The Consequences of Holocaust Trauma on Individuals and Future Generations

When I sat down to this week's readings, I felt like the last several weeks had given me a pretty basic background and preparation for this task. In addition to all the information talked about in this class I also had the benefit (I'm not sure that is the right word) of growing up hearing about the persecution and attempted extermination of the early adherents to my religion so I felt like that gave me an additional potential viewpoint. Yet even with all this preparation and my own past difficulties and trials- as well as a decent understand of how challenging the Holocaust was for those who were victims of the Final Solution (by far mostly Jews, but I believe homosexuals, Jehovah's witnesses and other groups were also targeted), I found myself shocked the depth and length of the trauma's effects even by those who had not experienced the worst horrors of the system... even those who experiences almost none of it, but lived with and loved those who had.
A few weeks ago, I made a comment in one of my discussion posts about a young child who I felt was potentially picking up PTSD from helping and living with her afflicted parent. I wrote it because I have been thinking it for a very long time, but I also have kept that thought to myself for the most part because I do not feel I have the qualifications to back up my belief... but I will admit my fear of the parent's reactions is pretty severe. I also wondered if that was generally possible- to get the symptoms and difficulties of a disorder simply by being around someone who has the problem... after all, you can't get AIDS or Alzheimer's with very few exceptions just by spending time with someone. Our readings definitely suggested to me that it is possible and while I may not be right, maybe there are some things that I can look into to maybe not only help, but also to have a greater understanding and sympathy for the suffering of this family.

In general it appears that the effects of surviving Holocaust trauma may be varied due to differences in people, trauma endured, and other life components, it is easily stated that this is a long lasting, multi generational problem that affects a survivor's social, cultural, medical and daily lives... as well as those individuals that live with, love, and entwine their lives with those that have survived. As mentioned in a paper written by Natan Kellermann, until the traumatic events are properly acknowledged and then the steps of the healing process properly followed, the trauma will continue to affect and distort the daily life of the victim and the secondary sufferers. Some symptoms that were mentioned from either direct sources or the family members of those primarily effected by the trauma are as follows: mourning and other emotions such as guilt, anger, anxiety, grief, etc. Also sleep problems including insomnia, nightmares, and other sleep problems and mental challenges dealing with depression, repression of difficult memories or feelings, overactive defense mechanisms causing problems with excessive fear, anxiety, lack of emotive or 'numb' response, etc... (Most of the symptoms of PTSD are present in this population.) Also, behavior that is defensive and not appropriate to the current situation is often found exhibited by victims. Some of these cognitive and behavioral challenges may affect the victim by holding them back from many social activities / events either emotionally or making special events that usually provoke joy to also cause sorrow and anger. These behaviors may vary per person and how the trauma has affected them, but it causes many parts of their daily life and activities to be challenged in a way that other unaffected individuals do not have to deal with. Other long term problems that sufferers may find are easier susceptibility to numerous other mental difficulties as well as stress related medical disorders.

A difficult and challenging problem to deal with... especially as we have had a few massacres performed on other groups since. I was listening to a commentary on a new music CD that was released by a group called 'Split Enz' (I think) a little bit ago and some of the songs on this album as well as past albums discuss the pain of the lead writer who is dealing with genocide of past relatives and his life of having to move and sometimes live a confusing existence as a refugee. One song was a poem by his mother who at the age of five lost many family members to genocide and he mixes his and her thoughts and feelings together in one song. As I was reading this week I thought about that interview and the struggles of people generations after the event as I hadn't really thought that much about it before.

A very difficult topic to be sure... what are your thoughts on this issue? Do you have any personal experience that you are willing to share? What do you think that we can do as a society to not only help victims of all crimes, but also try to help the families, caregivers and friends of those who have these challenges? Please share....


  1. This brings out a bunch of reactions. My parents and maternal grandparents went to Europe with a Quaker organization (AFSC) to assist refugees and hungry children in 1938-39, and sometimes they became friends with survivors. I think my family had some kind of PTSD from dangers in war time, from being not able to save everyone, and from being witness to what the world ignored. I was really shocked at age eight when I found a photo album from WWII, tucked away among family memorabilia. My parents were so sad when they realized I'd seen those pictures.

  2. Joan - Thank you for sharing! There is a term for people who get PTSD from being surrounded by the trauma and the horrors and it is actually pretty common. I am so sorry for their challenges and for their sorrows and so grateful that they did what they could... so many people did nothing. It sounds like helping hurt them a lot, but they probably have many people who are still alive due to their sacrifice. I would love to hear more about their work!

  3. My wife and her parents are extremely conservative when it comes to food and wasting food. I've noticed the same with many of the Taiwanese people. They save and use almost everything. I believe it comes from the Japanese occupation and the hunger and suffering that generation faced. It is interesting to see it shared by generation after generation.

  4. Thanks, Lance. It is really fascinating to look at the behaviors that people develop over time and pass on generation to generation... even when the behavior doesn't always make any sense any more. I try not to waste food but I will let some go if I think its gone bad. I remember Grammy Carlile would save food that way as well and I remember watching her put two spoonfuls of tuna fish into an empty lid, wrap it in plastic wrap and put it in the fridge since everyone said they were full. It was funny and sad at the same time.

  5. So much on this. A dear friend now in her 80s was rescued by one of the AFSC refugee boats - a shipload of children (not necessarily one of the boats organized by my grandfather, but part of the same operation). She has described how the children on the boat had such a history of starvation that even though they were given regular meals on the boat, they kept 'squirreling' away food in their pockets, just in case.