Memories of the Holocaust

This year marks the seventieth anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp by the Soviet Red Army and also many other camps, including Belsen and Dachau.  Although many of those who survived the horrors of their ordeal were able to rebuild their lives, which often included emigrating to either to Israel or the United States, they were left with a psychical wound which, even for those who are now in their old age, has never really healed.  There is a great deal of evidence to suggest that amongst Holocaust survivors there are a higher than expected incidences of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, depression, phobias, and hypochondria.

What is perhaps less well known and publicised is that these experiences seem to have affected both the survivors’ children and their grandchildren.  So much so, in fact, that both the children and grandchildren are described in the Holocaust literature as ‘second and third generation survivors’.  With regards to the second generation survivors (the children of those who directly experienced the Holocaust) there is strong evidence to suggest that they not only appear to be more susceptible to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) than those whose parents did not experience the Holocaust, but also appear to ‘carry’ the rage of their parents.  As Kahane-Nissenbaum, who has extensively reviewed the literature on Holocaust survivors as part of her own research project on third generation survivors, notes:

It is hypothesized that the first generation is afraid of its own rage and therefore is unable to express it, resulting in the dropping of subtle cues to their children who will then act out the aggression which will gratify the parents’ unmet needs.1

When it comes to third generation survivors (the grandchildren) things are less clear cut.  There is some evidence of psychopathology that could be associated with having one or more grandparents who directly experienced the Holocaust, e.g. depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive symptoms and hypochondria.  On the other hand, there is also evidence to suggest that because the grandchildren of Holocaust survivors are ‘further removed’ (both historically and geographically) from the Holocaust than either their grandparents or parents) they are less likely to exhibit pathological symptoms.

Instead, they are likely to see their grandparents as heroes rather than victims and feel obliged to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive.  Ironically, they may still suffer feelings of guilt, but this is more likely to be ‘guilt by comparison’, i.e. feeling guilty that their lives are so much better than those of their grandparents. In contrast, both their grandparents and their parents often experience ‘survivor guilt’ or ‘death guilt’ and will ask questions such as: ‘Why did I survive whilst so many perished?’ and: ‘Do I really deserve to live?’ For some reason this sense of guilt seems to have been ‘transmitted’ from the first generation survivors, i.e. from those who actually experienced the Holocaust first hand to their children.

Whilst there seems to be plenty of evidence to suggest that both the children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors are affected psychologically by the experiences of their parents or grandparents, it is still not clear why this should be the case.  In other words, there is still no clear understanding of the ‘mechanism’ of the transmission of the memories and experiences of the Holocaust from one generation to another.

It should not necessarily be assumed that Holocaust survivors openly shared their memories of such horrors with their children or grandchildren, although many did and, unfortunately perhaps for their offspring who effectively ‘took on the guilt’ of their parents, found this quite ‘therapeutic’.   On the other hand, such transmission can operate in more subtle ways: what, for example, is a child to make of the deathly silences that he or she may encounter when asking one or both of their parents about their wartime experiences?

One psychoanalytic explanation of such a mechanism utilises the (non-Freudian and non-Lacanian) theory of ‘projective identification’ to show how the Holocaust survivor (first generation) ‘projects’ feelings of anxieties and other emotions related to their experiences of the Holocaust into their child; the child in turn ‘introjects’, takes into themselves, such emotions with the result they ‘experience’ the concentration camps, the ghettos, and so on, as if they had actually been there themselves.  However, because this ‘re-experiencing’ takes place largely at an unconscious level, the result is that the child experiences a range of psychopathological symptoms, for example unaccountable anxiety or depression rather than directly ‘remembering’ such experiences.

In fact, though there is no need to introduce the somewhat questionable concept of projective identification to explain the mechanism of transmission.  It is enough for the child to listen to their parents’ discourse, their talking to one another and to their children (and this would include the gaps in the discourse) for them to ‘introject’, i.e. take as their own, their parents’ memories.  This process of introjection is then subject to further interpretation and retranscription; in other words, the child or grandchild does not simply ‘absorb’ the memories and feelings of their parent or grandparent, but truly ‘make them their own’.  Furthermore, as I indicated above, this process of introjection takes place at the level of the unconscious, so the child or grandchild may not have any conscious memories of their parents’ or grandparents’ discourse.

It could also be argued that, with regards to third generation survivors, even if they are more likely to see their grandparents as heroes rather than victims, as some research suggests, this may not be the full story.  Seeing their grandparents as heroes rather than victims could be seen as a form of idealisation; in other words, whereas it perhaps made more sense for the children of Holocaust survivors to see their parents (and in some case themselves) as victims, with the grandchildren it might make more sense to see their grandparents as heroes, as remarkable people.

And it’s this question of making sense that it key here: in many ways what the survivors of the Holocaust experienced and endured made no sense at all: even seventy years on, historians are still struggling to understand what happened.  This was a truly traumatic event, one that is beyond meaning.  At the same time, though, and perhaps precisely because of the horrific nature of this particular trauma, survivors – and the wider society – seem desperate to construct meaning, to try and understand what happened.

This is something the psychotherapist Viktor Frankl, himself a first generation Holocaust  survivor, was astutely aware of: the importance of retaining some kind of meaning, even in the face of absolute horror and meaninglessness.  This search for meaning formed the basis of Frankl’s therapeutic approach, logotherapy, which was about encouraging people to find meaning in their lives, whilst at the same time recognising that this is a never ending process.

From a psychoanalytic position, however, perhaps it is equally as important to recognise the limits to such ‘meaning making’.  Whilst it is helpful – and perhaps essential – for Holocaust survivors (of all generations) and the wider society to try and make sense of what happened seventy years ago, and hopefully learn the lessons from that event, it is perhaps equally as important to recognise the limits of such understanding.  In other words, to recognise that the Holocaust, as both a personal and an historical experience, represented a deep wound in the fabric of the world, a rupturing of history itself. The challenge – for both individual survivors of all generations and for society as a whole – is to find a way to come to terms with this rupturing of meaning without giving up in despair.

And this is where psychotherapy and psychoanalysis can have an important role to play.  If Holocaust survivors (of all three generations) were able to both construct a sense of meaning regarding the horrific events of seventy years ago and to recognise the limits of such an understanding, then perhaps they would be able to situate the Holocaust within their own psychical worldview in such a manner that it does not bear down so heavily, so unforgivingly, on them and on the wider culture.

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  1. Kahane-Nissenbaum (2011) Exploring Intergenerational Transmission of Trauma in Third Generation Holocaust Survivors. Doctorate In Social Work. University of Pennsylvania. []

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