Does Extreme Trauma Transfer? The Case of Three Generations of the Holocaust

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2015
Katie E. Cherry (ed.)Traumatic Stress and Long-Term Recovery10.1007/978-3-319-18866-9_8

8. Does Extreme Trauma Transfer? The Case of Three Generations of the Holocaust

Abraham Sagi-Schwartz 

Center for the Study of Child Development, University of Haifa, 6035 Rabin Building, 31905 Haifa, Israel



Abraham Sagi-Schwartz

AttachmentHolocaustChild maltreatmentLoss of parentsVulnerabilityResilience


Our field has always expressed interest in exploring whether and how transmission of trauma might take place across generations. Maltreating families can teach us a great deal about the cross-generational transmission of trauma. Scholars have long suspected that parents who were abused as children, in turn, abuse their own children and that patterns of abusive caregiving in general are transmitted from one generation to the next. The mechanism of this process has been discussed by Cicchetti, Toth, and Maughan (2000) , who described an ecological model of transmission which suggests how maltreatment is transmitted across generations. This type of trauma, though, is inflicted by trusted attachment figures within the family.

In this chapter, we address the consequences of severe trauma that children experienced not within the family but of trauma inflicted by anonymous social and destructive forces external to the normative family. Toward that end, we focus on World War II Holocaust survivors and their offspring. We feel we can say rather clearly that the Holocaust was the most traumatic catastrophe ever designed by “civilized” human beings, with other humans being subjected to horrifying slaughters.

The Holocaust began in Germany in the well-known “Crystal Night” (Kristallnacht in German), November 9–10, 1938, when approximately 7,500 Jewish shops were destroyed and 400 synagogues were burnt down. The onset of massive slaughter of Jews began on that night and expanded rapidly over all Europe until 1945, resulting in the industrialized murder and extermination of six million Jews.

A tragic consequence of such atrocious events is that Holocaust survivors provide an opportunity for studying the enduring effects of massive trauma and extremely stressful experiences (Carmil & Breznitz, 1991) . Insights that can be gained from the current study concerning the long-term consequences of the Holocaust on survivors may extend to adaptational challenges for survivors of other, more recent genocides, each characterized by its distinctive feature. As the systematic extermination during the Holocaust began in the early 1940s of the previous century, there has been a sense of urgency about the research because even the youngest survivors who have any memory of the event are today in their mid-to-late 70s. Although there is ample documentation of many aspects of the events and consequences of the Holocaust, the window for first-hand empirical studies of survivors, involving sufficient numbers to recruit proper samples, is rapidly narrowing and, in the not-too-distant future, will be shut forever. This is all the more true of studies involving the assessment of survivors over an extended period of time. We took advantage of this narrowest of intervals, when three generations are simultaneously at hand, including the first generation of survivors and the third generation still in its infancy, to produce findings that shed light on vulnerability and resilience in general and that are applicable to other traumatic and catastrophic life events, of which genocide is only one.

In this regard, two main questions are addressed: (1) Do child survivors of extreme Holocaust trauma show marks of their traumatic experiences even 60 or more years later? (2) Was the trauma passed on to the next generations? Within this context, the notion of transmission gap of trauma and breaking the cycle of trauma is discussed. The discussion draws on our programmatic research conducted over the past two decades with three generations of Holocaust survivors, research that incorporates personal stories as well as psychological, interpersonal, genetic, physiological, and epidemiological data. Because we draw a lot of our discussion on attachment theory and research, in the next section, we begin with a brief overview of major attachment concepts, and then we introduce the notion of transmission of trauma to contextualize our findings.

Attachment, Attachment Security/Insecurity, and Transmission of Trauma

Perhaps the best way the basic tenet of attachment theory can be described is to use the words of John Bowlby, the founder of the theory: “To say of a child that he is attached to, or has an attachment to someone, means that he is strongly disposed to seek proximity to and contact with a specific figure, and to do so in certain situations, notably when he is frightened, tired or ill” (Bowlby, 1984, p. 371) . According to Bowlby, there is an innate bias to become attached to a primary caregiver regardless of the specific cultural niche. This is an enduring, long-lasting, emotional tie to a special person, and in fact, “all of us, from the cradle to the grave, are happiest when life is organized as a series of excursions, long or short, from the secure base provided by our attachment figure(s)” (Bowlby, 1988, p. 62) . When a child is exposed to sensitive parenting, he/she is likely to form a secure attachment relationship with the attachment figure. When insensitive care is experienced, then the likelihood for insecure attachment is heightened. It should be emphasized that both secure and insecure attachments are considered normative, with longitudinal studies demonstrating that secure and insecure attachment can be seen as protective and risk factors, respectively, for later adaption and functioning (see, e.g., Sagi-Schwartz & Aviezer, 2005) . There is also ample cumulative cross-cultural evidence for the universality of the theory and findings across many cultures and ethnic groups (see for a review, Van IJzendoorn & Sagi-Schwartz, 2008) .

