Analysis of interviews revealed multiple and diverse effects of transgenerational transmission of trauma, a phenomenon that showed to be neither linear nor one-dimensional. This result was in line with a recent finding in literature, which demonstrated a mixed functional profile in the midlife of OHS: specific strengths (a higher sense of well-being) intertwined with specific vulnerabilities (more physical health problems)
Using the GT-derived conceptual categories, we sought to present a scheme linking transgenerational transmission patterns or resilience patterns to phenomena related to parental trauma. These phenomena were related to three elements: (i) modes of parental psychic working over, (ii) ways in which survivors communicate the traumatic message to their offspring, and (iii) repercussions of trauma on second-generation experiences (Table
Model for transgenerational transmission: experience of trauma and resilience patterns
The mode of parental psychical working over
concerns survivors’ ability or inability to symbolize disruptive experiences. The pattern of transgenerational transmission or resilience may be regarded as an effect of this phenomenon. When symbolic resources for symbolic working over fail or are lacking, trauma and its transgenerational transmission may lead to several psychopathologic disorders and somatization. The phenomenon of secondary traumatization
have been described in clinical observations and empirical research, showing that “the consequences of traumatic events are not limited to the persons immediately exposed to the event, and they often affect significant others in their environment such as family, friends, and caregivers. Such effects include difficulties, intrusive imagery, heightened sense of vulnerability, difficulty trusting others, and emotional numbing”.
Otherwise, survivors find diverse means of working over their disruptive experiences, whether by means of personal narratives, documentary records, cultural rituals and expressions, tapping into collective memory or defending universal values. These different modes of appropriation and historicization of experiences may enable the transmission of resilience patterns to the second generation. Nevertheless, a recent study demonstrated that “Holocaust survivors can still display posttraumatic stress symptoms almost 70
years after the trauma, whereas no intergenerational transmission of trauma was found among the second generation”
The mode of parental psychical working over
is associated with the ways in which survivors relay their Holocaust experiences to their offspring (the parental communication style
). Our current findings are consistent with previous studies, which indicate that the different roles of affect regulation, narrative cohesion, and symbolic representation, bears the diverse ways in which the parental traumatic experience is appropriated by the offspring
]. Resilience is a recurring outcome among offspring of families with more open and affectionate communication styles, which frequently make use of humor as a symbolic resource. Conversely, experience of trauma is most evident in offspring of survivors that do not speak of their traumatic experiences, keep them as a secret or relay them in an indirect, fragmented, catastrophic manner.
Some authors prefer the term “echoes of parental traumatic memory” to describe this kind of phenomenon, underscoring that “we are not dealing with the transmission of trauma itself, but rather with interpersonal themes and child-parent dynamics in which these ‘echoes’ of the trauma may play out in the offspring’s recollected relational experiences”
The manner in which the traumatic message is conveyed or silenced by parents can have distinct repercussions on psychical working over in their offspring. On the one hand, this message may lead OHS to associate Holocaust trauma with their parents’ inability to adequately carry out their parental functions, compounding potential feelings of psychical deterritorialization. Other patterns of traumatic experience lived by OHS may be manifested in many ways, such as: fear of being identified by external signs; experiences of guilt, victimization and submission; presentification of parental trauma; and a terrifying worldview.
On the other hand, the repercussions of traumatic messages on the lives of OHS may contribute to the development of resilient patterns, when they are associated with the defense of universal or communal values, social and political activism, a search for collective bonding and social support networks, attempts to gain greater knowledge of the Holocaust, artistic creation and realization processes, and exaltation of the radical singularity of parental history – by means of poetic, epic, romanticized narratives –, turning a “cursed inheritance” of sorts into a memorable legacy.
Approaches for the comprehension of transgenerational transmission of trauma have included psychodynamic, cognitive, familiar, social and biologic theories and models. Although being the topic of much research, only very few studies have considered some cultural aspects, like immigration, and their role in the mental health status of OHS. One of these studies postulates that personality differences among OHS could be attributed to their immigrant status rather than to their parents’ experiences as Holocaust survivors
]. Facing the challenges of being in a new country, with a different culture, could play an important role not only for the first generation, but also for their offspring, who perform the duty of being a facilitator of communication or even a bulkhead between their parents and the local population.
As any qualitative study, findings cannot be generalized. This kind of research has typically a small scale and an exploratory nature. It would be of interest to amplify its domains to other settings, including not only the descendants of victims of wars, but also victims of natural catastrophes and other disasters. This was done in a recent research that studied the mental health consequences of the 2011 Fukushima natural disaster in grandchildren of people living in Hiroshima and Nagasaki during the drop of the atomic bomb
]. The description of some specific aspects found in the results can also be explored in further researches, with complementary methodologies, like quantitative approaches.
As in other studies of retrospective narratives, the interviewees may highlight their descriptions of past experiences with the colors of present intentions and feelings, with a high level of motivation to talk about their experience that may not be found representative of general population.
Another limitation of this present study is that it did not specify the results in function of the gender of the offspring. This could be of interest, given that some studies have pointed out gender differences in cases of transgenerational transmission of trauma.