Inter-generational trauma


Much of the work carried out on Holocaust survivors has been focused on dreams.

Natan P.F. Kellerman describes a dream experienced by one of his clients.

      I am hiding in the cellar from soldiers who are searching for me. Overwhelmed by anxiety I know that if they find me they will kill me on the spot…Then I am standing in line for selection, the smell of burning flesh is in the air and I can hear shots fired. Faceless and undernourished people with striped uniforms march away to the crematoriums. Then I am in a pit with dead skeletal bodies. I struggle desperately to bury the cadavers in the mud, but limbs keep sticking up from the wet soil and keep floating up to the surface. I feel guilty for what has happened, though I do not know why I wake up in a sweat and immediately remember that these are the kinds of nightmares that I had ever since I was a child. During a lifelong journey of mourning I have been travelling back to the dead: to the corpses and graveyards of the Second World War with a prevailing sense of numb grief for all those anonymously gone. [i]

This man was not a Holocaust survivor, but the son of a survivor.  As Kellerman points out the story is not unique, over three decades more than 300 papers have been written on the transmission of trauma from Holocaust survivors to their children.[ii]

Kellerman’s example made a lot of sense to me and we now know that this kind of intergenerational transmission is not unique to Holocaust survivors, it forms the basis of many second generation traumas.   I was able to resonate with the dream because I had experienced similar dreams.

I was born east of London just after the Second World War ended, yet my life and that of my immediate family was dominated by the events of war.   After the war and by the time I was born in January 1948 (the War ended in 1945) my parents and grandmother had acquired a two-story terraced house as part of the government’s reconstruction program, but it was a far cry from the space and comfort they were used to.  My grandmother had rescued some of her Victorian furniture and works of art and they were crammed into a front bedroom on the upstairs floor. She would spend hours conveying the stories that each of these objects represented to willing listeners.  I was always fascinated by these grand and romantic tales, but they also seemed to be associated with my bad dreams.   For some reason I had a strange fear of staircases.

I used to dream about my grandparent’s beautiful house being bombed in the Blitz.  I pictured the grand hallway staircase as the only thing left intact in the entrance after the bombing had ended.    I would see myself walking to the top of the staircase, but having reached the top of the stairs there was nothing except a long drop into the bomb crater below.  Later, I recalled my mother telling me how she had been stuck on the top of a staircase when a bomb hit the surrounding buildings and how the explosion had taken out the main wall of the house.  No one was hurt, but the shock would not go away. My mother also had some trepidation over buying a house with a staircase.  It is hard to say who truly owned these memories, but the emotional impacts between two generations were clearly a reality.

What I remember most about the aftermath of the War was that most people did not wish to talk about it, the pain and details were repressed.  This left a new generation struggling to understand their psychic fears and emotions when there seemed nothing tangible to attach them to.   My parents had a false sense of victory, which served to cover all the superficial effects of painful experiences, but it would take its toll over the years and manifest in physical illness.  My mother became a hypochondriac who was obsessed with reading medical journals.  My father contracted tuberculosis and spent much of his life in sanatoriums.  I remember visiting my father in the hospital, but it was not until I was an adult that I began to wonder if there was something other than infection behind this man’s poor health.  Many stories of pain and trauma were bound to arise after the war with details that were often kept secret due to pain, shame and/or a fear of being ostracized by the community.

My school friend Daphne and her younger brother were adopted after their parents were killed in the Second World War.  Neither Daphne nor her brother were told they were the children of Jewish parents or that they had been    adopted by a Gentile family.  The children went to a State Christian school and had no contact with the Jewish community.   Daphne only discovered that she was Jewish after meeting a young Jewish man whom she eventually married.  Daphne struggled through her education because she always felt she was different.  She also suffered from physical pains, mainly in her muscles and joints and complained of burning sensations and an inability to breathe, a condition which no doctor could explain.   Daphne was  generally quite distant, she had little trust in people and was reluctant to make close friends.    It was as if her outward self was lived on a periphery of existence, while her inner life was the reality she wished to embrace.  Daphne saw her inner life as a protection from the harshness of school life and the world in general.  After Daphne left school she and her boyfriend went to see a Rabbi as they planned to get married, it was then that Daphne discovered that she was the child of Holocaust victims.

Daphne’s feelings are not an unusual manifestation of trauma.  The events of trauma cause distinct absences in the mental framework.  Distance separates us from the atrocities and painful memories that might otherwise penetrate consciousness.  Today, we have come to know a little about this process.  In the words of Gerard Fromm:

      To know something is to process new information, to assimilate and integrate an experience into one’s own inner world of representation. It is essentially to build a new construct inside ourselves…What, specifically overwhelms the process of construction, and, therefore, the constructor himself resulting in a total loss of capacity to participate in one’s own reality?

The answer is symbolization.  Freud saw the formation of the symbol as something created in the context of an internal narrative, which is replayed to ourselves as part of our inner world. We might call this our inner voice, Other or soul.   Reality, or the events of the external world can only be fully grasped when the inner world and the outer world are attuned.  Extreme trauma causes this process to be interrupted, both at the external and internal levels.  The inner world, which is generally focused on one’s needs is faced with an emptiness and a terror of the abyss.  It is this state of fear or loss that causes the subject to internalize the only other object available, that of the external other, often the perpetrator/representative/object of the fear being experienced by the subject.

[i] Transmission of holocaust trauma–an integrative view Natan P F Kellermann Psychiatry; Fall 2001; 64, 3; ProQuest Social Science Journals pg. 256

[ii] Natan Kellerman (1999a)Bibliography. Children of Holocaust Survivors AMCHA The National Israeli Centre for Psychological Support of Holocaust Survivors and the Second Generation.