The first I heard of research into the effects of the Holocaust on the second generation came during a lunch in Mayfair with the American writer of books for teenagers, Judy Blume. Interviewing her for a British magazine, I was soon telling her almost as much about my teenagehood as learning about hers. Did I know, she asked me, about the book on children of Holocaust survivors which had recently been published in the United States, and about the self-help groups for the second generation now running there?
Her question astounded me. It was 1979, and by now the categorization of people into either deprived or advantaged—it was definitely a case of either/or—seemed to have been long since settled: the idea that I belonged to a group which might warrant being helped, rather than being purely privileged and morally obliged to help others, had frankly never even grazed my mind…
The book was Helen Epstein’s pioneering Children of the Holocaust and, though I didn’t read it then, only skimming the first couple of chapters, I cherished it. Unlike many children of Holocaust survivors, when apprised of the psychological literature, I didn't feel stigmatized: on the contrary, I was relieved and even elated that my years of problems weren't necessarily the result of personal pathology but might have a shared and external source.
Thereafter, I became an indefatigable collector of the literature on the subject. Others amassed art deco tea-sets or kitsch souvenirs; I collected material about the psychological effects of the Holocaust… I continued to resist the seductive contents of the mounting pile of journals, papers and books even while I began to write my own account, since here again I wanted my own voice to emerge relatively uncontaminated by other people’s experience, though many interchanges with other children of survivors at conferences and seminars over the years had given me some familiarity with current thinking. When, with this book nearing completion, I finally worked my way through the library of material I'd accumulated, I found myself initially reacting with a severe case of ‘medical student syndrome’, convinced that I suffered from every single symptom and disability mentioned, and then some.
The research on the second generation grew directly out of that on the first generation, the Holocaust survivors themselves, and even that was a long time coming. One prescient psychiatrist, Paul Friedman, observed as early as 1948 that,
It seems altogether incredible today that when the first plans for the rehabilitation of Europe’ surviving Jews were outlined, the psychiatric aspect of the problem was overlooked entirely. Everyone engaged in directing the relief work thought entirely in terms of material assistance. We accepted the theory that the very fact of survival was evidence of physical and psychological superiority—without looking too closely at the implications of this statement, which dishonoured millions of martyred dead.
But thereafter there was only silence, until 1961.
Actually, there is one published account of the psychological impact of concentration camps which predates even Friedman, written by the psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim. Bettelheim was imprisoned in Dachau and Buchenwald for a year in 1938–39, and he deliberated on the broader aspects of the experience in an article published in a psychological Journal in 1943. Expanding on his conclusions in a book, The Informed Heart, he argued that concentration camp inmates became shiftless, quarrelsome and self-pitying. Their treatment by the SS induced a regression into childhood, and in their attitude towards their peers inmates also began to emulate the aggression of the Gestapo, exhibiting an identification with the enemy.
In Bettelheim’s formulation we see the beginnings of the stereotyping of concentration camp survivors (and later their children) which was to develop so virulently in subsequent years, and which has drawn an equally robust response from critics. Bettelheim’s perspective, they argued, was completely ahistorical, entirely erasing survivors’ pre-war experiences. What's more, as a Freudian, Bettelheim couldn't deal with life-threatening physical and mental deprivation without recourse to a theory of regression: his explanations were rooted in the prisoners’ unconscious, rather than in the unyielding physical and psychic reality they faced. So, for example, Bettelheim saw ‘anal regression’ where other commentators acknowledged the strict control of inmates’ access to latrines. Bettelheim interpreted prisoners’ behaviour through the prism of normal drives and impulses, when there was nothing normal to be found in the univers concentrationnaire. Anyway, having been liberated in 1939, Bettelheim didn't live through the camps at their most brutal.
In 1961, William Niederland identified the components of what was soon being called ‘concentration camp syndrome’. They included a pervasive depressive mood with feelings of helplessness and insecurity, lack of initiative and interest, so that the sufferer resembles a ‘living corpse’; a severe and persevering guilt complex; all manner of psychosomatic and hypochondriacal symptoms; anxiety and agitation leading to insomnia and sometimes paranoia.
