Jewish Studies Children of Holocaust Survivors
by
Diane Wolf
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 April 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0125

Introduction

There are children of survivors (COS) in Australia, Canada, Europe, Latin America, Israel, South Africa and the United States. This group has also been referred to as the second generation, second-generation witnesses, and second-generation survivors. Although there are publications by and about COS in multiple languages, the majority are in English and focus on the United States. There are no official statistics available as to how many COS exist—one estimate puts it at 250,000 in the United States, but this is not verifiable. There are hundreds of publications about children of Holocaust survivors. From early on, the scholarly literature about COS focused on psychopathologies, when psychotherapists noticed the overrepresentation of COS among their patients and believed their trauma mirrored that of their parents. This led to the creation of new psychological categories, such as transmitted trauma syndrome or survivor’s child complex, which later evolved into the concept of the intergenerational transmission of trauma, and is now sometimes replaced by the general rubric of PTSD. This focus on transmitting trauma has also extended research to grandchildren, or the third generation. Currently, there is a new emphasis on the biology or the epigenetics of transmitting trauma. Because the scholarly literature on COS is dominated by those who draw on psychology and psychiatry, what is studied and how it is studied has been circumscribed. The discourse about COS is also dominated by psychological terminology that can be reductionist, focusing on trauma and/or resiliency. The emphasis on trauma clearly reflects that these professions study mental illness and dysfunction, not mental health. The research also reflects the limitations of psychology. Many scholars use various psychological scales and measures that purport to measure particular tendencies without any critical consideration of their content. Using such psychological measures in research with control groups in multiple countries, generally, it appears that overall, most COS are psychologically healthy—or perhaps not more impaired than their non-COS peers. A new and recent wave of research is now centered on measuring the biological or epigenetic basis of the transmission of trauma. There are also some important contributions to this literature from the humanities and other social sciences. Indeed, sociological research on COS is more open-ended, utilizing more narratives that illustrate the complexity that is often missing in the psychologically based research.

General Overviews

The first widespread lay acknowledgement of the second generation and its emotional inheritance occurred with Helen Epstein’s Children of the Holocaust: Conversations with Sons and Daughters of Survivors (Epstein 1979). Based on interviews with several hundred children of survivors (COS), Epstein illuminated particular behaviors within postwar survivors’ families and the very specific burden of the Holocaust on the second generation. She presented the gamut of COS experiences with parents, such as hearing about the Holocaust constantly from an early age to silence and a refusal to talk about it, coupled with a feeling among COS that something was deeply wrong in their family. Epstein’s book resonated profoundly with many, and the book is often credited with having launched a social movement and, very importantly, a collective identity among COS. This social movement consists of organizations, support groups, conferences and list-serves for the second generation, or the 2G, which are still active. Some COS have turned their experiences into creative endeavors, including memoirs, poetry, fiction, film, graphic novels, and other art forms. This topic has produced several volumes of mixed genres, either works by academics who blend their personal backgrounds as COS with their scholarship, or edited volumes with a mixture of scholarly chapters with some combination of memoir, fiction, and poetry in other chapters. In her edited volume on trauma (Danieli 1998), the psychologist Yael Danieli elucidates various psychological frameworks that have been used to study the intergenerational transmission of trauma among COS, as well as among many other groups afflicted by genocide and war. However, there are no scholarly classics on COS in any field, but there are different approaches to the study of trauma.

  • Danieli, Yael, ed. International Handbook of Multigenerational Legacies of Trauma. New York: Plenum, 1998.

    E-mail Citation »

    The thirty-eight chapters in this volume include a focus on COS as well as groups in other countries and cultures where war and genocide have occurred. Danieli’s introduction and conclusions map out her framework as well as different psychological approaches to studying the intergenerational transmission of trauma.

  • Epstein, Helen. Children of the Holocaust. New York: Putnam, 1979.

    E-mail Citation »

    The most important publication for many COS, as it identified their particular emotional inheritance from having had survivor-parents; often termed the Bible of COS. Much of the book points to problems COS experienced related to their backgrounds.

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