Holocaust survivors' grandchildren call for action over inherited trauma

Jewish activists in Scotland have started a campaign to support the grandchildren of www.theguardian.com/world/holocaust
survivors across the world, saying the trauma of the extermination
camps continues to haunt the descendants of those who suffered there.
Dan Glass, 29, from London, said he heard constant tales of the
Holocaust as he grew up, which have deeply affected him into adulthood.
“All four of my grandparents narrowly avoided the gas chambers in
Auschwitz and countless of their friends met with this fate. For my
father it was a daily conversation in my teens and early 20s and even
though I very profoundly understood his pain, one day I had to say to
him, ‘Dad, I can’t talk about this anymore.’ My father had a whole wall
of books on the subject of the Holocaust – it was all he wanted to talk
about, but it was so harrowing for me.”
Glass began speaking to other children and grandchildren of Holocaust
survivors, initially for an academic thesis, then later as part of the group he founded Never Ever Again!,
a reference to the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights pledge.
He said he soon realised he was not alone in being scarred by the
traumatic pasts of his relatives.
“I have been privileged to hear so many stories from young people who
should now be able to live with joy – but their lives are damaged and
they weren’t even there,” he said.

Glass adds that other grandchildren of survivors have experienced
clinical depression, anxiety, addiction and eating disorders, which they
blame on the impact of their families constantly retelling stories of
the horrific events their relatives endured.
Ken Feinstein, a second generation family member, whose parents were
Holocaust survivors and who grew up in Boston, Lincolnshire, told of how
his school teacher, who also survived, insisted children as young as
eight watched documentaries on the subject.
“When kids would look away from it she would yell at them, ‘You have
no right to do that. I buried my family.’ We must have been about seven
or eight years old. How do you prepare children of this age for
something like that? They just showed it to us and kind of traumatised
us. It was definitely meant to shock us into never forgetting,” said
Feinstein.A young woman from London told Glass of how her grandmother, who was
in the Dutch resistance, avoided starvation at times by digging up
flower bulbs and sucking out the nutrients. The woman later developed
anorexia and believes it was related to the war stories that had been
passed down the line and never processed.
Trauma research about the impact of the Holocaust on subsequent
generations varies; some studies conclude there is no effect of trauma
two generations on, while www.theguardian.com/science/2014/sep/07/epigenetics-heredity
that impacted on the physiology of the next generation. Some in the
field of epigenetics say the intergenerational effects of the Holocaust
are very pronounced and that the atrocities altered the DNA of victims’
descendants, so that they have different stress hormone profiles to their peers.
Psychologist Ruth Barnett, whose Jewish father fled Germany for
Shanghai, narrowly escaping the Holocaust, says she has witnessed
inherited trauma in some of her clients.
“Constantly talking about events like the gas chambers to
grandchildren is a way that traumatised people try to get rid of it – by
sicking it up. But unless it is processed properly, they make even more
anxiety for themselves and other generations.”

Never Ever Again! wants to move from what it calls “melancholic
memorialisation” to “positive action”, and is calling for mental health
provision to treat inherited trauma, as well as campaigning on various
issues, including increased surveillance of fascist groups across
Europe, supporting the Human Rights Act and challenging anti-immigration
Glass says that while it is essential to preserve historical facts,
the traumatising effect of memory should be addressed now. “Our
grandparents went through one horror, but it is important that we learn
to process and debrief from their story to bring about wholesale
recovery for this generation and the next.

“We should be releasing these old wounds to something beautiful
rather than staying paralysed in memory and fear. Until then we cannot
properly celebrate their lives or any kind of victory.
“What would our grandparents have felt if they had known we have had
to carry their torment through generations? Wouldn’t they have wanted us
to find the peace that was robbed from them? Wouldn’t they want us
whole and living lives that they lost?
“I realised that if they could speak to us beyond the grave many
would have agreed the mourning has to stop and be replaced with
something more constructive.”