Mental Health and the Holocaust
By Kelsey Eiland
After the concentration camps were liberated in 1945, Holocaust survivors began the difficult task of adjusting back into society. The transition was not easy; survivors often had to bury trauma and suppress pain.
A lack of mental health resources and comprehensive psychotherapies limited survivors’ abilities to process, reflect, and heal. Psychiatrists began to identify symptoms as “survivor syndrome” or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). They discovered that the effects of trauma had a legacy of their own.
Holocaust survivor Gershon Glausiusz was released from the Bergen-Belson concentration camp after two weeks in confinement. Gershon, his mother, and his three surviving brothers (one died in the camp) were liberated, but the loss of his grandfathers, cousins, and brother stuck with him throughout his life. Gershon journeyed through East Germany on the “Lost Train” with 2500 other prisoners. They survived on raw potato peels and escaped the advances of the surrounding armies. When the train made its final stop in Tröbitz, nearly 600 prisoners had died.
Researchers have attempted to prove the relationship between trauma and epigenetic sequencing — the study of how genes are passed along to future offspring. One particular study conducted at the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York, for example, aimed to discover if chromosomal changes in survivors’ brains could be inherited by children. Genetic alterations are likely a key contributing factor to various mental illnesses in second and third generation Holocaust survivors.
In 2012, Gershon’s daughter Josie took part in the Mt. Sinai study. The study’s participants were tested for epigenetic marks that increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the body. High levels of cortisol are linked to depression, weight gain, and chronic stress. The study discovered that stress in fathers (more specifically, PTSD) resulted in increased cortisol, but the results were not consistent in mothers and their offspring.
The study’s lead researcher Rachel Yehuda said that although the results were inconsistent, children and grandchildren of survivors are more prone to depression and chronic stress. Exposure to family members’ stories, tribulations, and residual traumas can bring out a predisposition to mental health issues in children. The coexistence between epigenetic changes and observed struggles within the family and community can help explain the suffering of future generations. For Josie, the stories, fears, shadows, and secrets of her father became a part of her; these experiences will be passed down to her own children either in memory, biology, or both.