Inter-generational trauma.

The Holocaust.


Historically, much of the attention surrounding incidents of trauma was given to Holocaust survivors and their offspring, this gave rise to the notion of trauma transmission, or to put it differently the probability that trauma in the parent would be manifest in the offspring, albeit with attachments to new realities, scenarios and circumstances. Nonetheless, the children of Holocaust survivors were shown to have a deep identification with the damage that had been caused to their parents. The question then was, what happened to these offspring when they faced trauma in their own lives?  Case studies revealed that the impact of past traumas experienced by parents could unwittingly have a direct influence on current lives leading to personal traumas and distress.[i]  Researcher Ilany Kogan describes two mechanisms by which the generational transmission of trauma occurs, first is where the child’s unconscious introjection and assimilation of the damaged parent’s self-images occurs through interaction with that parent, which then leads to the loss of the child’s separate sense of self and an inability to differentiate between the self and the damaged parent. Second, is where the parent forces aspects of him or herself onto the child, consciously or unconsciously. Kogan goes on to say:

      Life threatening reality does not reactivate only a simple recollection of traumatic events, but also reactivates in the children the mental representation…that they share with their parents. These include real events of a traumatic nature, conscious and unconscious fantasies regarding these events, intense feelings…and defences against unacceptable feelings such as shame, guilt or aggression.[ii]

      Two examples are offered by Kogan, one where a female high school teacher decides to demonstrate against Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, which Kogan suggests was a way of unconsciously mitigating the burden of guilt she felt towards her parents when her needs overshadowed the pain experienced by her mother and father, this also became transferred to other close relationships making them difficult to sustain.   The second example is a man who sought counselling to control his anger. His father, also a Holocaust survivor, had committed suicide.   Here the client projected his anger onto others having introjected the pain of his father’s experience as a Holocaust victim.  In my own therapy practice I could think of many incidents where anger was a manifestation of anxiety that stemmed from the actions (or non-actions) of parents, thus the question arose, how far back could one trace this introjection of emotions and actions (or non-action) and to what avail. Was it truly possible for a child to experience an inner world of pain and trauma due to the painful experiences of parents, grandparents or great grand-parents etcetera?   Further, was this implicated in an epigenetics?

[i] M. Gerard Fromm (2012) Lost in Transmission: Studies of Trauma Across Generations. Introduction. London, Karnac Publishing.

[ii] Ilany Kogan (2012) The Second Generation in the Shadow of Terror Lost in Transmission: Studies of Trauma Across Generations. Introduction. London, Karnac Publishing., p6.