It was only a matter of time before scientists decided that the children of Holocaust survivors are not only psychologically and culturally disoriented, but also genetically altered by the trauma suffered by their parents.
A paper published in Biological Psychiatry concludes there is evidence of the ‘transmission of pre-conception parental trauma to child [sic] associated with epigenetic changes in both generations’. The authors claim their research provides a ‘potential insight into how severe psychological trauma can have intergenerational effects’. That’s another way of saying the trauma experienced by Holocaust survivors leads to genetic changes in their children. As researcher Rachel Yehuda noted, ‘the gene changes’ observed among the children of the 32 Jewish men and women studied ‘could only be attributed to Holocaust exposure in the parents’.
Scientists have become interested in exploring the genetic and physiological influences of the Holocaust on the children and grandchildren of survivors because of the growing trend for seeing victimisation and trauma as intergenerationally reproduced. Researchers’ interest has shifted from the survivors of the concentration camps to their children and grandchildren. Hence their elders’ direct experience of the concentration camps is perceived as the cause of the emotional pain suffered by subsequent generations.
In recent decades, the claim that the Holocaust continues to traumatise subsequent generations has become so influential that many scientists accept it as a self-evident fact. From this perspective, the role of science is merely to explain the mechanism by which the Holocaust impacts on subsequent generations. Little wonder that numerous research projects are now devoted to measuring the effects of the Holocaust on the children and grandchildren of survivors. One psychologist, Yael Danieli, has worked on developing a survey ‘that will help measure the experiences of the children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors’.
There are several reasons why second- and third-generation survivors are being pathologised in this way. At a time when society has endowed the victim with a quasi-sacred status, many people seek to embrace a victim identity. The Holocaust symbolises the horrors of victimisation. As a result, numerous individuals and organisations have used it as a cultural resource to legitimise their victim identity. As Danieli admits, ‘the grandchildren literally forced us to look at them’.