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Psychologist debunks myths about children of survivors

Meeting Eva Fogelman, a worldclass authority on the psychological effects of the Holocaust on survivors and their children, in the aftermath of the Pittsburgh massacre might have been a somber affair.

Instead, more than 125 Montrealers, mostly second generation of survivor families and survivors who grew up amid a legacy of trauma, focused on the speaker’s positive message, after paying tribute and saying Kaddish, the mourner’s prayer, for the 11 Jews who were murdered in Pittburgh, a brutal reminder of their past.

The meeting, at the Dorshei Emet Reconstructionist Congregation in Hampstead, was the first event by the newly-formed group called Montreal Voices of Holocaust Descendants. It is this city’s branch of Canadian Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Descendants, founded by survivors in 1999.

Most were from the second generation of Polish, German, Austrian, Hungarian, and Italian families who survived the Nazi genocide.

Fogelman, a psychologist in private practice in New York City, drew on her experience as a groundbreaking researcher, clinician, and author, to clarify misconceptions about the psychological impact of the Holocaust on survivors’ children. She was born in a displaced persons’ camp in Kassel, Germany and after living in Israel moved with her family to the US.

Early studies fueled myths

The misconceptions she cited were first enunciated in a much criticized study by Vivian Rakoff, then a psychiatric resident at the Jewish General Hospital here, and psychologist J.J. Sigal in 1966 when they offered a casual but devastating description of three children, that some accepted as reflecting a general tendency.

Rakoff wrote that “The parents are not broken conspicuously, yet their children, all of whom were born after the Holocaust, display severe psychiatric symptomatology. It would almost be easier to believe that they, rather than their parents, had suffered the corrupting, searing hell.”

While Rakoff also wrote that “not all children of survivors display such symptomatology,” the study contributed to fostering a stereotype based on myths about survivors’ psychological health — that they are “damaged beyond repair.” That contributed to myths about the second generation, Fogelman said.

One was that “their cortisol (the hormone that helps the body deal with extreme stress) levels impair our ability to cope with stress” and “we are more depressed and more anxious than others in our age group.”

“My cortisol level is just right to deal with the stresses of New York City, and having a son in college,” she remarked in humour. “Another myth is that second generations … are destined to suffer post-traumatic stress disorder because we have inherited genes of our traumatized parents.”

Fogelman said that the children of Holocaust survivors are no more likely to suffer psychiatric conditions than the general population.

“Yes, we have the 10 to 15 per cent who are suffering from that but we don’t have more than that. There are no differences in depression, anxiety, or paranoia.”

Overachievers with a sense of humour

“We’re well adjusted, we have a tendency to be over-achievers … we are sometimes prone to morbid subjects but we are not clinically depressed. Many of us possess a finely-honed sense of humour.

“We are lawyers and doctors, parents and teachers, journalists, actors, people from all walks of life, straight, gay, and lesbians, some are classical musicians of the highest order, such as pianist Emanuel Ax, while others are heavy-metal head bangers,” she said adding the names of SlovakCanadian film director and producer Ivan Reitman, and CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer.

Survivors who emerged from displaced persons camps “were not judged kindly,” as part of “blaming the victim.”

Yet psychiatrists who interviewed them in camps said the survivors mainly needed social workers. “Many of them would go on to fight for the creation of Israel, help build kibbutzim, become members of the Knesset (Parliament) and serve as innovators in many arenas.”

This negative attitude persisted, she said, until the 1980s and the epic film Shoah by Claude Lanzmann and the high-profile trials in Israel of concentration-camp guard John Demjanjuk.

In the U.S. some survivors were considered suspect including by North Americans who never understood what extreme hunger was like. Survivors were portrayed in films such as The Pawnbroker and novels such as Enemies: A Love Story, by Isaac Bashevis Singer, stereotyped as “victims, emotionally broken, and living in the past.”

Fogelman paid tribute to Dr. Henry Krystal, a Holocaust survivor who became a psychiatrist and advanced understanding with his pioneering work in trauma therapy that recognized Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

“Psychiatrists began to understand that survivors were not psychotic or paranoid personalities, but were suffering from a post trauma.”

This has been confirmed in studies with broad samples comparing children of Holocaust Survivors with the general population and Jews who came to Canada before World War II. Israeli grandsons tend to take risks There are some 150 doctoral dissertations on survivors and their descendants, Fogelman said.

A study observing the third generation, in Israel, indicated that they tend to be more extroverted, assertive, dominant, aggressive, and competitive.

“They display courage, take risks, seek excitement, and look for novelty. They also tend to be neurotic, more independent, and more suspicious. Grandsons of survivors tend to volunteer in front-line combat in the Israeli Army.

“All survivor descendants tend to mourn relatives they never knew. Their identity is reflected by being the grandchildren of survivors, they have a complicated dynamic communicating with their parents about the Holocaust, and their world views and attitudes are linked to the genocide of the Jews.”

From mourning to affirmation

There are five stages of mourning for a child of a survivor, Fogelman explained. The first is shock and denial, then confrontation – seeking details of parents’ survival, followed by an emotional reaction, – the desire to undo parents’ pain, with feelings of anger, rage, and revenge, and identifying with victimhood.

This is when second generation children can have psychological difficulties, which can result in “living in the present as if it is the past.”

“All these feelings need to be transformed and channeled into something constructive and life-affirming. This is the fifth stage of mourning — the search for meaning, which often results in the 3rd generation becoming involved in Holocaust education and human-rights.

“Psychologists found they tend to be higher achievers than their peers and that they are twice as likely to choose an occupation in the helping professions. Their identification with their grandparents channels into political activism, heightened consciousness of other people’s suffering, reluctance to inter-marry and a deep affection for humanity.

“Even those in the fourth generation will not forget their great grandparents,” she concluded.

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