolescent he participated in a public event in support of human rights. Although this act itself was not “bad,” he was made to feel very bad about it. He knew that his parents were consumed with fears for his safety, and that his insistence on going caused them great distress.
In such instances, normative, developmentally appropriate and even positive acts of establishing one’s identity could become colored as “bad.” Children could come to feel that they were “bad” because they caused their parents grief.
Girls, often raised to be more concerned about relationships and other people’s needs, tended to be more compliant with parental expectations and more sensitive to messages such as : “How can you do this, when you know what it does to me?!” As a result, daughters tended more often to put the parents’ needs ahead of their own, a pattern that in many cases became a personality trait of daughters of survivors, which was generalized to many other relationships.
An example from Art Spiegelman’s book “Mouse” was shared to illustrate the ways in which the reality of trauma becomes part of the experience of children who did not live through the Holocaust.
Little Art comes crying to his father because he fell and his friends ran ahead and did not wait for him. “Friends?” his father, the survivor, asks with cynicism. “Put them in a room without food for a week and then you will see what are friends…”
Never quite out of sight, never truly not relevant, the reality of trauma lies under the “glass floor,” sometimes in the background and sometimes moving swiftly to the foreground. When there is a terror attack, when someone says something anti-Semitic, or even in the benign context of intimate relationships, something might trigger the reality of trauma, bringing it to the fore and coloring one’s responses.
At the same time, it is important to remember that the transmission of effects related to the trauma is not all bad. Survivor parents had many immense resiliencies, which the Second Generation has inherited, as well. Some of the resiliencies of the Second Generation were discussed, including a capacity to persevere under difficult conditions, heightened empathy, and a strong need to humanize the ‘other’ and all relationships.
These traits can be expressed both as strengths and as vulnerabilities. In a context in which one does have choice, unlike under conditions of a catastrophe, giving up on a bad relationship or a bad job might be a more adaptive solution than continuing to persevere. However, the strengths of a legacy of adapting under extreme duress and re-building after devastating losses are unique gifts in the culture of survivor families which must be identified and amplified for future generations.
The next meeting of the Discussion Group for Children of Holocaust Survivors will take place on Tuesday, July 26, at 7 PM at the Boro Park Y.
The meeting will address some of the strengths and vulnerabilities of children of Holocaust survivors, including a discussion of the relationships between adult siblings in survivor families.
This discussion series is made possible by a grant from the Center for Advancing Holocaust Survivor Care of the Jewish Federations of North America.
 Dr. Irit Felsen is a clinical psychologist and an adjunct professor of psychology at Yeshiva University. She is also a member of the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress. This article appeared in Dr. Felsen’s blog at Iritfelsen.wordpress.com.