Can Holocaust Trauma Affect 'Third Generation'?

Studies Debate Impact on Grandchildren of Survivors

Memory 3-G: Experts debate whether having a grandparent who survived the Holocaust amounts to trauma.
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Memory 3-G: Experts debate whether having a grandparent who survived the Holocaust amounts to trauma.

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

Published September 05, 2012, issue of September 07, 2012.
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Is learning about the Holocaust from your survivor grandparents more traumatic than learning about it from“ Schindler’s List”?

Apparently not, according to a new study by Perella Perlstein, herself an ultra-Orthodox granddaughter of Holocaust survivors.

That wasn’t the result Perlstein expected when she began the study, conducted while she was a graduate student at Hofstra University. Her work examined the responses of ultra-Orthodox grandchildren of survivors to psychological tests designed to measure symptoms of secondary Holocaust trauma.

Yael Danieli
Yael Danieli

Perlstein’s results, published in July in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Traumatology, found that these survivor grandchildren responded no differently from other members of the ultra-Orthodox community when it came to the Holocaust.

This is just one entry in a growing, hotly contested field of research into the psychological impact on the so-called “third generation” — the grandchildren of Holocaust survivors.

One researcher is looking at how the Holocaust may have altered the way genes are expressed in the grandchildren of survivors. Another is building questionnaires to measure how Holocaust trauma has affected the family experiences of second-generation and third-generation descendants. Others have already concluded that the Holocaust has no indirect traumatic impact on the third generation.

Even the terms of the conversation are up for debate. Some experts dispute the notion that trauma can ever be experienced second or third hand. Others say that the experiences of Holocaust victims are so diverse that no broad characterizations can be made about trauma’s impact.

“We are not in the area of science here,” said Chaya Roth, a clinical professor of psychology at the University of Illinois who has written on the intergenerational transmission of Holocaust memories. “We are in the area of hypotheses. So forget about truth.”

The study of the third generation is a relatively new field that has grown out of earlier research into the effects of the Holocaust on children of survivors. That work began in the late 1960s and early ’70s, concurrent with the fading of the taboos surrounding the discussion of the Holocaust and its psychological impact.


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