Grandchildren of The Holocaust

The two most recent issues of the BGJ have referred to themes of war in light of the WW1 Centenary. Malcolm Parlett's 'The Impact of War' (Vol.23 No.1) and Vienna Duff's 'Trauma of War Across Generations' (Vol.23 No.2) were two approaches from a distinctly personal perspective.  

This year, the International Holocaust Memorial Day on January 27th reminded us of terrible events from WW2.  We are aware of how much this continues to resonate within the Gestalt community. We publish here a reflection from David Polak, a practitioner working with transgenerational trauma amongst survivors of the Holocaust. 

At a recent conference in London organised by The Second Generation Network the Association of Jewish Refugees and the Kindertransport Association’ three generations of holocaust survivors and their families, met to discuss and explore themes relevant to them.  I facilitated a group of Third Generation descendants, the grandchildren of survivors, to discuss the impact of the holocaust on their lives and identities.

The group focused on a few main themes, namely the anxiety and fear of persecution happening again, the sense of not really belonging in their host countries and not knowing if it is safe to be visible as Jews or to keep that aspect of their identities hidden.  These themes might be commonplace among survivors themselves; it was interesting to see them still present in the psyches of the grandchildren. This illustrates some of the ways in which trans-generational trauma can manifest itself. 

Growing up in survivor families means that the holocaust is very much in the field of one’s experience and is internalised via contact within that matrix of relationships. One example of this are some of the introjected messages group members identified; ‘what do you have to complain about’? ‘You can’t trust others’ and the pressure to make the most of their lives in order to compensate for the losses suffered by families.

There was also talk of the positive aspects of the legacy; participants felt they had a high degree of emotional resilience, an appreciation of the value of life and a decreased interest in material things. Many noted that they worked in caring professions and had empathy for other people’s suffering and a desire to help the world in some way. 

Group members identified with a sense of having been allocated responsibility for carrying the torch within their families and there was some discussion about why this was. One felt that the Third Generation now have sufficient environmental and self-support to talk about and express feelings relating to the trauma that previous generations did not have, as they were still preoccupied with the task of survival.

Sadly it was noted that the concerns of the Third Generation were not dissimilar to those of the initial survivors. One such person always had a bag packed in case she needed to leave in a hurry, and members of our group talked about the need to have an exit strategy in light of recent events in Europe and their associated fears for their children’s safety both at school and in the wider community.

As connections were made people commented on feeling less isolated and alone with issues they thought nobody else could relate to. Perhaps the most poignant moment was the realisation that the fourth generation (our children) were now emerging and with them our fears about the extent to which we might transmit the trauma to them.

I went home and checked my wife’s passport and my own were in date and then began the process of applying for passports for my two young children. Trans-generational trauma indeed!

David Polak

David Polak (UKCP) is a psychotherapist working in private practice and in a psychiatric hospital. He is the grandchild of holocaust survivors; his Grandfather from Berlin escaped to Switzerland and his Grandmother survived four years in the transport camp of Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia. He works therapeutically with the descendants of survivors as an act of service to his community and believes in the healing power of speaking the unspeakable.