When I was growing up during the early 1990s in Canada, the Holocaust seemed very far away.
As far as Canadian Jewish childhoods go, mine was fairly typical—Hebrew school, loving (if slightly overprotective) parents, a strong community. My hometown of Montreal was home to the world’s largest population of Holocaust survivors outside of Israel and New York City, and for good reason: While our language divide in Quebec might belie the stereotype of the perfectly harmonious Great White North, it was a relatively comfortable, safe, and multicultural place to raise a family after the horrors of Europe.
I knew my grandparents had gone through something terrible—we talked about it at home, the confusing family tree that was missing entire branches, with distant cousins strewn across the Diaspora. As a very young child, I remember asking about the tattoo on my grandpa’s forearm. But it was so long ago and very far away. Nazi troops and scrambling for fake papers seemed utterly disconnected from my reality—the elderly man with the thick Slovak accent who would kick a soccer ball with me and wore suspenders every day, the tough Hungarian woman who made the best chicken paprikash.
My parents never told about my grandpa’s nightmares, or my grandma’s antidepressants. Why would they? I was a kid and all I needed to know was that they survived, and they loved me. We were a close family and I was proud of my heritage, but conversations about trauma and horror and depression were best whispered, if held at all.
Over two decades after their deaths, I now wish I had known more.
Last year, at age 32, I was diagnosed with depression. Only after I started talking openly with my parents about my own mental health did I learn about the history of mental illness in my family.
Saying “my grandparents survived the Holocaust, therefore I’m depressed” is ridiculous. But during my lowest periods, their experiences were a constant specter. They had survived unimaginable hardship—I was raised in an upper-middle-class home in the heart of a large and vibrant Jewish enclave, in a country known for its prosperity and safety. What right did I have to be depressed? I didn’t just feel like I’d let down my long-deceased grandma and grandpa—I felt like my self-indulgence was a betrayal of their legacy.
The Holocaust unsurprisingly left deep psychological wounds in many of the Jews who survived it. Rather than healing over time, research shows the psychic injuries are being passed down and living on, even as the number of survivors dwindles.
Since the late 1960s a subfield of psychology has sprung up around the impact the Holocaust has had on its survivors’ descendants. Some studies conclude that there is a biological element to this—that trauma, starvation, stress, and other factors can alter the genetics of not just survivors but their children, putting those kids at higher risk for mental disorders like depression, anxiety, or PTSD.
If that kind of biological cause and effect can be hard to relate to, Yael Danieli’s years of research brings the effects of trauma into a situation the stereotypical Jew would be intimately familiar with: the child-parent relationship itself.
Danieli, who is the co-founder and director of the Group Project for Holocaust Survivors and Their Children as well as the International Center for the Study, Prevention and Treatment of Multigenerational Legacies of Trauma, is one of the leading scholars on inherited trauma. In numerous papers and books, she’s written about her findings on how the Holocaust affected its victims’ mental health in the years and decades that followed. Many developed mechanisms to cope with what they’d lived through. Some developed depression and fear of the outside world (seeing themselves as victims), while others stressed almost compulsive achievement for themselves and their families (seeing themselves as fighters); some, especially those who lost spouses and/or children, became emotionally numb, and a fourth group tended to deny that the Holocaust had any long-term effect on them, rarely spoke to their children about it, and were glad to have made it out alive (Danieli dubs them “those who made it”).
“These (post-trauma) adaptational styles (have) thus shaped the survivors’ family life and, in turn, their children’s upbringing, emotional development, identity, and beliefs about themselves, their peers, their societies, and the world,” writes Danieli in her 2016 article for The American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, “Multigenerational Legacies of Trauma: Modeling the What and How of Transmission.”
Because our home lives are so influential on who we become, to Danieli, the question isn’t whether children of survivors are psychologically affected by their family’s Holocaust experiences—it’s who will be and when.
Judith Black’s mother was an anxious person.
It’s hard to fault her for that. Like many Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust, she scrambled to get false papers that would help her and her young daughter hide from the Nazis. Her husband, Judith’s father, had already been found and loaded onto a train to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.
Luckily, the three of them survived and found their way to Canada.
“They went through so much. They went through the war, they went through immigration, in the prewar years there was the Depression,” said Black of her mother’s generation. “Generally, they’ve gone through a lot of anxiety.”
