Holocaust Survivor Families: The Dynamics of Adaptation

“As a child of survivors and as a psychologist who has worked with survivors and their families for 40 years, I am fascinated in particular by the varied dynamics of adaptation that these families manifest” 

— Eva Fogelman

Author’s note: This essay presents my original identification and classification paradigms of the family relationships as I have analyzed in my clinical practice.

Holocaust survivor families: the dynamics of adaptation

Holocaust survivor families are created out of a traumatic history that is ever present, directly or indirectly. After liberation, the Jews of Europe were all but overwhelmed by the grim recognition of the horrendous losses they had suffered. It is impossible to mourn family members in any way that brings comfort and healing when there is no concrete evidence of their deaths; this, for many men and women, was the inhibition that prevented them from establishing new lives. Yet the depth of their losses in some way provoked in most survivors a profound need to connect to others again, to love, to regenerate, to build new families even as they searched for and mourned the ones they had lost. In the aftermath of the German campaign of persecution, dehumanization, and murder, miraculously, most families, including those that had survived partially intact and those that were created after the war, adapted and found different coping strategies that facilitated interactions between and among themselves and with the outside world.

Reunited families

How is one able to reconstitute a sense of self and connect with another in a loving relationship after everything—and perhaps everyone—in one’s life has been destroyed? This was the major challenge for survivors after liberation. The first hurdle was to attempt to restore pre-Holocaust families. Husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, siblings, cousins, and extended family members searched endlessly and everywhere for their children and for one another. Sometimes two or three family members found each other; almost never was an entire immediate family reunited intact. In rare instances, a bereft survivor remarried only to discover that his or her pre-Holocaust spouse had survived. (This scenario is portrayed in Isaac Bashevis Singer’s [1972] novel, Enemies: A Love Story.)1
Even today, survivors search for missing family members and, on very rare occasions, still find one.

Jewish couples who had hidden their young children with nannies, friends, strangers, or in an institutional setting, such as a monastery or convent, sometimes had to face legal battles to get their children back(“Abraham H. Foxman: A Life Saved, a Life of Service”; Verhy 2001)2Some children did not recognize their parents when they came to retrieve them; they saw them as total strangers and so did not want to leave their foster families. The atmosphere in these “reunited families,” as I have termed them, was often tense. When such children were forced to start new lives with their biological parents or with a relative they did not know or remember, they suffered greatly from the trauma of losing the people they had grown to love and call “mother,” “father,” “sister,” or “brother.” They also faced the loss of their Christian identity, taken on while in hiding. Children who were raised by Christian families or in Christian institutions often felt that they were betraying their loved ones and their God.3 The biological parents, overjoyed to find their children alive, often expected more than the children could give them; they felt their children were being disloyal by wanting to remain with or even maintain contact with the rescuing mother and father. In some reunited families, only one parent, and not necessarily all the children, survived. Some of these families remained broken vessels, and their vain attempts to restore their pre-Holocaust families continue to this day. In others, the young widow or widower decided to remarry.

In reunited families, both those in which the original spouses reunited and those in which only one parent survived and then remarried, some survivors opted to have additional children after the war, while others did not. The challenge for children born after liberation was to overcome a feeling of not belonging to the family unit that had survived the Holocaust. The survivors had their own language, secrets, coping strategies, and grief, which the children born to them after liberation did not share and could not fathom. Yet, as I saw so often in my practice, they wished to undo their survivor-parents’ and -siblings’ pain, feeling that they had to make them happy and wanting to take care of them. Although they did not suffer like their parents and siblings, at times they, too, experienced survivor guilt.

Sibling rivalry, which happens in most families, takes on a particular Holocaust theme in reunited families. For example, Esther, a woman I saw in my practice, always thought that her parents liked her sister, Chaya, more than her because Chaya, had survived the Holocaust, while Esther was born in the United States. Esther felt her sister was the special one, and her role in the family was not only to serve as a link to the external world but also to help Americanize her older sister.

Today, when many of the parents in the reunited families are deceased, the American sibling often is more reluctant to want to continue the role of caretaker of the Holocaust survivor sibling. Some post-Holocaust children choose to live far away from their survivor-sibling or to convey to the next generation that it is now their responsibility to care for an aunt or uncle.