Although it’s easy today to find fault with Niederland’s crude typology, one becomes more charitable if the historical context in which it was developed is taken into account. Niederland and Krystal were examining concentration camp survivors who were making claims for compensation from the German government under 1952 Wiedergutmachung (making good again) legislation. Hence the more malign the after-effects they could identify, the greater the pension which the survivor would receive from the Germans. Those psychiatrists and doctors nominated by the German government often tried to minimize the effects of survivors’ war-time experiences, arguing that their problems were based on pre-existing conditions and not what had happened to them in the camps. Many survivors felt that they were being retraumatized and revictimized both by the insensitivity of the German government and the way it regarded claimants’ testimonies as inherently suspect (as well as by being labelled mentally impaired). So Niederland and Krystal were trying not to scapegoat survivors, but only—under hostile conditions—to establish the enormity of their suffering…
Although the concept of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder wasn't accepted as a legitimate diagnostic category until 1980, all the early commentators noted the existence of what they called a ‘latency’ period in survivors—a post-war symptom-free interval which, according to some analysts, was merely the time which it took for survivors to give up a sustaining sense of denial. Robert Jay Lifton, who compared survivors of Hiroshima with those of the Nazi persecution, argued that both groups exhibited what he called a ‘psychic closing off’—a chronic defence which amounted to a symbolic psychic death, an extreme identification with the dead.
It wasn't long before a crude stereotyping of Holocaust survivors gained hold: survivors ruminated obsessively about past traumatic events and displayed existential despair—an aura of apathy, gloom and emptiness pervaded their families. Unable to work and even to talk, they couldn't enjoy concerts, films, other people’s company, or even sex. At its most extreme, these typifications depicted survivors with the garish strokes of a Hollywood movie: one minute they'd be going about their business quite normally, the next some minor event—a knock at the door, a smoking chimney—would cause a major regression to their concentration camp experience, to which they'd react with barely controlled terror and hysteria. Although this might be true for those who were severely affected, the stereotypers made no distinctions: as one put it, ‘none escaped without serious personality damage’. I certainly didn’t recognize my almost preternaturally vibrant and positive parents in these portraits of despairing lassitude.
Yet even as these clumsy generalizations about Holocaust survivors were gaining currency, a backlash began, and researchers started to introduce serious qualifications in their hypotheses about the effects of the camps. They acknowledged that survivors’ pre-camp personalities and experience influenced their reaction to the trauma, and argued that the sensitive analyst wouldn't focus exclusively on a survivor's pre-Holocaust childhood experience or on the Holocaust trauma, but needed to address both. This was part of the growing recognition of individual differences between Holocaust survivors, who were no longer being conceptualized as a homogeneous mass but a diverse group, coming from different European countries, speaking different languages, and differing too in their religious (orthodox or assimilated), cultural and political beliefs, as well as educational and economic backgrounds.
It was as if the incarcerated were finally beginning to emerge from beneath gross Nazi caricature, and a new set of questions could now be asked: How long had an individual spent in a concentration camp? Were they alone, or with friends and relatives? In a camp, a ghetto, in hiding, or all three? Researchers became more sensitive to the differences between camps and between different peoples’ experiences within the same camp, to the pre-war family constellation, the number of surviving members of a person’s family of origin, and the personal resources of the survivor (whether in hardship they were more prone to discover unanticipated strength or despair).
They began to appreciate the importance of having survived in a group or at least as one of a pair (something my mother could have told them from the first) and the value of ‘social bonding’ both in the camps, and after. For researchers had also begun to widen their gaze from an exclusive focus on the concentration camp experience, not just to the survivors’ pre-war world but also to their post-war lives. The whole experience of immigration now became visible, and the professionals began to speculate that some of the difficulties which Holocaust survivors and their families encountered were due not only to their war-time trauma but to the subsequent and also traumatic experience of losing their homeland and mother tongue—studies began to compare the families of survivors with those of other immigrants, and Holocaust survivors with survivors of other ‘man-made’ trauma.
