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Holocaust survivor families yield new insight into trauma across generations

Two therapists at the Council for Relationships in West Philly have led a team that has interviewed more than 300 Holocaust survivors and their families. They've identified key elements that help families cope.

Ari Gordon is the grandchild of Holocaust survivors. He is shown here in Heidelberg, Germany, while attending a conference on Jewish-Christian studies.
Ari Gordon is the grandchild of Holocaust survivors. He is shown here in Heidelberg, Germany, while attending a conference on Jewish-Christian studies.Read moreCourtesy of Ari Gordon

In the 1980s, most of the research Bea Hollander-Goldfein was reading about how Holocaust survivors were faring psychologically focused entirely on the damage the Nazis had done.

That didn't ring completely true to Hollander-Goldfein, a psychologist whose parents were both survivors.  She saw problems, but also successes.  In 1988, she gathered a team of 16 — six were children of survivors — to study the existing scientific literature.  Dissatisfied, they set out in 1991 to do their own work, talking deeply and in a more nuanced way with survivors and their children about how the Holocaust had affected them.

Twenty-six years later, Hollander-Goldfein, co-project director and social worker Nancy Isserman, and a smaller crew, are still at it.  They've now interviewed three generations of survivor families to study how trauma is transmitted across generations, and are considering how their findings can be applied to other traumatized groups, such as military veterans or refugees.

With its 307 interviews of survivors from the Philadelphia area and their descendants, the Transcending Trauma research project is one of the largest of its kind — Holocaust survivor studies based on "qualitative" interviewing rather than more data-driven measures — in the world, Hollander-Goldfein said.  The group has amassed 1,200 hours of interviews and is now re-interviewing some of the "3Gs," the grandchildren of survivors. It has not found easy formulas for who will be destroyed by trauma and who will rise above it. But it has found that having a healthy family before terrible events occur improves the odds of resilience afterwards and that families that can talk about what happened — but not too much — can thrive.

"People are not blank slates when they experience trauma," said Isserman, who works with Hollander-Goldfein at Council for Relationships in West Philadelphia.  That was a novel idea until fairly recently, she said.

"Generations raised in silence have a much harder time coping than in families where the Holocaust was talked about," Hollander-Goldfein said.

By the third generation, the grandparents' survival may be seen as an inspiration — as proof of human ability to find purpose at the worst of times.

Ari Gordon, a Philadelphia native whose maternal grandparents were Holocaust survivors, is now working toward his doctorate in Islamic studies in New York City.  His grandfather was a lawyer in Vienna who was sent to Theresienstadt, a Nazi concentration camp in what is now the Czech Republic.  Before the war, his grandmother lived with her first husband in Budapest.  He died at Auschwitz.  She escaped a train to that notorious camp, hid with relatives in Hungary and Czechoslovakia and, ultimately, procured false papers that allowed her to pass as Christian until the war ended.

"Their entire world crumbled and was destroyed," Gordon said.  After the war, they spent a year in Ecuador before they were allowed to come to New Jersey.  Gordon's grandfather, who died before Gordon was born, worked in a factory.  The couple struggled to raise "the one daughter they could afford to raise," his mother.  A generation later, Gordon has degrees from Yeshiva University, Harvard Divinity School and is working on another from the University of Pennsylvania.

"We carried a deep-seated belief … that whatever life throws at you, you can find a way to get above it," he said. "Bad things are going to happen, but you can weather it."

Gordon sees this positive response to trauma as more of a "stance of strength" than a set of specific coping skills.

In the first of two books about the research — Transcending Trauma: Survival, Resilience and Clinical Implications in Survivor Families — Hollander-Goldfein, Isserman and Jennifer Goldenberg, who now teaches at the University of Maine, say early studies of Holocaust survivors involved people who had sought psychiatric treatment  or were seeking reparations from Germany.  That skewed the results and led to a common narrative of survivors as victims, not heroes.  Over time, resilience and the "search for meaning" described in the famous book by Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, got more attention.

The Philadelphia research involves survivors living in the community, not people in treatment. Its goal was to study why some survivors led more successful families than others.

In a written overview of their findings so far, Hollander-Goldfein said the team found "no consistent pattern" of symptoms or family types.  Every family was affected by the fact that survivors had suffered, but "when the survivor can put the child's needs first and create a nurturing home environment, the child's development is not impaired by the long reach of the Holocaust,"  she said.

They found that being "other oriented" was better than being "self oriented."  This was associated with not feeling the need to repress or deny emotions and memories.  The best family environments included empathy, emotional expression, altruism, validation and closeness. There was no correlation between how terrible the survivor's experiences were and how well they coped.

Open communication was much better than keeping secrets, which left children feeling burdened.  "Compulsive retelling," though, was not helpful, Hollander-Goldfein said.

A key point is that one warm parent who's good at communication can make a huge difference, even if the other parent is damaged.

Hollander-Goldfein said this was true in her own family. Her father was silent and depressed.  Her mother was open and kind. "She compensated for what he could not give" she said.

Isserman said this is important when therapists are counseling traumatized families. "If one parent has problems," she said, "work with the stronger parent to build up their coping skills."

In several of the families, members of the second generation vowed to do things differently than their parents had.  Lucy Raizman, another therapist at Council for Relationships, was among them. The daughter of survivors, she conducted about 100 of the interviews and was surprised by how well some of the survivor families were doing.  She had interviewed her own parents and brother, trying to be as objective as possible.  "I could not believe how many families were so much different than my own family," she said.  Both of her parents survived the war in Poland, but with post-traumatic  stress. Her mother didn't talk much.  Her father was more expressive, but angry.  "As a child, I learned to depend on myself and be pretty responsible," Raizman said. "I felt like I had to translate the world for them."

She talked much more openly with her own children about the family's history, an approach that her daughter, Becky Newman, appreciates. "I think it was better than being in the dark and wondering why my grandparents were the way that they were," she said.

Newman, 35, is a former legal-aid lawyer who works for a foundation that funds nonprofits.  She thinks her family history fueled her interest in social justice, in "repairing the world."

Like Ari Gordon, she thinks her family's trauma may have made her a little more sensitive to threat.  She has reacted strongly to mass shootings and the increased brazenness of hate groups and feels a "very profound connection to those experiences of trauma and loss."

Gordon said his family history makes him feel both a psychological burden and a burden of history.  Newman had a similar response.  "In some ways," she said, "I feel like I have to live my life in a way that is living for those that did not get to live."