Reunited families and secret-keeping

The clinical data I have collected indicate that reunited families engage in the practice of keeping secrets; this often proves to be detrimental to other family members. A parent whose pre-Holocaust offspring or spouse was killed, for example, often kept this fact—or at least the details surrounding it—a secret from post-Holocaust-born children. A child who survived the Holocaust might be warned not to tell his or her sibling, born after the war, that he or she was not from the same father. The haunting theme of secrets, replete with tragedy, keeps a child of survivors in the dark about what was really hidden. In the Katz family saga of Thane Rosenbaum’s (1999) Second Hand Smoke4, the author, himself a child of survivors, ingeniously depicts how secrets seep into the everyday life in a survivor family:

Among strangers they spoke in an almost flawless code. And since most people were regarded as strangers, the code was commonly slipped in between sentences like a necessary pause or a deliberate stutter. …

Often they alternated and recycled the code.

“Keep them guessing,” Mila [the mother] always said.
“About what?” Duncan [the son] often wondered. “What secrets do we have that anyone would want to know? The sale items at Publix are already listed in the Herald.” (pp. 7–8)5

For years, the parents would discreetly say the word keller (basement) whenever a member of the family strayed too far and revealed too much. When Duncan was on the phone, telling a friend that his mother couldn’t pick him up from the park until she got Duncan’s father from the bank, his mother said, “Keller,” and Duncan knew that he should say, “No, I forgot, my father isn’t at the bank. He’s waiting at the corner by the drugstore” (p. 7)6. After this episode, Duncan’s mother went to change their bank. “Banking was a desperately private affair. But then again, what wasn’t?” (p. 7)7.

Upon his mother’s death, Duncan finds out the real secret that she revealed on her deathbed to her nurses. After the war, Mila abandoned her first infant son in Poland before she crossed the border into Germany, rationalizing that there was no way to escape with a screaming baby in her arms. With this knowledge, Duncan shifts from an insular world of secrecy to a quest for his true family past.

A particularly thorny issue for survivors was if and how to tell their children of the “choiceless choices” that they had often been forced to make. How is an offspring of survivors to respond to the knowledge that a parent abandoned, passively witnessed the death of, or even killed his or her own infant to protect himself or other Jews in hiding? Intellectually, we all understand that infants’ cries were not controllable and could endanger Jews in cellars, attics, closets, ditches in the woods, or while running in the woods; we know that to be faced with such a dilemma is paralyzing and no real choice is possible. Yet when a second-generation child learns of such a moral dilemma and his parent’s desperate action, it becomes an indelible image and sometimes changes the relationship between survivor and child forever.

Another difficult issue that, in the judgment of some survivors, necessitated family secrets arose when the survivor parent had served as a kapo, a police officer in the ghettos or the concentration camp who collaborated with the Nazis in the hope of receiving better treatment for him or herself and family; or had done things to survive that he or she would never dream of doing in normal times. Such truths, when kept silent, can generate anxiety, shame, silence, and isolation in the next generation.

A secret that has a more direct impact on the essence of a second-generation self is when survivor parents hide, for a variety of reasons, their Jewish identity. Helen Fremont (1999), an attorney in Boston, writes about how, after more than 30 years of living as a Christian, she discovered that her parents were Polish Jewish survivors. One survived a concentration camp; the other had escaped to Russia. She and her sister were raised as Christians and were taken to church every Sunday, but her parents left before Communion with an excuse that it was an American custom.
Exposing such a secret causes a loss of equilibrium for a second-generation child and creates havoc in the parent-child relationship. If the parents are deceased when the adult child discovers their true identities, the mourning process becomes more challenging and convoluted.

Today, though, many of these family secrets have surfaced one way or another. In my practice, for example, a story emerged that a daughter born during the war as a result of her mother’s rape had never known that she was not from the same father as her brother, who was born before the war. The brother did not know that his sister was not from the same father because she was separated from her mother during the war. The daughter preceded her mother to the grave. The survivor-mother, in mourning her daughter, revealed to her son the circumstances of the pregnancy. The son, who had been told not to reveal that he was not from the same father as his post-Holocaust sibling, told others the story after both parents died.

Newly created survivor families

A different model of the survivor family is what I have termed “newly created,” in which survivors, either widowed or not previously married, met and married after liberation. Two people who were from the same town and knew each other before the war (or did not) sometimes bonded only because they discovered this common link to the past. Other survivors became couples when they met while searching for a way to get to Palestine or the United States. Some girls in their late teens were looking for a replacement for the father they lost in an older man who might provide shelter and safety.