Attention was also focused on the age and stage in the life cycle at which a person lived through the Holocaust. Child survivors had different experiences from adults—their trauma appeared less connected with the loss of homeland and more with the early separation from parents, which could seriously arrest their psychological development. Married adults who lost a pre-war spouse and children had different experiences again. Young unmarried adults seemed the least affected; however, those who were in their twenties and thirties on their release and who married and had children soon after liberation didn’t have the space or time to come to terms with their massive losses, often with serious consequences for their parenting.
Mourning was seen as a problem for many survivors. Krystal and Niederland argued that not only did survivors have no opportunity to mourn their losses during the Holocaust, but that after the war their guilt at having survived prevented them from completing the work of mourning. For these early theorists, guilt at surviving was the prime example of survivors’ psychopathology, and they claimed to have detected it in 92 per cent of 149 cases. Indeed, the concept of survivor guilt became so prevalent that therapists often suggested to survivors that they ‘must feel guilty for having survived when all around you died’, as if guilt could be assumed and the survivor had indeed committed a crime.
Certainly, some survivors did forcefully express a sense of guilt and shame at having lived… The task of mourning in such circumstances is, however, far more complex than the crude early formulation allowed. For example, many survivors felt, as an Israeli analyst put it, that ‘if one mourns too well, one betrays the dead’. Even under average conditions, another commentator stressed, mourning isn’t necessarily ever complete—certainly not in the case of a parent for a child…
Perhaps the most telling comment on the concept of survivor guilt came from Dr Jack Terry who argued that
The American psychiatrists who interviewed these survivors were usually German-speakers who had themselves escaped (in the nick of time) from being incarcerated in concentration camps, and who had left members of their families, relatives, or friends behind. It therefore stands to reason that it would be these individuals who were most likely to suffer from so-called survivor guilt and not the ones who had paid so dearly for their survival during their years in concentration camps.
At the same time, a counter-trend soon began to assert itself: instead of focusing exclusively on survivors’ pathology, researchers began to acknowledge their exceptional strengths. In contrast to the stereotype of the walking corpse, some survivors’ zest for life, drive, determination and courage now came to be remarked upon… In 1992, the New York Times even carried an article headed ‘Holocaust Survivors Had Skills To Prosper’, which stressed survivors’ initiative and tenacity, their successful careers and greater-than-average incomes, along with the unusual stability of their marriages, though it also acknowledged that social and economic success might well mask continuing internal turmoil. Researchers elsewhere warned that overemphasizing the positive traits of some survivors could make others feel inadequate, as if they were to blame if they hadn't learned ‘positive lessons’ from the tragedy.
What was missing (for over twenty years after the end of the war) from this orgy of research into Holocaust survivors was any reference to their children. For decades, analysts didn’t connect the parents’ Holocaust experience with the children’s lives. Although many survivors and their children were analysed at Anna Freud’s Hampstead Clinic, for instance, their records can’t be found because the very specialized index didn’t include the item ‘survivor’, let alone ‘survivor’s child’. It wasn’t until 1966 that a lone Canadian psychiatrist, Vivian Rakoff, noticed that he was seeing more adolescents whose parents were Holocaust survivors than he would have expected, and wrote an article giving three case studies. Krystal’s important 1968 volume, Massive Psychic Trauma, suggested in passing that children of survivors were exploding with the aggression which their parents had suppressed, and argued that increasing numbers of the children were depressed and suffered from a symbiotic relationship with their mothers which hindered their separation. Social pathology, it claimed, was being transmitted to the next generation.
Yet when, in 1970, American analyst Judith Kestenberg sent a questionnaire to her colleagues in many different countries to find out how many had treated children of survivors, she encountered surprise among many of them to whom it had never occurred to link patients’ problems with their parents’ persecutions during the Holocaust. In 1973, the literature on the subject was still very small, but as the decade developed there was a positive rush of studies and clinical reports on the so-called second generation who seemed to be seeking professional help in alarming numbers. Nevertheless, when in 1976 Helen Epstein tried to interest the New York Times in publishing an article on children of survivors, she was told that there was no indication that such a group even existed.