Sometimes, however, such a secure base and safe haven may be in jeopardy. Using the insights of attachment theory, we can describe the cross-generational transmission of trauma as a vicious circle of “fright without solution,” in the words of Hesse and Main (1999) , where frightened or frightening parental behavior prevents children from developing trust and dependence on their caregiver, and it causes them to withdraw into disorganized behavior. This is most characteristic of abused and maltreated children (Van IJzendoorn & Bakermans-Kranenburg, 2009) .

At the same time, many maltreated individuals succeed in breaking the cycle of abuse . To understand how traumatized people may manage to do this, we examined the transmission patterns of World War II Holocaust survivors, members of normative families who experienced severe trauma. Holocaust survivors were exposed to an unexpected, harsh separation from parents in early childhood, loss of parents in early childhood, and traumatic, inhumane atrocities suffered by themselves and by people in their environment (for example, see Chap. 23, this volume).

We have good reason to assume that if loss of a dear relative occurred, it can be expected that the loss may not be psychologically resolved and that the unresolved loss should result in prolonged trauma. This is because many of the grief mechanisms that help people to resolve the loss of loved ones under natural life trajectories were simply not available to Holocaust survivors who were, at times, even exposed directly to the murder of their parents, often under terrifying circumstances, and sometimes also extermination of the entire family. In many cases, there was a significant gap between the time of the parents’ death and the time when the children were informed about it, and they were never able to learn the exact time of their parents’ death or its location. Moreover, there are no burial places or graves for the loved ones. Many survivors also felt guilt for not being able to help their parents, for staying alive, and simultaneously felt anger for being left alone. Under such horrific circumstances, which we consider to go against “the laws of nature,” we expect to find prolonged unresolved loss and trauma. By contrast, people who experience loss in the natural course of their lives have access to all the necessary markers or symbols that facilitate the mourning process: the death is natural, the time of death is known, there is a designated grave, there are no guilt feelings concerning the death, etc. In the context of our study, the question arises whether the effects of such atrocious experiences are transmitted to the next generations?

Our Holocaust Project Across Three Generations

Based on prior trauma research and literature, we anticipated the severe trauma sustained by the first generation of Holocaust survivors to be transmitted to the next one. In the case of trauma inflicted within the family, when the child has no caregiver to turn to in times of stress, there is clear evidence of attachment disorganization . Because it is beyond the scope of this chapter to address in length the issues of adversity within the family, the reader is advised to look into the effect of maltreatment of children growing up with abusive parents, amidst domestic violence, or in multiple-risk families or institutions, in a review article by Van IJzendoorn and Bakermans-Kranenburg (2009; see also Chap. 9 of this volume for related discussion). But, whether extreme trauma that originates outside the family—within normative families—also leads to insecure-disorganized attachment, still needs to be answered.

We hypothesize that normative families subjected to external trauma have several characteristics that may ease the consequences that we observe when anguish takes place within the family. From an attachment perspective, the first such characteristic has to do with the existence of a secure emotional infrastructure before trauma occurred and before the experience of separation and loss.

For the less familiar reader, we provide here, first, a brief description of two classical attachment measures so that further descriptions and discussions below will be better understood. In the strange situation procedure (SSP; Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters, & Wall, 1978) , infant behavior during reunion with the mother after two 3-min separations is classified into three main categories of attachment. Securely attached infants (B classification) may or may not be upset when their mother leaves, but her return has a calming effect, and they show minimal resistant and avoidant behavior. Avoidant infants (A classification) do not seek proximity or contact with their returning caregiver, but instead they show avoidant behavior. Resistant or ambivalent infants (C classification) seek contact, but at the same time, resist the caregiver; some resistant infants are unable to settle within the duration of the 3-min reunion episodes. A fourth category of attachment classification, most pertinent to the discussion in this chapter, refers to disorganized infants (D classification; Main & Solomon, 1990) . In this category, “the infant displays disorganized and/or disoriented behaviors in the parent’s presence, suggesting a temporary collapse of behavioral strategies…the infant may freeze with a trancelike expression, hands in air” (Hesse, 1999, p. 399) .

The Adult Attachment Interview (AAI; Hesse, 2008) assesses current mental representations of childhood attachment experiences, including loss and trauma experiences. Five attachment classifications are coded as follows: (1) secure: autonomous, coherent in exploring past experiences whether positive or negative (F classification); (2) insecure: dismissive of past relationships with attachment figures and attachment experiences (DS classification); (3) insecure: preoccupied with past experiences and angry toward attachment figures (E classification); (4) insecure: disoriented with regard to attachment because of the lack of resolution of loss/trauma (labeled as U and is most pertinent to this chapter); (5) insecure: cannot classify (CC; a mixture of diverging mental representations of attachment so that no single representation seems to dominate the participant’s thinking about the past; Hesse, 2008) .

We can imagine the outcomes that would have been expected if, for example, the SSP or the AAI had been available in the 1930s, before the World War II Holocaust. It is reasonable to assume that infants and adults in Amsterdam, Antwerp, Paris, and Berlin would have achieved typical outcomes in the SSP and AAI similar to those we find today in normative families.

