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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Other researchers are following different tracks.

Rachel Yehuda, a professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at Mount Sinai Medical Center, is gathering subjects for a study that will examine whether the Holocaust could have actually changed how genes are expressed in the grandchildren of survivors.

Yehuda’s field, called epigenetics, rests on the notion that outside factors can change how traits are passed to children from their parents.

According to Yehuda, earlier studies have shown second-generation descendants to have a different capacity for stress than nondescendants of survivors. That could have been the result of an adaptive change triggered by the highly stressful experiences of their parents during the Holocaust.

Yehuda said that there are some case reports of third-generation descendants experiencing eating disorders and anxiety. Her current work could show whether those traits are broadly representative of the population.

“I think that [this research] should be done, because if there are intergenerational effects that last beyond one generation, it’s important to know,” Yehuda said. “It’s not going to just be about the Holocaust.”

The researchers who have found no evidence of intergenerational transmission remain skeptical.

The findings of the Attachment & Human Development paper comport with the results of two dissertations advised by Hofstra University professor Robert W. Motta, including Perlstein’s.

“I went into the studies expecting, as [the graduate students] did, that there would be transfer to the third generation,” Motta said. “But we didn’t find that in either study. Believe me, that is not what we were looking for and not what we expected.”

For some, the entire notion that trauma could affect people who didn’t directly experience it seems like pseudoscience.

“This is where the psychological psychobabble gets spread like wildfire,” Fogelman said. “Transmission of trauma? Trauma is not transmitted. People either experience trauma or they don’t experience trauma.”

The third generation themselves, for their part, aren’t interested in the academic debates over terminology, according to Leora Klein, a board member and founding member of 3GNY, a group for grandchildren of Holocaust survivors. They just want answers.

“There’s a need, an urgency to figure out where the Holocaust is now in our lives as descendants of survivors,” Klein. said “Luckily our parents were not born in a time of horror, but they were deeply, deeply, deeply affected by their parents’ experience.”

Contact Josh Nathan-Kazis at nathankazis@forward.com or on Twitter @joshnathankazis


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