It wasn’t long, however, before children of Holocaust survivors were graced with a syndrome all of their own, and a torrent of academic papers to herald its arrival. They drew attention to disturbances in the parent–child relationship, suggesting that the offspring of people who’d experienced overwhelming physical and mental trauma might themselves manifest some of their parents’ trauma. Later commentators went further, arguing that ‘the children of survivors show symptoms that would be expected if they actually lived through the Holocaust’. The Holocaust, it was claimed, had become the unconscious organizing principle for the second generation, shaping both their internal reality and interpersonal relationships. Some even went so far as to assert that ‘it is not possible for a child to grow up, without becoming scarred, in a world where the Holocaust is the dominant psychic reality. With few exceptions, the mental health of children of survivors is in jeopardy.
So what exactly is the second generation syndrome? It’s a matter not only of ‘transmitted presences, contents, and conflictual psychic matter… but also… [of] transmitted absences, vacuums, denials, gaps, and intergenerational psychic holes’. Survivor parents, it was argued, tend to overinvest in their children and overprotect them: one child of survivors recalled: ‘We were continually fed, burped, stroked, tweaked, and fondled until we were well into our thirties.’ The parents and children often develop extreme symbiotic ties; the parents don’t encourage the child’s autonomy and experience the normal process of separation and individuation in their offspring as a threat and an acute narcissistic injury to the family—after such overwhelming losses, all separation to them seems like loss. To the child, separation also evokes fears of annihilation, and they feel considerable guilt at wanting to be different from their parents. They find their parents’ constant vigilance overcontrolling, interfering and demanding, but reluctantly yield to it because they often experience their parents’ anxieties as their own. What’s more, the studies appeared to show that children of survivors left their parents’ homes later than other young adults, and after they’d left remained in close contact with their parents.
Other clinicians observed a reversal of roles, a parenting of the parents, with the child comforting the adult rather than the other way round, and the parents’ needs becoming more important than the children’s. (It’s no coincidence that one researcher found that 60 per cent of the children of survivors in his study sought work in the helping professions, such as social work, medicine, psychology etc.) Again and again the professionals mentioned the parents’ high expectations for their children: the Holocaust survivor parent might exclaim, ‘For this I survived the Nazis? For this I survived the camps?’, inducing wholesale guilt in their children. The survivor parents, it was also suggested, could not tolerate the merest unhappiness in their offspring: ‘If they were to see me unhappy or unhealthy, they would feel punished and I didn’t want to punish them.’
The reports often detected in the second generation an extreme identification with the lives of the first. In a process labelled ‘transposition’, survivors’ children were described as living simultaneously in the present and past, transposing themselves to their parents’ past, and attempting to compensate for their parents’ losses. Sometimes they tested their body endurance and their ability to survive being in hiding; in extreme cases they alternately prepared for the Holocaust and attempted to see whether they could be freed. In institutional settings, they reacted as if their very survival were at stake, while in other situations they behaved as if every decision was a matter of life and death. Illness was omnipresent: ‘Every time my throat hurt, my mother was sure that I had cancer.’ Another child of survivors recalled that ‘Everything was life and death. They were always waiting for the worst to happen.’
An Israeli psychotherapist claimed that in most survivors’ families one child is designated as a ‘memorial candle’ for the relatives who died in the Holocaust, and ‘is given the burden of participating in his parents’ emotional world to a much greater extent than any of his brothers or sisters’, thus freeing the siblings from some of the trauma. The child is often named after a dead relative or sibling, and regards him or herself as a substitute for a dead predecessor, having to live up to the lost relative’s idealized memory. The American cartoonist Art Spiegelman referred to the blurred photograph of his ‘ghost-brother’, killed, aged five or six, before Spiegelman was born, which hung in his parents’ bedroom:
The photo never threw tantrums or got in any kind of trouble… It was an ideal kid, and I was a pain in the ass. I couldn't compete. They didn’t talk about Richieu, but that photo was a kind of reproach. He’d have become a doctor, and married a wealthy Jewish girl… The creep… It’s spooky having sibling rivalry with a snapshot.
