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

Resilience in Survivors, Their Children and Their Grandchildren

John J. Sigal, Ph.D.

These are not ideal child-rearing conditions. Psychodynamic and other theories of human development would lead us to predict the presence of gross psychopathology among these children later. Indeed, Robinson and Hemmendinger report that a group of children who were kept in an orphanage after liberation from the Nazi camps, were so difficult to relate to, and to manage, that the administrator of the institution resigned, as did some of the senior staff. They were convinced that the children were either psychotic or psychopaths. Yet, when they followed up two groups of these children 30 years later, Robinson and Hemmendinger found that they had stable marriages, only one had consulted a psychiatrist, seven of the eight who ended up in Israel passed the psychological screening of the Israel Defense Forces and served in them (six still serving in the Reserves), all were doing well economically, and six of the eight in Israel had white collar jobs. Moskovitz reported similar findings from a follow-up study of a group of children who were taken to England after the war. A very recent, larger-scale study by Robinson and his colleagues confirms these findings, despite the fact that they also found evidence for psychological and physical problems in the group.

None of the studies was based on a representative sample. Findings by Sigal and Weinfeld, derived from a representative community sample, were equally surprising. They found that young adult children of survivors saw their mothers, who were 2-9 years old, and their fathers, who were 10-13 years old, at the end of World War II, to be warmer and psychologically better adjusted than did children of native-born parents of the same age. The older child survivor mothers the younger child survivor, and fathers were not perceived as any different from other survivor parents. These subjects' responses to other questions, and other data from the study, suggest that these were not biased reports.

An explanation for these surprising findings requires an exploration of the historical context from which they arose and a revision of some of our theories of development. Such an undertaking is beyond the scope of this paper, which is simply descriptive.

In the same study, Sigal and Weinfeld also found more support for those who wrote letters to the editor of the New York Times Magazine than for Helen Epstein's views. They also failed to find evidence for problems in the parent-child relationship. Furthermore, they failed to find the children impaired psychologically, professionally, or in their relationship with their spouses or partners. To put their results in more positive terms, they found that, as a group, the children of survivors were functioning as well as children of native-born parents.

More relevant to the thrust of this paper is what Sigal and Weinfeld found when they coded the responses to the open-ended question: "How are you affected (by your parents' experience during World War II)?" Almost 30% reported positive mental health effects, about 20% reported positive effects on their attitudes to the family, and about 35% reported positive effects on their Jewish identification. By contrast, only about 20% reported negative mental health effects, 8% reported negative familial effects, and none reported negative effects on their Jewish identification.

What about effects on the third generation? A study conducted by Sigal and his colleagues in a psychiatric outpatient department found an overrepresentation of about 300% among grandchildren of survivors compared to their presence in the general community. Yet, in their community-based study, Sigal and Weinfeld found grandchildren of survivors to be better adjusted than a native-born comparison group. Because they did not have enough children of the same age who were grandchildren of other immigrants, they could not be certain that it was survivorhood that was responsible for this difference or the effect of being an immigrant. It would seem reasonable to hypothesize, though, that people who had lost most or all of the members of their extended family should value their grandchildren more, and that the grandchildren would benefit from the attention and love.

Rutter has pointed out that resilience is not a global personality quality. Persons may manifest resilience in some areas of their functioning and not in others. He has also pointed out that resilience is not constant over time. It may manifest itself in one stage of development and be absent in another. We are, thus, in the fortunate position of saying everybody is right - those who report dysfunction in survivors and their families and those who report the opposite. In many instances, the discrepancies are due to the observers and the populations they observe. Clinicians look for clinically explicable phenomena and use a clinical-based vocabulary to explain their findings. Reporters and other writers rarely report the good news. Bad news is much more newsworthy. It attracts bigger audiences. And if one looks only at clinic populations, one is likely only to observe clinical phenomena. The observations made by clinicians and stories written by reporters are not wrong, but they present only a limited view of the world. I have tried to suggest that if we ask the right questions of the community as a whole, we will find some answers that challenge our clinical wisdom.
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