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Understanding Trauma and its Effects: Holocaust Memorial Day

Group understanding trauma and suffering at Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp to remember the Holocaust and educate themselves with a group tour of the area, seen through barbed wire.

Understanding trauma through a visit to a concentration camp: how many of us try to process the horrors of the Holocaust.

27th January is Holocaust Memorial Day – a chance to remember the estimated 11 million people (six million of them Jews) who lost their lives in the Holocaust, and future genocides. In understanding trauma that survivors live with, we as a society demand history doesn’t repeat itself, and we acknowledge those affected.

This date was picked as the official memorial day back in 2000, by governments from around the world, stating that ‘we value the sacrifices of those who have risked their lives to protect or rescue victims, as a touchstone of the human capacity for good in the face of evil’.

But how did Holocaust survivors deal with the psychological trauma in 1945, and how do we begin understanding trauma like this in 2018?

Being told to forget

When most survivors returned home, or began new lives in other cities or countries after liberation, they faced negative reactions from neighbours, friends and colleagues. Hostility, silence and indifference were all common, because nothing like the Holocaust had ever happened before, where certain groups (including Jewish and Polish people, gypsies and gay men and women) were systematically targeted. Though camp conditions were reported worldwide before and after liberation, trials were delayed and took a long time, and many perpetrators escaped punishment. Every time war criminals were brought to justice – some only in the last decade – survivors faced trauma triggers.

Victims were either told to forget about their experiences, or they decided to repress the memories as a coping strategy, ploughing their attention into normal life and trying not to think about the past. This is not something psychologists, or indeed psychiatrists, would suggest today. In order to recover from trauma, and process it, patients use talking therapy with psychologists, and treatments such as EMDR would be recommended for those suffering from PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder).

Early studies of Holocaust survivors

In 1950, survivors in Israeli refugee camps were found by sociologist Judith Shuval to be more ‘pessimistic’ than control subjects, and also ‘hard’: hardened to the setbacks they encountered. By the late 1960s, more research emerged on the psychological impact of surviving the Holocaust, and terms like ‘survivor syndrome’ were coined (by psychiatrist William G. Niederland, who studied 800 cases in 1964). For many survivors, symptoms of what we’d now call PTSD didn’t emerge until years afterwards; technically, when symptoms emerge at least six months after the traumatic event, this is late-onset PTSD.

Jewish people in Nazi-occupied Europe who weren’t in concentration camps but were hidden in plain sight (in children’s homes, convents or strangers’ homes), became resistance fighters, or fled abroad – perhaps on Kindertransport – had different experiences, but still faced emotional distress. We still call them Holocaust survivors, because they are. They lost many relatives, friends and neighbours, and had no community to return to after the war. Anti-Semitism didn’t die with the Nazis, either; the remaining Jews scattered across Europe faced stigma in the decades afterwards. Despite the distress those in hiding suffered, it wasn’t until 1983 that any researchers (Shanan and Shahar) included them in scientific studies, and we began understanding trauma for those who survived in different circumstances.

Mother clutching baby's hand in monochrome photo suggesting mother and child bond

Genetic science and psychological assessments both suggest parental trauma can affect children, even decades later. Understanding trauma.

Understanding trauma in a second generation

Helen Epstein, the daughter of two Holocaust survivors, published a ground-breaking book in 1979. Children of the Holocaust: Conversations with Sons and Daughters of Survivors suggested that these children had inherited fears and anxiety because of their parents’ suffering. A mixture of learned behaviour in the family unit, and having no outlet to discuss their concerns, meant survivors’ children faced their own specific challenges. Epstein’s book struck a chord with people all over the world. It reminds us that trauma doesn’t end with the patient, but can affect those around them.

Furthermore, there’s science to back up her theory. Scientific American reported in 2015 that children of Holocaust survivors have different stress hormone profiles to their peers. The survivors themselves had lower levels of cortisol, and younger survivors had less of an enzyme that processes cortisol, freeing their bodies to focus on storing glucose (essential during starvation); this seems fairly logical. But the stress hormone profile of their children features high levels of cortisol – perhaps compensating for their parents – and a greater predisposition to PTSD than their peers.

Long-lasting effects of trauma

In 2010, the American Psychological Association summarised decades of research which showed that Holocaust survivors still had symptoms of PTSD and that they reported poorer wellbeing than peers who hadn’t been Holocaust victims. Many of these survivors won’t have had early psychological intervention; as we discussed earlier, they may have been discouraged from talking about what happened, or they may have tried to repress their memories and refused to reflect on the past, as a coping mechanism, not understanding trauma within themselves. Whatever their family circumstances, they often battle loneliness and isolation, but meeting fellow survivors can help increase their sense of community.

Sadly, other genocides followed the Holocaust. In the decades since, we’ve seen groups persecuted across the world – for example, in Bosnia, Cambodia, Rwanda, Sudan, and the current actions against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. That’s sadly why Holocaust Memorial Day doesn’t just remember past horrors, but what’s going on right now in the world, affecting vulnerable men, women and children. Understanding trauma in 2018 is much easier than in 1945, but survivors of more modern atrocities won’t necessarily have access to better treatment, or any therapy at all. Here in the UK, we are also fighting for Syrian refugees to be given trauma assessments and treatment to process the horrors they’ve seen (the war in Syria is on the verge of being categorised as genocide), as they adjust to starting again thousands of miles from home.

This Holocaust Memorial Day, we pay tribute to all those who’ve experienced the trauma of genocide, and their families, and wish them well in their ongoing recovery.

Written by guest contributor and mental health campaigner Polly Allen, for Dr Chrissie Tizzard, Chartered Consultant Psychologist, PsychD, BSc, MSc, C.Psychol, C.Sci, AFBPS. Dr Tizzard is the Clinical Director of Christine Tizzard Psychology (

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