The Holocaust never really ended. Its damage and ongoing effects march forward even as the population of survivors dwindles with time. Its impact continues to be felt not just by the victims , but by their children too.
Psychologists have been intrigued by the effects of the Holocaust not only on those who survived its horrors but also on the emotional well-being of their children and grandchildren. Not surprisingly, the survivors suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and tried to go on, rebuilding their lives, starting families, and trying to raise happy children. Unfortunately, a generation of children grew up in homes in which one, and sometimes both, parents were battling emotional demons.
PTSD in Second-Generation Survivors
Over the years, many studies have found PTSD symptoms in second-generation survivors both in their behavior and in their blood that typically contain higher levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. The assumption has been that their symptoms were essentially learned. If you grow up with parents afflicted with PTSD–mood swings, irritability, jumpiness, and hypervigilance–then you’re likely to wind up stressed and high-strung yourself.
Recent research suggests that not only can a second generation’s emotions be affected by a parent’s trauma, but also their genes. A study, published in the journal Biological Psychiatry, was conducted by a team led by neurobiologist Isabelle Mansuy of the University of Zurich. She and her colleagues focused on epigenetics — how genes change as a result of environmental factors and can be passed onto the next generation.
Mansuy’s team raised male mice and frequently separated them from their mothers from the time they were born until they were 14 days old. After that, the animals were cared for normally, but the early trauma stayed with them.
As adults, the mice exhibited PTSD-like symptoms, such as isolation and jumpiness, and their genes functioned differently from those of other mice. The investigators looked at five genes associated with behavior—most notably, one that helps regulate the stress hormone CRF and one that regulates the neurotransmitter serotonin — and found that all of them were either overreactive or underreactive.
These mice were the equivalent of first-generation Holocaust survivors. After fathering young, these males were removed and their pups were raised by their mothers with none of the trauma of separation their fathers had suffered. But as they matured, they exhibited the same anxious behavior and had the same changes in their genes.
“We saw the genetic differences both in the brains of the offspring mice and in the germline — or sperm — of the fathers,” says Mansuy. The beauty of working with mice is that the experiment can be controlled. And, as Mansuy says, “with animals, you can study the brain in detail.”
The Holocaust isn’t the only world crisis that can shape behavior and genes. Survivors of Serbia, Iraq, or Afghanistan, can exhibit similar changes. But Holocaust survivors remain one of the best study groups available because their trauma was so great, and so many of them have gone on to produce children, grandchildren and even great-grandchildren. And the more we understand the price the victims have paid, and their babies, and their babies, the better we may be able to understand the wounds of those closer to home–those who grew up in unstable or abusive homes, returning vets suffering with PTSD from combat trauma, victims of assault–and what they have passed down to their children.