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A Scarred Inheritance

Ahava Ehrenpreis

Children of Holocaust survivors grew up with adults possessed of unimaginable courage and determination. Yet many of them carry with them the scars of the past

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

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RADIOACTIVE “Similar to radioactive waste, the emotional trauma cannot be seen or detected. It remains hidden in the dark abyss of the unconscious with its toxic and hazardous influence threatening the health of humans for hundreds of years,” writes Dr. Natan Kellerman

So close to greatness, yet burned at times by the pain, the second generation still lives under a cloud of fear and foreboding:

“I was glad that I was a chubby kid, because I knew the skinny kids would die first if the food ran out.”

“When I chose my wife, I wanted someone who I felt would be able to run away from the Nazis when the time came, someone who was strong physically and emotionally, who could shoulder the burden of caring for children in a difficult time.”

“Any change in the political world, almost anything in the news will have me frightened and fearing for my children’s safety.”

Chilling words that describe trauma, stress, perhaps even a certain paranoia about the world. The composers of these sentences are clearly fearful — of the unknown, of forces beyond their control. They are, it seems, constantly living and reliving a horrific episode, one that occupies their thoughts and pulls at their hearts.

These expressions could have easily been spoken by Holocaust survivors, but they were not. These are the thoughts and fears of children of Holocaust survivors, men and women who did not live through the war and may have been born decades after its end. Many of these second-generation survivors, as they are called, grew up in affluent homes, have achieved academic or financial success, and lead seemingly normal, productive lives.

And yet, something gnaws at them. It is the feeling, as one second-generation adult explained, that things are just on the verge of chaos, that in the next moment the world will erupt again in a spasm of war and violence and that they will be on the run — like their fathers and mothers before them.

Who are these children of survivors and what are their particular characteristics? Is it fair to single them out as a group, or are they really just like everyone else? Is it possible that, in the words of one doctor, their parents’ headache has become their own?

Yes and No

Dr. Irit Felsen, a licensed clinical psychologist with a private practice in New Jersey, has dedicated her life to understanding post-traumatic stress disorder and the effects of the Second World War and the Holocaust on the children of survivors.

The daughter of two survivors, Dr. Felsen runs a monthly discussion group for second-generation children in Brooklyn organized by the Bikur Cholim Chesed Organization.

Her experience has led her to conclude that some of the children of survivors have internalized the anxieties of their parents, but also have been given an extra push to succeed.

“Some of the offspring of Holocaust survivors have been observed to have lower self-perceptions of independence and self-sufficiency but higher achievement motivation and higher self-criticism than non-Holocaust related peers,” says Dr. Felsen, who is also an adjunct professor of psychology at Yeshiva University. “Some studies of children of survivors show elevated levels of anxiety and depression, however these remain within the ‘normative–high range,’ reflecting an absence of serious psychopathology.” Clinical interviews with children of survivors often include descriptions of nightmares, deep-seated anxiety, and echoes of their parents’ trauma in their own lives.

On the flip side, although “second gens” may be more susceptible to certain psychological difficulties, Felsen notes that they also display a generally greater compassion and empathy for humanity. Her data indicates that many second gens have chosen careers in the social services.

Dr. Natan Kellerman, an Israel psychologist and one of the founders of Amcha (an Israeli support organization for Holocaust survivors), addresses the difficulty of defining the maladies of the second generation in his book, Holocaust Trauma; Psychological effects and Treatment.

“How does transmission of trauma occur? How can trauma be transmitted from one generation to another? At first glance, the concept of transmission is difficult to grasp. It is as if saying that someone’s headache is caused by the fact that his father was hit on his head by a stone some 50 years ago.”

Indeed, Kellerman confirms the headache is very real. He uses the analogy of a nuclear bomb to make his point.

“Like a nuclear bomb that disperses its radioactive fallout in distant places even after a cruel explosion, any major psychological trauma continues to contaminate those who were exposed… in the first, second, and subsequent generations. Similar to radioactive waste, the emotional trauma cannot be seen or detected. It remains hidden in the dark abyss of the unconscious with its toxic and hazardous influence threatening the health of humans for hundreds of years.”

Unlike Kellerman’s hidden influences, some markers for trauma can in fact be detected and measured. Researchers now study how external or environmental factors can actually change the cells that send messages to the DNA. “Epigenetics” is the scientific theory that offspring can inherit the altered DNA of parents that was modified by events or trauma that the parent experienced.

“Children want to know and connect with their parents. A healthier child may read all the Holocaust literature or become involved in a movement — Soviet Jewry, Zionism — or become preoccupied with the topic. I wrote a dissertation. Others may relive their parents’ experience to resolve this schism and attempt to connect to their parents. In a more fragile subset, this may cause neuropsychological trauma”

In 2000, Dr. Rachel Yehuda and her associates reported in the American Journal of Psychiatry that low cortisol levels (the stress hormone that helps the body return to normal after trauma, which can plummet when the stress response is overactive) in adult offspring of Holocaust survivors appeared to be a factor in a greater risk for PTSD. In fact, comparable results were found in studies of cortisol level in post 9/11 subjects.

More recent studies by Dr. Yehuda — who is a professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at Mount Sinai School of Medicine — found the same lower levels of cortisol in descendants of Holocaust survivors. Yehuda explains that “this adaptation makes sense: Reducing enzyme activity keeps more free cortisol in the body, which allows the liver and kidneys to maximize stores of glucose and metabolic fuels — an optimal response to prolonged starvation and other threats.”

Epigenetic changes, Yehuda points out, “often serve to biologically prepare offspring for an environment similar to that of the parents.” Ironically for post-Holocaust offspring, although the environment is one of plenty, the body continues to assume stress and food deprivation and releases these hormones. This could then make children of survivors, who now enjoy an abundance of food, possibly more likely to suffer from obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and even PTSD.

Dr. Yehuda stresses that the study of epigenetics in this area is just beginning and these recoded molecular changes cannot be definitively linked to greater risks or benefits.

It is beyond doubt, however, that children of Holocaust survivors are the recipients of varying degrees of emotional and even physiological inheritance.

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