Parenthood and the Holocaust

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Parenthood and the Holocaust

Dan Bar-On & Julia Chaitin1

Ben Gurion University of the Negev

Beer Sheva

The International Institute for Holocaust Studies

Yad Vashem



Families are social systems that both develop and carry on the value system and socialization process for its young members within the society in which they live. It is, therefore, not a coincidence that when the Nazis planned the total annihilation of the Jewish people, they focused their attack on the discontinuity of the Jewish family support system. In light of their extreme (and often – successful) efforts, it is remarkable to discover how Jewish families, or the remaining parts of families, in ghettos, in the camps, in hiding and in the Partisans, withstood these pressures. Parenthood during the Holocaust is the story of what people transmitted to their children under the most extreme circumstances, and how the children who survived the war developed their own concepts of parenthood out of the void or the bits and pieces with which they were left. Clearly, the variance is as huge as in any diverse population, and not all that was transmitted had only positive value. This paper focuses on different aspects of parenthood and their long-term consequences and is based on the analyses of interviews with and testimonies of survivors of the Holocaust and with their children and grandchildren.

Nazi success is usually measured by the damage they caused on the battlefield and in the annihilation of the Jewish people and other groups, which according to their racial ideology, threatened pure Aryan blood. In this paper we will concentrate on a much deeper impact of their acts, one that the Nazis probably did not anticipate. We will focus on the emotional coping of Jewish families who came under Nazi attack and destruction, and on the on-going long-term impairment of the emotional relationships within the families of their victims who survived the persecution. This impairment not only affected them, but their children and grandchildren as well.

In order to look at the consequences of the Nazi persecution on the families of the victims and the perpetrators’ families, we must take a look at the concept of parenthood. Parenthood has many functions and these include the expectation of caring for the physical, economic, social and psychological needs of the children, until they are mature enough to take care of themselves. Today we are aware that many of these needs go beyond adolescence. Furthermore, the time that one cares for a child, and the types of caring (e.g. economic vs. psychological) may differ both within and between cultures. For example, in Western societies although we usually expect children between the ages of 18-21 to become formally independent of their parents, we often find that parents (and children) are not yet prepared to completely “let go” emotionally for many years after this age.

What happens when the capacities of parents are seriously impaired, due to an external massive destruction, such as the Holocaust? During the Holocaust, in a very sudden manner, the familiar framework of life was disrupted. Hundreds of thousands of families could not go on functioning as they had beforehand within their homes, living as they were used to, according to their traditions and socioeconomic status. With little early warning - much of which was ignored - the families were forcefully evacuated by the Nazis and sent into ghettos and camps. Many people were immediately put to death and many others were forced into harsh conditions of hunger, disease and hard labor. How did parents and children survive, physically as well as emotionally? Did they succeed in maintaining the expectations of parenthood, and if so, how? How did the sense of impaired parenthood influence the establishment of new parenthood of the survivors after the Holocaust? These issues will be the focus of the present inquiry.

The idea for this study stems from three origins:

  1. Results from psychological studies that, on the whole, highlight the problematic interpersonal relationships found between the survivors and their children.

  2. A nine-hour interview with a child survivor - whom we shall call Anat2 - that presents a unique life-story and reconstruction of a mother-daughter relationship during the war. This interview led us into the issue of parenthood during and after the Holocaust.

  3. Global analyses (Rosenthal, 1993) of interviews from Ben Gurion University and testimonies from Yad Vashem that related to the concept of parenthood.

Before taking a close look at Anat’s story, we will review some of the major findings of the traditional psychological literature on parent - child relationships in families of Holocaust survivors. We will then present a new comprehensive approach – a historically contextualized psychodynamic approach that we used when we began looking into the question of parenthood during and after the Holocaust. Following that, we will turn to the major themes concerning parenthood that emerged during our global analyses of interviews with survivors and survivors’ testimonies at Yad Vashem. We see our work as constituting a first step toward a deeper inquiry that will follow and look into the different historical and current social contexts in which these themes took place and evolved. It is our hope that these analyses will not only provide insight into the elements of parenting that were salient during the Holocaust, but will also provide a landscape against which the post-war parenting of the survivors took place.
The psychological literature on interpersonal relationships in families of survivors

Traditional psychological and psychodynamic research has focused on parenthood after the Holocaust. For example, this literature suggests that many survivors, in their desire to rebuild their family life as quickly as possible after the war, entered into loveless “marriages of despair” (Danieli, 1988). As a rule, these survivors remained married even though they lacked the emotional resources necessary for the development of intimacy (Charny, 1992; Danieli, 1988; Davidson, 1980; Freyburg, 1980) which may have made it difficult for the survivor-parents’ to provide proper nurturance for their own children. Many parents who survived the war were found to be emotionally unavailable to their children’s emotional needs (Krystal, 1968; Wardi, 1990), perhaps due to a connection between problems of nurturance and their inability to mourn their dead (Kestenberg, 1972, 1980). Preoccupied with the issue of life and death, these parents often suffered from feelings of self-hatred and worthlessness. When these feelings remained unchanged, they hindered the development of a positive self-image in their children – one of the hallmarks of nurturance.

