The Shoah's impact on survivor's post-war children

Prof. S. Juni, researcher of patterns among 2nd generation survivors: We often find it easier to treat survivors than their children. Op-ed

Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld ,

Dr. Sam Juni
Dr. Sam Juni
Courtesy

Manfred Gerstenfeld interviews Prof. Sam Juni

“Given the enormity of the death camp survivors’ experience, some of their adaptations to maintain sanity in their lives inevitably engendered significant negative repercussions on the children they raised. Thus, psychiatric and personality pathology is usually more severe in the families of former death camp inmates. Survivors who were not in death camps – and their families -- often present no untoward adjustment problems.

“If Shoah survivors are uncomfortable with their identity, it will affect their children. These people are referred to as Second Generation Survivors in the literature, based on the fact that they are actually survivors due to their suffering and upbringing, even if they were not physically present during the actual Holocaust. A significant number of Second Generation Survivors suffer from identity issues, from being part of a lost heritage, and not being able to identify with the culture they actually live in.”

Dr. Sam Juni, Professor Emeritus at New York University, is a renowned diagnostician and researcher of psychopathology and psychiatric disorders. He established the Psychology Graduate Program at NYU Tel Aviv and headed it for close to a decade. Years ago he began to notice distinct pathology syndrome patterns among second-generation Holocaust survivors.

“When Holocaust survivors damage the identity of their children, it most frequently affects the oldest child, though the other children suffer consequences as well. Such problems will typically manifest themselves early on in life.

“There is often overprotectiveness of Holocaust survivors toward their children due to parents’ prolonged exposure to extreme threat and emergency situations. Clinical practitioners have shown that second generation Holocaust survivors have difficulties individuating from overbearing, over-concerned, and over-intrusive parents.

“There are tell-tale syndromes which are shared by many second-generation children. These often include problems with authority figures, religiosity, financial spending, and coping with parental pressure to succeed, as well as food and dietary issues. We generally label these repercussions as pathological when they exceed the ‘normal’ threshold by interfering with the person’s daily functioning.

“Paranoia is a recurring symptom of Holocaust survivors. This often correlates with a need to stick together with those of similar backgrounds and to avoid close relationships with ‘outsiders.’ Some second generation survivors adopt a similar stance, and practice excessive closeness with other children of survivors. In some cases, however, there is an excessive openness to those who are perceived as different. The latter mode is often not genuine, and represents a psychological reversal defense mechanism to counteract underlying paranoid tendencies.

“For many survivors and their families, the understanding of God’s role did not coincide with the imagery of a kind caring father. It is therefore not surprising that religious tension and dissonance occur frequently in Shoah survivors. In terms of emotionality, the straightforward reaction to the Holocaust is anger and disappointment, which can lead to an open revolt against God. In some, this can also manifest itself as denial of His existence. However, there is also another variant: some survivors actually become more religious resulting from their Holocaust experiences. This seems counterintuitive, and probably is a result of the psychological defense mechanism known as Reaction Formation.

“Quite often, second generation children are forced to confront their relationship with God early on in life, even if it is not expressed openly by their parents. This can lead to bi-directional results: some will become overly observant of religious principles, while others will abandon religion totally. A moderate response in this domain is unusual.

“Developmental theory posits that the God concept that children internalize is very much linked to their formative experience with parental figures. This is especially true in second generation survivors who often have a non-idealized ‘father image’ because of the perceived weakness of their parents during the Holocaust. This exacerbates the already problematic issues of religiosity based on reactions to the Holocaust per se.

“Survivors are often tightfisted. Here, too, second generation children often adopt a similar stance in their attitude toward money, while some behave totally in the opposite direction and become spendthrifts. Once again, moderation is unusual.

“A characteristic hallmark of Holocaust survivor parents is the intense pressure they often put on their children to succeed. Most second generation survivors assimilate this stance and gravitate toward high status and achievement careers.

“There are often specific problems in families of survivors between children born before and after the war if they live together in a family. There is a definite differentiation between the cohorts. One might liken it to children and stepchildren in reconstituted families.

“Survivors show a range of coping and reconciliation strategies that can be categorized into two major trajectories. One entails blaming oneself and internalizing some of the suffering; survivor’s guilt is prominent in this strategy. The other maintains a defiant and accusatory stance toward the aggressors for their heinous acts; toward society for allowing, condoning, or abetting them; and even toward God for His role. Each category entails a no-win strategy for the second-generation survivors who are raised in these respective family atmospheres.

“Many Holocaust survivors -- because they were adults at the time -- had the good fortune of a solid emotional upbringing. Through their personality constructions, they saw a father as one who can be relied upon and a mother as the one to run to when it hurts. Essentially, then, they had a coalesced personality foundation and a positive worldview. When all hell broke loose and the rug was suddenly pulled out from under them, their ingrained sense of humanity did not evaporate. Deep down, a basic belief in a just world still existed. They had many questions and even accusations, but their essential maxims were not preempted.

“By contrast, from their early childhood days, second generation survivors were exposed to a perceived unfair and hostile world, replete with horrible aggressors. Their personality and capacity for healthy interpersonal relationships were thus flawed in their very nature. Second-generation survivors are shown to suffer from pervasive personality difficulties and diminished capacity to relate appropriately to people (interpersonal object relations) and to God (theistic object relations). Highlighted difficulties of second-generation survivors include a negative worldview, weakened images of parents, and a view of the world as a dangerous place.

“Clinicians are often faced by a seemingly paradoxical situation, as we find it often far easier to treat survivors than second generation children. This is true, despite the fact that survivors suffer from more pronounced -- or visibly ‘abnormal’ psychiatric symptoms, while second generation survivors usually manifest milder personality disorders.”

To explain this paradox, Dr. Juni notes that modern psychiatry has developed medical and pharmacological tools to deal with clinical symptoms even when they are extreme and markedly disrupt normal functioning. He remarks: “Personality disorders – even though they are far less disruptive of basic day to day living --- are very difficult to ameliorate. Thus, second generation survivors find it harder to correct disruptive problems than their parents do, even though parents frequently present with severe psychiatric symptomatology.

“Second-generation survivors are typically fated to live in a childhood in which guilt combines with a negative worldview to yield barely manageable developmental challenges. Beyond that, they experienced often an unhealthy role reversal, in which they were not only their own caretakers but also those of their parents.”

Prof. Juni concludes that professional treatment often does not enable those second generation survivors -- who are negatively affected by their maladaptive family history -- to get rid of most of their problems. It is more advisable to design interventions to assist them in coping and living productive lives despite their inner turmoil.

Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld is the emeritus Chairman of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He has been a strategic advisor for more than thirty years to some of the Western world’s leading corporations. Among the honors he received was the 2019 International Lion of Juda Award of the Canadian Institute for Jewish Research paying tribute to him as the recognized leading international authority on contemporary antisemitism. His main book on the subject is: The War of a Million Cuts The struggle against the delegitimization of Israel and the Jews and the growth of New antisemitism.




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