Holocaust Survivors and Their Children: A Search for Positive Effects

Fara Kaplan

It is a well-known fact that Holocaust survivors who endured the concentration camps suffered agonizing emotional wounds that, for many, have never healed. Less well-known is how this legacy has also seeped into the psyches of many of their children. Bower (1996) studied 80 Jewish adults born to Holocaust survivors and 20 Jewish adults whose parents had not faced Nazi persecution. All subjects were of comparable age and all had reported experiencing some type of trauma during their life. At some point over their lifetime, 29 percent of the offspring of Holocaust survivors had experienced symptoms of depression and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), as opposed to zero percent of the control group. This finding suggests that the child or children of the Holocaust survivor may be at higher risk for psychiatric symptoms including depression, anxiety and PTSD through exposure to their traumatized parents (i.e., they may be vicariously traumatized).

Survivors who develop PTSD in response to Holocaust experiences may pass on vulnerability to the same condition to their children. Yehuda et al. (1998) found that survivors' offspring who were diagnosed with PTSD typically reported Holocaust-related thoughts or images as their primary traumas. Personal experience corroborates this finding. My mother is the daughter of Holocaust survivors. She reports having early childhood memories of her father's nightmares.

In addition to PTSD, children of Holocaust survivors also experience many other symptoms. Holocaust survivors often develop symptoms such as guilt associated with being alive (i.e., "survivor guilt"). Other symptoms include melancholia and identification with the dead. It has been suggested that survivors may believe that they are unable to fulfill the needs of their children and may withdraw from their children (Fogelman, 1998). However, I must comment that personal experience suggests an alternative response. I have found that the survivors I have known have done "everything" for their children and have deprived themselves in an effort to provide for their children.

Some data indicate that children of Holocaust survivors have difficulties with interpersonal adjustment (Garland, 1993). This may come as little surprise, since many witnessed destruction of interpersonal ties and violence of extreme nature. Such traumatic experiences can lead to difficulty with social adjustment and difficulty trusting others. Garland (1993) has commented that "work has shown that the children of parents who have carried within them, however silently, the experience of a destroyed world have much to contend with growing upůmaking normal separation and individuation difficult. Children of such survivors have an intense need to act as redeemers for their parents." Similarly, Fogelman (1998) found that children of survivors evidenced problems with communication and identity conflicts. Mor (1990) found a higher frequency of separation anxiety and guilt in children of survivors. My family's experience with separation anxiety supports Mor's findings. My mother suffers from separation anxiety and guilt which has been passed down to her children.

Past studies have focused on survivors of concentration camps and their offspring without regard to those Jews who survived many different circumstances. The research that I have examined inevitably focused on adults who were children during the Holocaust and people who were hidden from their persecutors for the duration of the war. Studies have revealed that the Holocaust impacted a great deal of the identity development of child survivors. Many of the adults studied tended to view their adult experiences with feelings such as the need to escape reality, hide, or save others. Garland (1993) found that child survivors who had experienced loss, separation, and death of family members exhibited somatic complaints, difficulties with the expression of aggression, and pronounced anxieties about themselves and their children.

The various effects that adults who were child survivors experience can be attributed to many aspects of their traumatic exposure. Children and adults were treated differently in the camps and consequently their emotional reactions were different. Children were likely too traumatized during the war to experience "true" childhood. They did not know what it was like to be a child and be taken care of by their parents. Most of them were taken away from their parents. Also, because the child's identity had been in a state of development, their experiences may have remained buried in their memory (i.e., unconscious). This may have impeded their ability to empathize with others and likely negatively affected their adjustment to their own offspring.

Another area in which there have been many interesting findings is with survivors who were hidden during the war. These would include those who actually hid underground, in the woods, or in closed spaces such as attics. Many Jews were also sent to live with Gentile families or in convents or orphanages, posing as Gentiles or actually converting to Catholicism. Others were refugees during the war. Magids (1998) studied differences between the offspring of hidden child survivors of the Holocaust and the offspring of U.S. born Jewish parents who did not undergo similar traumatic events. The survivor sample in this study consisted of adult children with at least one parent who was a hidden child survivor. Surprisingly, findings indicated that children of hidden survivors were no more or less psychologically impaired than children of non-traumatized, U.S. born parents. These results lend support to more recent sociological research claims that the traumas of the Holocaust may not have had pathological effects on all survivors.

Helmreich (1992) interviewed a randomly selected group of 211 survivors and compared them to a U.S. born group of 295 Jews. Data suggested that some of the survivors not only managed to resume their lives but also tended to be more successful than other U.S. born Jews of a comparable age. According to Helmreich (1992), the resilient traits (such as adaptability,
initiative, and tenacity) that enabled Jews to survive the Holocaust may have also accounted for their later success and such characteristics may have been passed on to their children. It has been suggested that positive traits in Holocaust survivors tend to be overlooked and that Holocaust survivors may actually be more task-oriented, cope more actively, and express more favorable attitudes toward family, friends, and work (Leventhal & Ontell, 1989). In short, researchers have tended to overlook such positive traits (in the search for expected and anticipated psychological difficulties).

In all, there is a tendency to focus on the negativity that ensues after life-altering traumatic experiences. My contention is that, although negative traits may develop after having survived a traumatic event such as the Holocaust, positive traits also exist. These positive effects should not be ignored. Further investigation may best address this observation.


Bower, B. (1996). Trauma syndrome transverses generations. Science News, 149, (20), 310-311.

Fogelman, E. (1998). Survivor victims of war and Holocaust. In D. Leviton (Ed.), Horrendous death and health: Toward action (pp. 37-45). Washington DC: Hemisphere.

Garland, C. (1993). The lasting trauma of the concentration camps: The children and grandchildren may also be affected. British Medical Journal, 307, 77-79.

Helmreich, W.B. (1992). Against all odds: Holocaust survivors and the successful lives they made in America. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Leventhal, G., & Ontell, M.K. (1989). A descriptive demographic and personality study of second-generation Jewish Holocaust survivors. Psychological Reports, 64, (3), 1067-1074.

Magids, D.M. (1998). Personality comparison between children of hidden Holocaust survivors and American Jewish parents. The Journal of Psychology, 132, (3), 245-255.

Mor, N. (1990). Holocaust memories from the past. Contemporary Family Therapy, 12, 371-379.

Yehuda, R., & Schmeidler, J., & Giller, E.G., & Siever, L.J., & Binder-Byrnes, K. (1998). Relationship between posttraumatic stress disorder characteristics of Holocaust survivors and their adult offspring. American Journal of Psychiatry, 155, (6), 841-844.