Many survivors’ intense feelings of being completely alone in the world were almost irreparably devastating. Their tragic losses had impaired their ability to trust and to give of themselves in a loving relationship; healing would take years. For other survivors, however, the priority was to marry to avoid being alone; they ignored their prewar assumption of the necessity for a spouse to have a certain social class, education level, religious belief, and political outlook when a marriage prospect appeared. Such unions, however, characterized as “marriages of convenience,” were more the exception than the norm. Generally, a survivor’s desire to bond and marry was a healthy coping mechanism that facilitated the return to normalcy. After years of suffering intense demoralization and dehumanization, the ability to connect to another person in a loving way restored a feeling of humanity. Despite the fact that courting and dating usually were not a drawn-out practice, and marriage proposals were offered in haste, sometimes before real love had been established, many couples developed deep and loving relationships over time (Fogelman 2001, 93)8.

Orthodox Jewish wedding with chupah in Vienna's first district, close to Judengasse. 2007. CC.
Orthodox Jewish wedding with chupah in Vienna’s first district, close to Judengasse. 2007. CC.

Replacement children

The highest birthrates in the world resulted from these early marriages in the displaced persons camps in Germany, Austria, and Italy (Norich 2001, 53)9. Into both reunited and newly created families, “replacement children” were born. They felt the burden of living not only their lives but also the lives of those whom they were replacing. Other children were compelled to act as mother or father to a parent who was unable to live a fully actualized life after the Holocaust. This role-reversal placed enormous responsibility on such offspring and deprived them of being children themselves.

Most newly created post-liberation families started out being stateless, often in transition, saddled with infants, and with no idea about where to establish new roots. Some families were forced to undergo several transitions before settling down; others lacked the physical or psychological strength to start anew and settled in whatever European country accepted them. A few started to prosper in Europe and hesitated to give up their success. Most stateless survivors, though, opted to leave Europe, and they spread all over the world with the majority—a quarter of a million survivors—immigrating to Israel, while approximately 150,000, according to Dinnerstein (1982)10, arrived in the United States.

A shared historical trauma, replete with multiple losses and dislocation, tested the limits of individual human resilience. The very act of creating new families resulted in a supportive environment for some and in an oppressive experience for a relative few, who felt too emotionally wounded to raise children. Therapists and others working with family members would ask themselves: Is this a family that is still in hiding? Is it in denial, or is it openly connected to its Holocaust past? Is the family focusing only on internal matters, or is there ongoing interaction with the outside world? Is a Holocaust-like dynamic being played out among the members of the family?

Dynamics of adaptation in Holocaust survivor families

Psychological forces that drive the lives within a survivor family can best be described as a continuum from isolation to integration into the broader society. Family dynamics can be classified for the purposes of study and research into categories such as “isolated vs. integrated,” “externally vs. internally orientated,” “secretive vs. communicative,” “victim-oppressor vs. nurturing-loving,” and “denial vs. affirmation and memorialization.” My research shows that most families fall somewhere between each of these extremes and share some of the characteristics of several of these classifications. Also, families have not been static over the past 66 years. For example, a family might have been isolated at first but became more externally oriented as their children and grandchildren became integrated into the larger society.

In the years following liberation, most survivor families were not fully embraced by the Jewish communities in the cities to which they moved. The immediate family alone cannot fully nurture a child’s identity development. Over the years, survivor families who remained isolated faced the challenge of providing their children with a sense of belonging outside the immediate family. Survivor families who continued to feel unwanted usually transmitted a feeling of victimization and low self-esteem to their offspring (Danieli)11. Other families, however, facing the lack of inclusion or interest in them were prompted to befriend other survivors for emotional support. Friends were called “aunt,” “uncle,” “cousin,” or “my Holocaust family,” and served as surrogate families to one another.

Despite a history of persecution, most survivor families were able to develop “nurturing-loving” interactions among their members. Children in these families often felt very loved and wanted, and they felt the joy their parents experienced from being able to have a sense of personal continuity. In rare cases, though, the challenge of coping failed, and what I have come to call a “victim-oppressor” dynamic was re-created in the day-to-day life of family members and their contact with the external environment An “identification with the aggressor,” to use Anna Freud’s (1966)12 term, occurred among a minority of Holocaust survivors. This most painful remnant of years of abuse often became another family secret and also isolated members of the family. In a few Holocaust families, a victim-oppressor dynamic pervaded day-to-day life. The family atmosphere was a reenactment of the relationships in a concentration camp. Usually, the persecutor was one of the parents; however, in rare cases, it was a child who constantly threatened the safety of the parents and siblings. Victim-oppressor families tend to be more inwardly oriented; most of their energy is consumed by survival.