The second characteristic associated with normative families that were caught in the Holocaust is that they did not always personally experience or witness traumatizing events; we know about many families that, for a certain period of time, remained united while they were escaping and hiding.

Another factor we must take into account is the availability of support systems. During the Holocaust, the trauma was not inflicted on the children by parents or trusted attachment figures but by anonymous destructive social forces. Unfortunately, and upon harsh separations from their beloved parents, many children experienced terrifying hostilities with German Schutzstaffel (SS) officers who examined them to determine whether they qualify as “Aryan” (in a very simplistic translation for this chapter = master race, but, of course, the term Aryanism is much more complicated historically and symbolically).

Under these horrifying circumstances, is it possible to find a source for a strong feeling of hope? We explored the role played by social support systems, such as the legitimizing of prolonged grief, a collective national identity, and feelings of safety from anti-Semitism (Solomon & Chaitin, 2007) . Other sources of support can be found in the meaning ascribed to the new generation (Frankl, 1997) , in the resources found in fellow survivors, in public Holocaust memorials, and in the continued bond with the deceased parents (Silverman & Nickman, 1996).

In fact, as can be seen next, our findings eventually revealed only limited cross-generational transmission of trauma. Therefore, the question arises whether we are observing transmission of trauma or perhaps instead also posttraumatic growth (Tedeshi & Calhoun, 2004; see also Chap. 17, this volume) ? At the time that we conducted the study, the first and second generations (grandmothers and mothers) were adults. Therefore, in order to assess cross-generational transmission of the trauma sustained by the grandmothers, from an attachment perspective, we examined the adult mental representations with regard to early attachment relationships in child survivors (grandmothers) and their daughters (mothers), using the AAI. Moreover, we were able to administer the SSP to the third generation with a focus on disorganized attachment in infancy. These special circumstances have resulted in a unique three-generation study, which makes the present research different from other attachment studies.

According to some Holocaust experts (for review see Bar-On et al., 1998) , the parental styles of Holocaust survivors may be dependent upon the need for their children, and the survivors are also described as anxious and conflictual, frightened and frightening, helpless and unexpected, and emotionally unavailable. Would it then lead to attachment insecurity , to attachment disorganization? What can be learned about the risk of children from normative families living in peace, until their world suddenly collapsed without any comprehensible reason? And what are the consequences for the children’s attachment when unexpectedly they lose entirely their attachment figures, seemingly against all “laws of nature”?

In such context, we set out to examine two issues: The first is regarding the first generation, namely what are the implications of the accumulated traumatic experiences before, during, and after the Holocaust on survivors. In other words, does the concept of “sequential traumatization” apply here for first generation (Keilson, 1992) ? The second issue concerns secondary and tertiary traumatization and loss, that is, traumatic effects of events and loss that did not take place in the lives of the second and third generations themselves, but only in those of their parents who may or may not have communicated their experiences—in a verbal or nonverbal way (Wiseman et al. 2002) . Taken together, we asked whether sequential traumatization for first generation necessarily leads to transmission across generations (i.e., secondary and tertiary traumatization). Or, maybe we observe here a “transmission gap”?

Holocaust research is inconclusive with regard to cross-generational transmission of traumatic experiences. The reasons may be methodological, having to do with massive reliance on convenience samples and also clinical samples, both of which may result in negatively biased results. To avoid such bias, we used a different methodology as described next, aimed at examining the effects of catastrophic trauma, separation, and loss, as well as uncovering the hidden reserves of human stamina and resilience.


First Phase

First Generation

We recruited a non-convenience sample of Holocaust child survivors (now grandmothers) and a comparison group without Holocaust experience in their childhood (Sagi-Schwartz et al., 2003) . We made sure that the two groups are well matched in the post-World War II macro life events and stresses they experienced, so this variable was well controlled. The complete details of the study are described in Sagi-Schwartz et al. (2003) . Our measures and assessments included observations in the home and laboratory, standard psychological tests, semi-structured interviews and inventories, and physiological, genetic, and epidemiological data.

Even 55 years after the events, we found significant differences between the two groups in the domain of traumatic stress. The Holocaust group showed elevated markers of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), more signs of unresolved stress, and more expressions of traumatic stress and anxiety. Child survivors also displayed a significantly higher rate of unresolved classifications (U) on the AAI , which reflects trauma resulting from unresolved loss and a breakdown in organization associated with that loss.

Moreover, we examined separately child survivors who experienced severe risk factors, such as being exposed directly to the murder of their parents, or those who experienced uncontrolled separation from the parent. We found in the AAI that child survivors who were exposed to the brutal murder of their mothers or to frightening separation from them had significantly higher lack of resolution of mourning (LRM) scores than did child survivors who did not observe the murder of their mothers and those whose mothers were in position to control the separation from them. The same was true for the loss and separation that child survivors experienced from their fathers.

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Oct 28, 2016 | Posted by in CRITICAL CARE | Comments Off on Does Extreme Trauma Transfer? The Case of Three Generations of the Holocaust
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