Echoes of the Holocaust
Shalom Robinson, M.D., Editor

Resilience in Survivors, Their Children and Their Grandchildren

John J. Sigal, Ph.D. *

The ordeal suffered by survivors has been amply documented. So have the negative psychological and physical consequences for them, and in some cases, for their children and grandchildren. In this paper I propose to briefly summarize the findings from a number of studies conducted in Montreal, some of them not widely known, that document a surprising, and in some instances totally unexpected, resilience among survivors and their families. By resilience I mean a capacity to adapt well to external and internal stresses.

The higher rates of physical disease and psychological problems, as well as of premature death among Jewish and non-Jewish survivors is well documented. Of the approximately 15,000 studies of Holocaust survivors compiled by Eitinger and Krell (The psychological and medical effects of concentration camps and related persecution on survivors of the Holocaust), almost none refer to positive long-term consequences. There are several reasons why this is so. The most obvious is that one recoils at the mere mention that such atrocities may have positive consequences; it could be taken to recommend persecution. Second, we have well-developed systems for the description and measurement of psychological and physical illness. By comparison, our methods for the description of health are very restricted. Third, clinicians are the principal contributors to the literature. The people who come to their attention are people with physical or psychological problems, so their impressions of the community are automatically biased. When they or their colleagues turn to empirical research, the questions they ask are slanted in the direction of their initial clinical observations; their information about health only consists of evidence for the absence of dysfunction or illness. Finally, there is an historical reason. When a group of psychoanalysts first broached the issue of Reparations with the German authorities, they were told the request did not seem justified. The authorities cited the successful adaptation and prominence of so many survivors, including those who raised the issue of Reparations. It was then that a procedure for documenting the negative consequences was given a strong impetus.

Some positive consequences
The first systematic reports of the long-term negative effects of the Holocaust on survivors were published in the early and mid-60s, and on their families in the late 60s and early 70s. In the course of the next 15 years, a flood of confirmatory studies appeared and the popular press began to carry these stories. By then, these negative effects had become so well-known that they became stereotypical; survivors and their families became categorized as neurotic or worse. They felt stigmatized.

Matters came to a head in the United States when an article by Helen Epstein appeared in the New York Times Magazine. In this article she described dysfunctional families of survivors and the negative effects on the children. Several letters to the editor then appeared, written by adult children of survivors refuting these descriptions. Some of the writers described their parents' positive qualities, the warm family atmosphere created by their survivor parents, and the benefits they derived from it. Then theses, articles, and a book further documented the contribution of survivors to the communities in which they lived.

What does empirical research have to say on this subject? First, concerning the high rates of physical illness, and premature death, in a 20-year follow-up study of all (Jewish) patients in a psychiatric clinic, Grauer, Mueller, And Zelnicker found that the survivors who lived to 65 had a longer life expectancy than the other patients. They did not examine the quality of life of these people, but they have provided evidence that suggests the existence of a group of individuals who became hardened by exposure to extreme, prolonged stress. In this context, it should be noted that as early as 1957 Shuvall referred to such a hardening process among survivors.

Even more surprising are some findings that emanate from studies of child survivors. The lot of these children is well-known. Those who remained with their parents in hiding, or in the ghettos, lived in a state of physical deprivation, and in fear of discovery or betrayal. The more usual situation was that they were deprived of their parents, and, in most cases, were never reunited with them. When their parents did survive, many of these children experienced further wrenching separation, this time from the families that were hiding them. And many of the latter sub-group then felt they were taken from their fostering parents by people whom they had long forgotten, who had become complete strangers to them. Yet others were held captive by the Nazis for varying periods of time until the end of World War II. [Page 1 of 2]

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*Professor John J. Sigal, Montreal, Quebec.