A distinctive attribute that differentiates Holocaust survivor families from one another is their “denial or affirmation” (Fogelman 2008, II)13 of the past. Families that tend toward denial are often silent about their survival and are marked by secretiveness and sometimes a false identity. Children in these families feel less of a sense of rootedness and more of a fragmented self, one less capable of intimacy. Survivors who actively work at denial sometimes take on identities that are very different from their original ones. For example, they may ignore their Jewish roots and become active in the Buddhist community (Fogelman 1998, 546)14. This can lead to identity confusion for the next generation.

Religious identification plays a part in the denial vs. affirmation continuum as well. The Jewishness of some survivor families was characterized by a new lack of faith, ambivalence towards God, or holding on to religious dogma with or without faith. Some continued the Jewish identification of their pre-Holocaust life, while others could not justify leading a double life of not believing and practicing anyway. Whether the survivor was accepted into the local community or shunned also influenced one’s outer expression of Jewishness. “Integrated” survivor families felt a greater sense of belonging to some community. This broadened their worldview and distanced them from just feeling as victims. Also, integrated families were able to live more in the present than the past. Integrated survivors and their families often were also able to assume leadership roles in their community. When others began to perceive a survivor as more than a victim, that person’s self-image was enhanced.

Despite beliefs and religious behavior, the joyousness of a spiritual Jewish observance of holidays was often marred by grief as survivors, privately or openly, mourned those family members who were not there to celebrate. My theory is that an integrated family, however, affirms its true self when its members openly mourn family members who were killed, participate in communal Holocaust commemorations, are actively involved in Holocaust museums and resource centers, return to their hometowns, mass graves, and places of persecution, are involved in Holocaust education, and provide oral histories or written memoirs.

Sixty-six years after liberation, the Holocaust survivor family life cycle is in a different stage than it was when either newly created or reunited families were formed. The majority of Holocaust survivors are now grandparents and great-grandparents. Most are “empty-nesters” and retired or on a reduced work schedule. The second-generation adult children are, unfortunately, often involved in mourning their parents or caring for those who are elderly, sick, and dying. What is most striking is that now, the parents’ traumatic past takes on greater significance, particularly with families with secrets, where grown children know very little about their parents’ past, or that have many missing pieces to the puzzle. In these cases, my research (Fogelman 1984)15 shows, there is a greater urgency to returning to, rather than escaping from, the past, a more pressing need for affirmation rather than denial, for integration rather than isolation.

When survivors die, the second generation mourns not only their own parents but also all those family members they did not know who were killed during the Holocaust. At times it is one family member who becomes a “memorial candle” (Wardi 1992, 29)16 in the family.

The third and fourth generations after the Holocaust

Third-generation adult grandchildren of survivors are now marrying and establishing new families; at the same time, they, too, want to learn their family history and connect to the roots that were severed from their grandparents. The third generation, for the most part, did not grow up in a family atmosphere that was saturated with loss, survivor guilt, shame, and fear of the external world. Rather, they were raised in a post-1979 world where President Carter had announced plans for the building of a Holocaust museum in Washington, the Gerald Green (1978)17 mini-series Holocaust was seen in millions of homes in the United States and abroad, and Holocaust commemorations were held at the White House and the Capitol Rotunda. Holocaust education became mandatory in several states and suggested or recommended in others, and survivors gathered by the thousands for reunions in Israel and the United States. President Reagan publicly acknowledged the major contributions Holocaust survivors made to American society and proclaimed their belonging to America. Holocaust survivors who were ignored in the post-liberation era were now being praised and sought after to speak publicly, to give testimony. Some also became subjects of Hollywood movies and novels. This societal embracing of survivors seemed to reverberate among the members of the third generation, who, in the main, grew up being proud of their survivor grandparents. A paradigm shift has occurred from shame to pride in one’s survivor family heritage (Yaslow 2007)18.

The third generation is in a position to introduce a different dynamic into Holocaust survivor families, as is a son- or daughter-in-law who has married into a survivor family. The communication in the family changes when new members arrive. Both survivors and their children are able to be freer, to open up communication about the past in families that started out silent or spoke only in bits and pieces without presenting a narrative that had a beginning, middle, and end (Fogelman, 2008)19.