A common theme in the literature is children of Holocaust survivors’ difficulty in expressing anger towards their parents. The parents had to suppress their own rage during the Holocaust and were afforded few opportunities after to vent it; the children later experienced their own normal aggressive instincts as overwhelming: ‘My rage is so big it will consume everyone. Almost like a Holocaust.’ Some researchers maintained that the parents, fearing their own rage, unconsciously encouraged the children in their aggressive behaviour, so that the children expressed the repressed aggression of the parents. The parents, for obvious historical reasons, put a high premium on being ‘right’ and in control, and ambivalence was not well tolerated.
Yet more problems were identified. Children of survivors were judged unusually anxious, especially if they caused displeasure to their mothers. Their ‘tension tolerance’ was impaired in infancy because their war-stressed parents couldn't function as a ‘protective shield’. They also often had difficulties developing a positive sense of Jewish identity because they associated being Jewish with being killed, and because the parents, while wanting the children to settle comfortably into the Gentile society they inhabited, also desired them to remember the culture and families which they had lost. Children of Holocaust survivors, it seems, were frequently high achievers, following the pattern of their parents for whom ‘activity and frequently over-activity is an important adaptive defence mechanism… when concentration camp inmates couldn’t go on working, this would usually mean selection for the gas chambers or other forms of death’.
The literature frequently reports feeding problems in the families of Holocaust survivors, with parents who had survived starvation worrying about feeding their children as if it were a matter of life and death, and many examples of the later development of eating disorders among daughters of survivors. At the same time, children of Holocaust survivors were found to feel ‘special’ and unique, displaying excessive narcissism and lasting infantile omnipotence…
It's hard to imagine how Holocaust survivor parents could read some of the accounts of their parenting styles without feeling terribly persecuted. Berated for the inconsistent way they applied discipline—according to one mental health professional, they set limits either too rigidly or not at all—indicted equally for wishing to spare their children from going through what they did, and for viewing their children as narcissistic extensions of themselves (and which parent doesn’t to some extent view his or her children thus?), it sometimes seems as if Holocaust survivor parents have been judged against some ideal of parenting rather than the norm, or even what might have been expected in the circumstances. What tended to get omitted from the descriptions of their failings was the often superabundant love they lavished on their children, which can’t be entirely dismissed as toxic or narcissistic…
All in all, though an enormous amount of what I read in the literature on children of Holocaust survivors resonated very loudly and sometimes made me feel as if my own family had been eavesdropped on, I was also left feeling more than a little uncomfortable. This was partly because, for all the lip service paid to survivors’ strengths, many of the idiosyncratic skills they brought to their parenting went unacknowledged. My parents’ more punitive tendencies, for example, were frequently leavened by their terrific sense of humour, and the extreme resourcefulness which they brought to bear on settling into a foreign country after such extreme trauma is awe-inspiring. My discomfort, like that of many other peoples, also derived from the profoundly pathologizing and stigmatizing tendencies of the less sensitive work in the field…
Much of the literature has also been found wanting methodologically. According to one critic, some of it amounts to no more than unsupported anecdotal findings and speculation, based on the assumption that there must have been damage to the second generation. Others arraign many of the studies for their too small samples, and the fact that the subjects were clinical patients—in other words, people who had already sought psychotherapeutic help of some kind—which therefore generated findings which were in no way applicable to the entire second generation. There are also many individual variables in the way in which the second generation has been raised, and a large number of them aren't susceptible to measurement. The literature is bulging with generalizations and a readiness to attribute neurosis and psychosis; as one researcher aptly put it: ‘We must respect and understand that what we sometimes consider psychiatrically “suspect” are the means whereby human beings cope with trauma and overcome its effects’.
