Robin Gomolin (2005): The Intergenerational Transmission of Holocaust Trauma: A Systematic Review of a Psychoanalytic Theory

In the decades following the Holocaust, some psychoanalysts claimed that the survivors’ children were heirs of their parents’ traumatic experiences. They posited that symptoms seen in the children of survivors were strikingly similar to the “survivor syndrome” of their parents and developed a theory about an intergenerational transmission of Holocaust trauma. This theory maintained that children of Holocaust survivors inherited specific ego impairments and psychological conflicts that were a direct consequence of their parents’ Holocaust experiences.

As a counterpoint to the psychoanalytic corpus, there exists an alternate one that is based upon quantitative studies of Holocaust survivorship. Its findings suggest that the majority of survivors were able to recover their ego capacities, integrate their traumas and function well. Data from these studies refute the existence of a major surplus of psychopathology and maladjustment within this population and emphasize the adaptive capacities of Holocaust survivors and their children.

In this current study, this divergence in findings was investigated. In order to understand the commitment of some psychoanalytic investigators to a discourse of trauma about the survivors’ children, fifty-five clinical descriptions (of children of survivors) were systematically reviewed. A comparison sample of papers written by psychoanalysts about survivors of sexual abuse were also reviewed in order to evaluate whether the literature on children of Holocaust survivors was unique with regard to how this group of theorists presented their clinical, diagnostic and theoretical understandings of the Holocaust survivors’ children and their argument for specificity about their symptoms.

The two samples of papers differed in significant ways. The results indicated that factors other than clinical data influenced the development of this theory about the survivors’ children. I argue that the desire for specificity about these patients’ symptoms and the construction of a theory as an embodiment of this, can be explained by factors such as the influence of the “survivor syndrome” diagnosis upon the perceived deficits of the second generation; the relationship between restitution claims and the need to create a unique diagnostic category for the survivors’ children that would support these claims; the construction of a theory that symbolized a “shared trauma” and the Jewish imperative to record history.