In her childhood and teen years, Black found herself tending toward anxiety herself and she soon found she was not alone in feeling the heavy weight of her parents’ Holocaust experiences. In her work as a clinical psychologist, she’s treated several children of survivors. In her role as a board member of the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre, she has met many more.
“If you have an anxious parent or a depressed parent, it’s going to leave an impact on the child,” she said. “The more anxiety a parent has, the more I think they pass it on, and the more depression.”
The correlation between the trauma a parent experienced and the atmosphere of the home they create for their children seems straightforward. It becomes muddier once those kids grow up and raise their own families.
While there’s been ample study of Holocaust survivors and their children, there’s been far less on the next generation. One study by researchers at Haifa University found that Israeli grandchildren of survivors inherited some of their parents’ anxieties, but the body of evidence is hardly conclusive. (In an interview, Danieli said that while there’s still a lack of hard data, “From my theoretical and clinical standpoint, you could hypothesize that when the grandchildren grow up in second-generation homes with high reparative adaptational impacts and also have had grandparents with a victim or numb adaptational style, they’re likely to be more affected.”)
Some academics take issue with the concept of inherited Holocaust trauma as a whole. Frank Furedi, a sociologist and former professor at England’s University of Kent, has written about his belief that descendants claiming to feel the repercussions of the Shoah in their own lives are trying to make themselves into victims as a way to find meaning. “Increasingly, we explain our predicament by events that happen a long time ago, our childhood or even before that,” he said in an interview. “There is at least a section of families that begin to give meaning to their experience through being a Holocaust survivor. It’s interesting, you look at the discourse by second- and third-generation survivors, it’s almost as if for them, that experience has greater meaning than for their parents, the ones who actually suffered the horrors in the camps.”
Still, speaking to several grandchildren of survivors, it seems possible that those of us born decades after the last concentration camp was liberated are bearing mental scar tissue from what our bubbes and zaydes endured. There’s a sense that the Holocaust is still shaping who we are, for better and for worse.
“There’s something very unsettling about talking about myself as a victim given the obscene privilege of my life and the fact that I’m not a victim,” said John, a fellow 30-something grandson of Holocaust survivors. “My grandparents went through hell and I’m very reticent to present myself as someone who is even an intergenerational victim of trauma, because in the grand scheme of the world we live in, I’m beyond privileged.”
On the surface, John is everything a grandparent who came from immense suffering could hope for: A Toronto-based lawyer, he’s happily married with a young child and a close relationship with his parents and siblings. All four of his grandparents were Holocaust survivors, but like me, he only learned of their experience—of hiding, of exile, of losing loved ones—in dribs and drabs over the years.
“I would fall into the category of someone whose grandparents were like ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’ On my mom’s side, there was never a word to be spoken about the Holocaust, which had a significant impact on my mother,” he said. “My mom didn’t know she had a half-brother. She didn’t know that, she found that out when she was an adult. That’s fucked up.”
Despite his success, John has found himself suffering from intense social anxiety. He recently began seeing a therapist (he asked that his last name not be used, due to ongoing stigma around mental illness having a negative effect on his career). “I think there’s a lot of reasons one becomes anxious and I don’t want to unfairly attribute this to my parents, but part of it is growing up in a house and family where the narrative was always that danger is lurking around every corner,” he said. “I don’t know whether my parents think about that as a Holocaust thing, but now, with some benefit of hindsight, that’s what I believe.”
Our survivor grandparents are almost all gone. The memory of the Holocaust, too, is tragically fading. A recent survey found 49 percent of American millennials couldn’t name a single concentration camp. In Canada, that number is 52 percent. The horror of genocide is dim enough that Holocaust deniers are thriving online and getting the occasional meeting with a congressman or two.
Even as the new wave of anti-Semites attack both physically and digitally, the scabs of the old wounds are still there. The past, as William Faulkner said, isn’t over. It isn’t even past. For those of us who grew up with intimate evidence of the Holocaust in the form of beloved flesh-and-blood parents and grandparents, whose worldview shaped the homes we grew up in, Judaism’s bloodiest chapter literally lives on in our DNA.
Adam Kovac is a freelance journalist based in Montreal. His work has appeared in RollingStone.com, Esquire.com, Playboy.com, The Cut, CNN, USA Today, and others.