Children of Holocaust Survivors, Common Problems and Pathways to Healing

The article below (written by me) appeared in The Jewish Press on Feb. 22, 2012.

To be a child of a Holocaust survivor is to live in a world of contradictions.  It means trying to ignore a horrid past while feeling, in one’s chest and stomach, that the aguish of the past is always present. 

It means feeling too close to the parent survivor and needing some emotional distance, while at the same time feeling that one does not really know his parent.  It means wanting to ask questions and fearing to ask questions.  It means feeling an extremely heightened responsibility to have a powerful impact on the world, while having great doubts about one’s own potency. 

It means parents being overprotective of children and children being overprotective of parents.  It means chronic anger and frustration and attempts to deny both.  It means receiving a constant message that one has such a good life and should be grateful, while feeling constantly unworthy of one’s blessings.

We are now almost 70 years past the Holocaust, but the emotional effects of that devastating period live on powerfully in the children and grandchildren of survivors.  The Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) suffered by many survivors is a complex condition involving three central defining characteristics: 1) unwanted, spontaneous recollections of the trauma; 2) attempts to emotionally distance oneself from memories of the trauma or from other sources of emotional arousal, and 3) chronic anxiety and physiological arousal.

We can see from the first two characteristics that PTSD involves an internal contradiction between trying to forget the trauma and the inability to do so.  Thus, it is not surprising that children of survivors experience strong contradictions within themselves, as they try to make sense of contradictory messages they received from their parents. 

In the present article, I want to highlight a very important aspect of the experience of survivors and their children.  One of the most fundamental difficulties that survivors and their children struggle with is their ability to trust.  In part, I refer to the ability to trust other people—friends, acquaintances, strangers, even spouse and family members.  Given the cold brutality that the survivor witnessed, it is not surprising that he came to doubt the fundamental goodness of man, and passed this attitude on to his children.  With a heightened awareness of the fragility of life, the survivor inculcated into his children that the world is a dangerous place and that others should not be trusted.  This generalized mistrust has resulted in a tendency for survivors and their children to keep emotional distance from others in order to protect themselves. 

However, the lack of trust does not just pertain to other people.  I believe that the feeling of devastation and hopelessness caused by the Holocaust was so severe that it also gave rise, in many, to a mistrust of self and of Hashem.  One reason for the mistrust of self was the extreme demoralization, mistreatments and insults inflicted in the camps, which wounded the survivor’s self-image. Another reason is that intense anger burned within survivors, and some survivors subconsciously feared what they would become if they let their anger flow out.          

There are many other reasons for this mistrust of self.  Many children of survivors learned these patterns of self-mistrust and imitated them.  In addition, many children of survivors mistrust and detach from their feelings because they feel it is selfish to focus on one’s “petty” feelings when compared with the horror that the parent has endured. 

As for mistrust of Hashem, I believe the reasons are obvious.  I will only say that the mistrust of and anger towards Hashem experienced by many survivors was so painful that it was easier to deny His existence than to try to reestablish a connection with Him. 

It is the mistrust of and disconnection from others, oneself and Hashem that, I believe, defines the experience of many survivors and their children.  By the same token, I believe the most powerful way to heal the multigenerational Holocaust trauma experience is to address these three types of disconnection.  In my experience, one of the best ways to reestablish a connection with self, others and Hashem is in group settings.  It can take the form of a therapy group, self-help group or a discussion group.  The important element is that group members must be willing to be introspective, mutually supportive and courageous enough to speak openly about their feelings and experiences.  (Assurance of confidentiality within the group facilitates such openness.)  Groups allow people to experience the comfort, support and understanding that others can provide. Further, groups are a powerful emotional stimulant and allow the participant to “get to know” himself better. 

Regarding the spiritual dimension, I believe that experiencing others’ compassion is one of the best ways to increase feelings of hope.  And I believe that motivation to develop a relationship with Hashem only occurs when there are feelings of hope.  Tragically, many survivors and their children have distanced themselves from the only source that can give them real solace in a very troubled world.  In reconnecting with others’ empathy and care, struggling souls may be reminded of the ultimate source of compassion Who looks after us all.

Michael Milgraum, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist, whose new novel, Never Forget My Soul, discusses the issues addressed in this article.  Dr. Milgraum is a child of a Holocaust survivor.  He is in private practice, in Silver Spring, Maryland.  He provides group, individual and couples therapy and performs psychological evaluations. 

Copyright © Feb. 27, 2012, Michael Milgraum. All rights reserved. 

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One Response to Children of Holocaust Survivors, Common Problems and Pathways to Healing

  1. Cynthia Turner says:

    Can anyone recommend a support group for children of survivors in Rockland/Westchester county New York