The third and fourth generations of children grew up in an era when, in elementary school, they had an assignment to learn about family roots and to interview a family member, beginning a crucial intergenerational dialogue. The children of these generations have significantly revised the image of shunned and silent survivors.

Families beyond the fourth generation

For the fifth generation after the Holocaust, the genocide that their ancestors experienced will be history. Just as with children in every generation, in each family of the generations to come there will be those who will embrace and those who will reject their past. However, there will always be those who continue to remember by learning about the history of the Holocaust and their family’s stories of it, actively helping other oppressed groups, raising Holocaust and genocide consciousness, connecting to the traditions and culture of the destroyed communities of European Jewry, working towards a vibrant continuity of Jewish life and peoplehood, and by lighting—or becoming—memorial candles.

  1. Singer, I. B. (1972). Enemies, a love story. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
  2. Verhy, Elma. (2001)“Hidden Children in the Netherlands: The War After the War.” The Hidden Child Foundation Newsletter, X, 1, 1-2, 6, 15.
  3. Fogelman, E. (2001). “Coping with the Psychological Aftermath of Extreme Trauma.” In M. Rosensaft (Ed.), Life Reborn: Jewish Displaced Persons 1945-1951 Conference Proceedings, Washington D.C., January 14-17, 2000. 89-95.
  4. Rosenbaum, T. (1999). Second Hand Smoke. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
  5. Ibid 7-8
  6. Ibid 7
  7. Ibid 7
  8. Fogelman, E. (2001). “Coping with the Psychological Aftermath of Extreme Trauma.” In M. Rosensaft (Ed.), Life Reborn: Jewish Displaced Persons 1945-1951 Conference Proceedings, Washington D.C., January 14-17, 2000. 89-95.
  9. Norich, S. (2001). “Choosing Life: Our Parents, Ourselves.” In M. Rosensaft (Ed.), Life Reborn: Jewish Displaced Persons 1945-1951 Conference Proceedings, Washington D.C., January 14-17, 2000. 53-55
  10. Danieli, Y. (1980) “Families of survivors of the Nazi holocaust: some long and short term effects.” In N. Milgram (Ed.), Psychological Stress and Adjustment in the Time of War and Peace. Washington, D.C.: Hemisphere Publishing. Dinnerstein, L. (1982). America and the survivors of the Holocaust. New York: Columbia University Press.
  11. Danieli, Y. (1980) “Families of survivors of the Nazi holocaust: some long and short term effects.” In N. Milgram (Ed.), Psychological Stress and Adjustment in the Time of War and Peace. Washington, D.C.: Hemisphere Publishing. Dinnerstein, L. (1982). America and the survivors of the Holocaust. New York: Columbia University Press.
  12. Freud, A. (1966). The ego and the mechanisms of defense. New York: International Universities Press.
  13. Fogelman, E. (2008). Speech delivered at University of Colorado at Boulder for Holocaust Awareness Week, sponsored by Hillel., February 26th, 2008.
  14. Fogelman, E. (1998). “Group Belonging and Mourning as Factors in Resilience in Second Generation of Holocaust Survivors.” Psychoanalytic Review 85, 4, August 1998, 537-49.
  15. Fogelman, E. (1984). Breaking the Silence: The Generation After the Holocaust. National PBS.
  16. Wardi, D. (1992). Memorial candles: Children of the Holocaust. New York: Routledge Press.
  17. Green, G. (1978). Holocaust. New York: Bantam Books.
  18. Yoslow, M. (2007). The pride and price of remembrance: An empirical view of transgenerational post-Holocaust trauma and associated transpersonal elements in the third generation (Doctoral dissertation, Institute for Transpersonal Psychology, 2007).
  19. Fogelman, E. (2008). Third generation descendants of Holocaust survivors and the future of remembering: What does it mean to be thrice removed from your family’s experience of the Shoah? Jewcy: Jewcy.com.

Publication Date:2011


Eva Fogelman. Holocaust Survivor Families: The Dynamics of Adaptation. Prism. Spring 2011. Vol. 3, p. 66. URL:  http://yu.edu/sites/default/files/legacy/uploadedFiles/Academics/Graduate/Azrieli_Graduate_School/Research_and_Publications/Prism_Magazine/Prism%20Spring%202011%20Volume%203.pdf

Editor's Note:

Names have been changed.

 Authors:      Format:     

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