Do the Wounds Ever Heal?
PTSD and Holocaust Survivors

by Andy Douillard

December 5, 2005

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
Interdisciplinary Perspectives on the Holocaust

UC Santa Barbara, Fall 2005

(course homepage, web projects index page)

Camp Life as a Contributing Factor
Symptoms in Suvivors
Effects on the Next Generation
About the
Page Author

Overview/Thesis (back to top)

It may seem obvious that experiencing an extremely traumatic event would leave some lasting mark on an individual, be it physical or psychological. In the case of the Holocaust the physical trauma is well documented, but due to the delicate nature of psychological disorders especially post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) there is less data regarding its effects on Holocaust survivors. PTSD can be thought of as similar to a horribly disfiguring wound, yet the only person who can really see the wound is the individual. This contributes to an individualís ability to appear on the surface as if nothing is wrong when in reality the individual is in constant torment and needs help. The horrific events that occurred in the Holocaust have created a unique situation where PTSD and symptoms associated with the disorder are felt not only by survivors but also by following generations of both survivorsí and perpetratorsí children.

Life in the Camps: Contributing factors to PTSD (back to top)

Concentration camps were the final stop for many victims of the Holocaust, and as such they were an amalgamation of much of the other horrors associated with the Holocaust. According to Kleber "from the moment of arrival, the prisoner was abused, humiliated Ö confronted with his inferiority by means of crude violence. He was reduced to a number" (Kleber 95). There was also the separation of family and friends, inferior living spaces, atrocious hygienic conditions, and continual hunger (Kleber 95). Camp life also created a sense of extreme alertness due to the prisonersí need to continually attempt to avoid death. The best means of avoidance was the ability of prisoners to become inconspicuous so as not to be selected by the guards for punishment, extremely hard physical labor or even the gas chambers (Kleber 95).

Symptoms in Survivors (back to top)

The behaviors of survivors after their experience of the Holocaust can be classified in broad categories:

    • Death Imprint: A person is assaulted with death in such an intense way that the images are permanently burned into their mind. These memories are constantly on the mind of the victim and contribute to an intense realization of his or her own mortality (Kleber 98).
    • Survivorsí Guilt: Why am I still alive when others have perished? Survivors guilt is connected primarily to the intense feeling of powerlessness experienced by the individual in the concentration camp. Also there is the concern on the part of survivors for their own lack of feeling while in the camp, i.e. anger, sadness and so on (Kleber 98).
    • Numbness: Used to explain the lack of or inability to experience emotions. It is a defense mechanism to avoid overwhelming memories, thoughts and emotions and in doing so creates a withdrawal between the victim and human contact (Kleber 98).
    • The Search for Meaning: Because of a survivorsí continual confrontation with death and other atrocities during the camp experience, the survivor attempts to understand why these horrors happened to him or her, and the reasons behind these events (Kleber 99).

According to Judith Hassan, a doctor who specializes in Holocaust survivors with PTSD, these themes allowed for "the unresolved issues that refugees were experiencing forty or fifty years on" (Hassan 102). The themes above also contribute to the low number of survivors seeking help. Hassan points out that those who were the most traumatized in the camps or in hiding were the least likely to seek help due to "their fears of weakness and vulnerability to which asking for help applies" (Hassan 108).

In another article, Shalom Robinson M.D. conducted research on the effects of PTSD on Holocaust survivors who were orphaned compared those who survived with their parents. Robinson found that in the groups he was researching 26 percent of those survivors whose parents survived were members of an academic profession (e.g. doctors, lawyers, Ö) whereas with Holocaust orphans the percentage dropped to 14 percent. Robinson also provides excellent graphs to depict the number of survivors in each group who experienced different components of PTSD or survivors guilt. To view Robinsonís graphs and charts visit:

Effects on the Next Generation (back to top)

After the Holocaust many survivors married and started families, and with these families comes the possibly of trauma transfer. Trauma transfer is described by one scholar as "These offspring, the 'second generation' from the trauma, may thus bear 'the scar without the wound,' since they are significantly, if only indirectly, affected" (Albeck 1994, cited in Williams-Keeler et al). Another scholar suggests the effect of transfer is either the obsessive retelling of the survivorís story or an "all consuming silence" (Mor 1990, cited in Williams-Keeler et al). Either way the offspring learns about the Holocaust through their parentsí stories or lack thereof as a means to attempt to understand or grasp what their parents went through (Williams-Keeler et al).

