Darren Sush is currently a Doctoral Candidate in Clinical Psychology at The American School of Professional Psychology at Argosy University. As the grandson of Holocaust survivors, he became interested in the influence that this atrocity had on his family. This article examines research about the adjustment of Holocaust survivors and the subsequent effect on family relations and mental health.
Growing up as the grandson of Holocaust survivors, Ive heard countless stories about the atrocities that took place during the Holocaust. My mind was bombarded with images and visions that I could not possibly fathom as truth. My family told these stories to me not to scare me into being a good Jewish boy, or even to teach me about the possibilities of man, but so that I would learn of the struggle of those who came before me, and therefore could better appreciate what may lie ahead.
When I made the decision to become a psychologist, I never realized the preparation that would be necessary for attending simple family gatherings and functions. As I am sure (or hope) happens when other students who study psychology visit with their families, I am regularly teased about my choice of field. I often hear, Oh youre going to be a psychologist? Well you can fill your entire practice just with our family, or How about I Be Alright: The Jewish Grandmothers Key to Guilt for your thesis? The sayings go on from there. Aside from the jokes and the teasing, a general inquiry remains regarding what my family referred to as the Holocaust mentality. Why is it so important to excel in school and work? Why are there always so many guests at the dinner table? Why does Grandma make so much food, and why do we have to finish it all? Furthermore, there were always questions about how the experience of the Holocaust affected not only my grandparents lives, but the lives of their children, and to a further extent, my own life.
Research regarding the adjustment of Holocaust survivors and the subsequent effect on family relations and mental health do not indicate unequivocal results. While some studies demonstrate an increased rate of mental health issues, others do not find any negative effect on the psychological health of Holocaust survivors, or that of their children (van IJzendoorn, Bakermans-Kranenburg, & Sagi-Schwartz, 2003). The differing results may have to do with a number of uncontrolled variables in the research pertaining to Holocaust survivors and their relationships with their children (Krell, Suedfeld, & Soriano, 2004). While these various factors may influence the outcome of data, and the psychological health of survivors and their children, there are also a number of protective measures and preventative tools families may implement in order to repair or prevent additional psychological problems transferring on throughout the generations (Fossion, Rejas, Servais, Pelc, & Hirsch, 2003).
Survivors, their Children, and Mental Health
A great deal of research points to the conclusion that survivors of Holocaust persecution function within the normal range in regard to personal adjustment, family and social relationships, and occupational achievement (Krell, et al., 2004). However, they may be more likely than individuals who have not experienced the atrocities and persecution of the Holocaust to exhibit mild psychological problems such as anxiety and depression (Auerhahn & Prelinger, 1983), or symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (4th ed., text rev.: DSM-IV-TR; APA), describes PTSD as the persistent re-experiencing of a traumatic event, the persistent avoidance of stimuli associated with the trauma, a general numbing of responsiveness, and persistent symptoms of increased arousal. The symptoms of PTSD may cause disturbances or impairment in social and occupational functioning, as well as other areas of daily living. Such effects, whether diagnosed as full PTSD, or simply problems in mood and adjustment, may have serious impairments not only for the survivors, but also for their children (Barocas & Barocas, 1979).