Studies that have looked at communication styles within families of survivors have found two main patterns. Some survivor-parents either excessively exposed their children to their horror stories, or alternatively, were uncannily silent about their experiences, while using guilt-inducing, non-verbal and indirect styles of communication with their children (Davidson, 1980; Greenblatt, 1978; Hass, 1995; Rakoff, 1966; Robinson & Winnik, 1981; Solomon, 1998). These types of communication often scared the children (Bar-On et al., 1998), leading them to engage in frightening fantasies, or to develop other disturbed psychological states (Baracos & Baracos, 1973; Davidson, 1980; Fishbane, 1979; Lichtman, 1983). Through these communication patterns, the parents transmitted their own traumas to their children (Wardi, 1990).

Sometimes survivor-parents would send out mixed messages to their children. For example, children were simultaneously told that it was important to enjoy life, while constantly mourning the dead (Kestenberg, 1972,1980) or to strive for the attainment of personal material wealth, while emphasizing humanitarian values (Bar-On et al., 1998). Other survivor parents criticized their children, while telling them that they were the survivor’s sole reason for living (Roden & Roden, 1980). In a number of cases, the children got the message that they had to constantly remember the past, while their parents refused to talk about it (Bar-On et al., 1998; Hass, 1995).

Some survivor-parents were found to project their own aggressive fantasies onto their children, thus unconsciously encouraging them to be overly aggressive (Baracos, 1970; Baracos & Baracos, 1973; Krystal, 1968). Similarly, many parents transmitted their distrust of the external environment to their children, instilling in them the fear of people outside of their family unit (Danieli, 1988; Lifton, 1988).

Survivor-parents have also shown a tendency to be over involved in their children’s lives. This is exhibited by parents who try to force their child to fit into a certain mode (Sonnenberg, 1974) or to be high achievers (Rose, 1983; Trossman, 1968). Research has found that survivor-parents are often overly sensitive and anxious about their children’s behavior (Sigal & Rakoff, 1971; Sonnenberg, 1974) and over-protect them, to the point of suffocation (Baracos & Baracos, 1973; Nadler, Kav-Venaki & Gleitman, 1985; Trossman, 1968). This behavior makes it difficult for their children to become autonomous, and if a child does manage to separate, he or she is often seen as betraying or abandoning the family (Danieli, 1988; Davidson, 1980; Freyburg, 1980; Krystal, 1968; Shoshan, 1989; Zilberfein, 1995). It has been suggested that the reason for this over-involvement is due to the survivors’ overwhelming feeling that their children exist in order to replace everything that was so traumatically lost (Kestenberg, 1972; 1980; Klein & Kogan, 1986; Roden & Roden, 1980; Trossman, 1968; Wardi, 1990).

We see that much of the psychodynamic literature concerning the parenting abilities of the survivors is rather bleak. However, this conclusion is not universally shared and sometimes openly criticized as based primarily on clinical samples (Bar-On, 1995). For example, studies conducted by Zlotogorski (1983, 1985), Furshpan (1986) and Sigal and Weinfeld (1989) -- in which children of Holocaust survivors were compared with children of non-survivors -- point to variability in the interpersonal relationships in Holocaust families. Furthermore, recent literature on the long-term effects of the Holocaust on three generations (Bar-On, 1995; Chaitin, 2000a) has shown that while problems often exist between survivor and child, there are also clear signs of strong, positive interpersonal relationships between survivor-child, child-grandchild, and survivor-grandchild. Today, more historically and socially oriented scholars assert that survivors had problems parenting not only due to the irreversible “damage” that was incurred during the Holocaust, but due to social-cultural messages that the survivors encountered when they immigrated to their new countries after the war. Perhaps the strongest meta-message was the conspiracy of silence (Danieli, 1981), a societal norm which kept the survivors from speaking publicly about their experiences. In general, however, most of the literature that looks at parenthood after the Holocaust has tended to paint a rather unhappy picture of the survivors’ ability to provide their own children with a “normal” family life. Perhaps, therefore, it is important to suggest a different perspective that will attempt an examination of parenthood before, during and after the Holocaust. This proposed perspective, the basis of our work, helped us examine anew an interview that was undertaken with a child – survivor who experienced and constructed a positive experience of parenthood during the Holocaust.

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