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Studies Debate Impact on Grandchildren of Survivors
By Josh Nathan-Kazis
Forward - September 5, 2012
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.
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
“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.
Some researchers at the time found individual cases
suggesting that children of traumatized survivors could be at risk for
symptoms of traumalike anxiety and depression. Others, who tried to
repeat these findings in broader scientific studies, found less evidence
to support the notion that trauma could be transmitted between
The third generation has its own unique set of
experiences, quite different from that of their parents. The second
generation “grew up at a time when Holocaust survivors were shunned in
society,” said Eva Fogelman, a therapist who has written extensively on
the issue. “Grandchildren of survivors grew up at a time in society when
Holocaust survivors had regained their sense of dignity…. We have a
transformation from shame to pride in the third generation.”
As was the case with studies of the second generation,
controlled epidemiological studies have so far found scant proof of
intergenerational transmission of trauma onto the third generation.
One meta-analysis of the available research published
in 2008 by an Israeli and two Dutch researchers found no evidence for
what it called “tertiary traumatization.”
The authors of the study, which was published in the
journal Attachment & Human Development, recommend that
third-generation offspring be “stimulated to search for the roots of
their problems in other directions besides the Holocaust experience of
Those skeptical findings have left some researchers undaunted.
Yael Danieli - Clinical Psychologist
Yael Danieli, a clinical psychologist who has
researched and written on the children of Holocaust survivors, is
currently working on developing a survey that will help measure the
experiences of the children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors.
The project, funded by a $50,000 grant facilitated by the Conference on
Jewish Material Claims Against Germany and the Anti-Defamation League,
will create what Danieli says is the first measure of third-generation
The survey, which is still in development,
is headlined “Family Adaptation to Trauma.” It asks multiple-choice
questions about family life among the descendants of survivors, and is
designed for use in future studies by other researchers.
“The grandchildren literally forced us to look at
them,” Danieli said. “It will be the first scientifically valid reliable
measure of the experience.”
Other researchers are following different tracks.
Rachel Yehuda, PhD
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
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 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
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.”