A trauma transfer not only occurred from survivors to their children, but from former Nazis to their children as well, Brendler found:

  • 65% of German youths interviewed felt ashamed when they hear of the mass murder done by their ancestors.
  • 41% have feelings of guilt even though they were not involved in any of the crimes themselves.
  • 50% feel somehow paralyzed.
  • 68% feel threatened, are afraid of punishment, or are afraid of the future, while thinking of the Holocaust (Brendler 250).

The test group consisted of 22 participants ranging in age from 13 to 28, with the majority in their early 20s. Some of the studentsí fathers had served with the Wehrmacht in WWII. Brendler concluded that "the enormous guilt of the ancestors was combined, in these young peopleís concept of themselves, with their own identity as Germans" (Brendler 260). This notion of trauma being transferred to an entire nation, and to the international psyche is unique to the Holocaust.

Sources (back to top)

  • Konrad Brendler, "Working Through the Holocaust: Still a Task for German Youth," in: Beyond Trauma: Cultural and Societal Dynamics, ed. by Rolf Kleber, Charles Figley, Berthold Gersons, Plenum Press, New York, 1995. RC 552 P67 B49 1995
    Article examines the effects of the Holocaust on German youth. Brendler lays out his research techniques and his results on the subject. He also explains the levels and techniques of coping with Nazi history among German youths.
  • Rolf Kleber and Danny Brom, Coping With Trauma: Theory, Prevention and Treatment, Amsterdam: Swet and Zeitlinger, 1992. RC 552 P67 K543 1992
    Examines trauma associated with experience in Nazi concentration camps. Thoroughly explains the causes, common themes and symptoms of those who survived Holocaust concentration camps.
  • Judith Hassan, "Therapy with survivors of the Nazi Holocaust," in: Petruska Clarkson, Michael Pokorny (eds.), The Handbook of Psychotherapy, New York: Routledge, 1994. RC 408 H2858 1994
    Article documents Judith Hassan's experiences working with Holocaust survivors. She provides extensive case studies as well have her own scholarly insight as to challenges with and techniques used to help survivors with PTSD.
  • Shalom Robinson M.D., "Echoes of the Holocaust," 1997
    Article looks at the similarities and differences associated with orphaned holocaust survivors versus those whose parents survived. Provides helpful charts of data and retraces through Robinsonís research process step by step.
  • Lyn Williams-Keeler, Michael McCarrey, Anna B. Baranowsky, Marta Young, Sue Johnson-Douglas, "PTSD transmission: A review of secondary traumatization in Holocaust survivor families," Canadian Psychology 1998 (accessed on, Nov. 2005)
    Article details the transfer of trauma from Holocaust survivors to their offspring and further generations. Offers multiple scholarly opinions on the subject.

Author Bio (back to top)

My name is Andy Douillard and I am a third year history major at UCSB. I am primarily interested in 19th century and labor history. I chose this class because I was interested in the interdisciplinary approach to studying history, and in this case, the Holocaust. This project examines the causes, symptoms, and the techniques used to cope with PTSD in Holocaust survivors and their children, as well as the larger social ramifications of the Holocaust. I became interested in PTSD after reading the book Achilles in Vietnam by Jonathan Shay, where he compares quotations from Homer's Iliad to his work with Vietnam veterans suffering from PTSD in order to better understand it.

prepared for web by Harold Marcuse on12/15/05; last updated:
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