The many different studies on the second generation have, moreover, produced wildly inconsistent results. Many research projects and clinical reports by analysts, for example, show no distinctive psychopathology in children of survivors, in contrast with the plentiful research already cited which found them to have significant problems. Interestingly, problems in the second generation have been found irrespective of whether the children were told what had happened to their parents or not, and it’s been argued both that frank talk about the Holocaust in the family produces more psychological disturbance in the children, as well as less. Certainly, silence and family secrets can exert a powerful effect on the child, but so too can the constant relating of brutal experiences. What’s more, parent and child experience the amount and form of telling in different ways: there are stories of children who felt that their parents talked endlessly about the war, whose parents claim they never mentioned it because it distressed them. A look, as one commentator reports, can be eloquent; a pair of analysts have catalogued eight different ways of both ‘knowing and not knowing’ about the Holocaust…
One of the difficulties in generalizing about the experience of Holocaust survivors and their children is the lack of unanimity even over definition. Should a refugee from Nazi Germany be bracketed with a Holocaust survivor? Some argue that there’s greater kinship between the problems of Holocaust survivors and refugees than between those of Holocaust survivors and survivors of other man-made disasters. Others suggest that, without minimizing the fate of refugees, their problems and those of their children have been part of human suffering throughout history, whereas Hitlers Final Solution was unprecedented, and living in a concentration camp or in hiding, being daily exposed to the dangers of death was an incomparable experience. Groups providing services for survivors use different working definitions: one agency includes in its target group any Jew who emigrated from Germany after 1933, while membership of the Holocaust Survivors’ Centre in London is open to anyone who came to Britain after Kristallnacht in 1938. Similar psychological effects—survivor guilt, feelings of helplessness—have been detected in those who left Nazi-occupied countries between 1935 and 1939 as in those who remained. They shared the experience of losing their homeland and mother tongue, but living under total terror, it’s been suggested, was particular to survivors.
The issue is hedged about with powerful feelings. There is a strong belief that insisting upon the difference between refugees from Nazi persecution and their children, and survivors and their children, merely reproduces the hierarchy of suffering which has been so oppressive to the second generation: some people see it as the revenge of those who’ve felt themselves to be relatively low in the pecking order of pain—‘I haven't suffered as much as my parents, but you haven't suffered as much as me’. One therapist noticed that he was often asked by those who’d left Nazi Europe in the late 1930s if they, too, fell under the rubric of survivor. He concluded: ‘The question has a pleading quality, the questioner seeking grace… The question reflects the need to identify with those who suffered, and the disquieting belief that they themselves did not suffer enough.’ Robert Jay Lifton has remarked upon the way that guilt moves in concentric circles from the dead themselves: ‘The survivors feel guilty towards the dead; those who just missed going through the experience feel guilty towards the survivors; those who were even further away feel guilty towards this latter group.’
The issue is complex. Certainly refugees and survivors shared both pre-war experiences (discrimination, the threat and often actual experience of violence) as well as post-war ones (the discovery of the death of parents, grandparents etc.). Both groups experienced the trauma of relocation and loss of homeland. On the other hand, one sometimes gets an unpleasant whiff of competition for victimhood. For although victims today are stigmatized, the condition also brings a degree of status and other secondary gains. Those who refer glibly to a ‘culture of complaint’ have overstated it, but there's undoubtedly something satisfying in joining the ranks of the unequivocally wronged, those with an irrefutably legitimate claim on our sympathy. In a special recent issue of a Canadian feminist magazine on Jewish women, one woman, whose father was a child during pogroms in Europe early in the century and saw his own father killed, argued that ‘to all intents and purposes’ he should be considered a Holocaust survivor and she the child of a Holocaust survivor. But he wasn’t one, and it’s disturbing that she believes that only by claiming membership of this victimized group will his (and consequently her) sufferings acquire legitimacy. It would be dreadful if being a child of survivors became, in some perverse way, a desirable badge of victimhood. It seems to be difficult for us to maintain the distinctiveness of different historical experiences without ranking them in order of importance and grading their suffering, but my own view is that there were real similarities and real differences in the experiences of refugees and survivors and their children, and both need acknowledging. The Nazis saw the Jews as a homogeneous group, defined only by ethnicity; it behoves us to be able to examine our differences…