A new medical study has just proved the trauma of the Holocaust is transmitted genetically through the generations.
This is a known fact to mental health experts and anyone else who works in the field. It is an unstated reality to anyone who is a descendant of a Holocaust survivor. In fact, anyone who has been touched in any way by the trauma of the Holocaust is forever traumatized by that nightmare in a real, visceral manner. Ask them. Or just look at their eyes.
But now medical research has caught up with this reality. Scientists at New York’s Mount Sinai Medical Center have tracked down the genetic changes in which the trauma is forever inscribed.
The findings will have deep implications for the Jewish world which cannot be addressed in this article.
The study examined “epigenetic inheritance” – the theory that says environmental influences such as smoking, stress and weight loss can create genetic changes in one’s children and grandchildren.
The Mount Sinai study focused on a gene associated with the regulation of stress hormones which is known to be affected by trauma.
The study, which included 32 test subjects and 22 of their adult offspring, focused on Jewish men and women who survived the Nazi concentration camps, witnessed or experienced tortured, or were forced to hide from the Nazis during World War II. The control subjects were Jewish families who did not live in Europe during the rule of the Nazis.
Scientists found epigenetic markers on the same part of the gene in both the survivors and their children. That correlation was not found among Jewish families who did not live in Europe during World War II.
The researchers also found that children of Holocaust survivors were three times more likely to develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) if they were exposed to a traumatic event, than demographically similar Jews whose parents did not experience the Holocaust.
The findings were published in the most recent edition of the journal Biological Psychiatry. Dr. Rachel Yehuda, who led the study, said, “The gene changes in the children could only be attributed to Holocaust exposure in the parents.”
Children of Holocaust survivors were found to have the same neuroendocrine and hormonal abnormalities as Holocaust survivors and other people suffering from PTSD. The researchers thus concluded that the risk for conditions such as PTSD was associated with having a parent who had PTSD.
The transmission of trauma from one generation to the next is a known phenomenon to social workers and other therapists in the field of psychotherapy. Dr. Yehuda, however, was able to quantify it in physical, neurochemical terms.
What sparked the research, however, was the desire to document that which she and others were seeing over and over at a clinic for survivors at Mount Sinai.
“Offspring were reporting that they had been affected by the Holocaust in many different kinds of ways, but in a very coherent and cohesive pattern,” she said.
“They talked about feeling traumatized by witnessing the symptoms of their parents. And they talked about being traumatized by some of the expectations that the Holocaust had placed on them, such as that they are the reason their parents survived and therefore there was a whole set of things that they would now have to accomplish so that all the people that died… they could give their lives meaning.”
Hana Levi Julian