By Emily Wanderer Cohen – Three years ago this week, I lay in bed with the blinds closed all day. I didn’t want to go anywhere, see anyone, do anything. I spent most of the day crying and sleeping. Rinse and repeat almost every day for the next three months. My usual energy was completely gone, sapped by my mother’s death a few short weeks before.
I could tell that I was on the verge of depression, and I was helpless at that point to stop it. You’re probably saying to yourself, “That’s pretty common after the death of a parent,” but my mother wasn’t your typical parent. She was a Holocaust survivor, and life with her had been difficult. So difficult, in fact, that people were stunned that I wasn’t relieved or even rejoicing her death. How could I be sad that a woman who had spent her life physically and emotionally abusing me, demeaning and degrading me, and generally making time spent with her unbearable had finally released her grip on life—and on me?
What happened to me is just one of the perplexing ways that intergenerational trauma presents itself in the progeny of Holocaust survivors. We are traumatized by our damaged parents and grandparents, but we are also burdened with feelings of guilt, especially when they pass away: we didn’t do enough for them, these survivors of one of the lowest points in human history.
Intergenerational trauma – of any kind – is not just about what happened in the past; it’s about what’s still happening and what will continue to happen in the future. Most people don’t know that the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of those who survived the Holocaust live with the invisible weight of a trauma they didn’t experience first-hand. Every. Day. Of. Their. Lives.
Intergenerational trauma – of any kind – is not just about what happened in the past; it’s about what’s still happening and what will continue to happen in the future.
This transmitted trauma doesn’t just show up psychologically and emotionally, it also shows up physically. Scientific studies, such as the one conducted by Rachel Yehuda and her team, show that the children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors have altered DNA and reduced cortisol levels that impact their ability to handle stress. At the same time, Dr. Jacques Barth and his team of researchers at the TreeGenes Trauma and Resilience project have found that second-generation Holocaust survivors have higher rates of cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure as well as greater instances of chronic diseases, such as fibromyalgia and diabetes.
Recently, a new study published in JAMA Psychiatry found that female descendants suffer from the effects of intergenerational trauma more than males do. This certainly bears true in my coaching practice. In the past year since I’ve been working with other second-generation (2G) and third-generation (3G) Holocaust survivors to understand, process, and release their transmitted trauma, all but two of my clients have been female.
Whether male or female, clients who work with me to address their intergenerational trauma using my Write to Heal™ process, which is based on research on the healing power of writing, trauma-informed writing prompts, and Jewish teachings, learn how to put their pain, anger, resentment, and fear into context and find ways to forgive their parents and/or grandparents. While everyone’s experience is unique, there are some common threads: separation anxiety, fear of making mistakes or of imperfection, physical abuse, food hoarding, and lack of boundaries and privacy are among the themes that I see most often.
After working with me, most of my clients express feeling less depressed, less resentful, more energetic and happier with life in general. In addition to the emotional benefits, a recent Wall Street Journal article explained that writing about traumatic events can have a positive impact on the writer’s health as well.
To me, intergenerational trauma has suffered from the same stigma as dementia, traumatic brain injuries (TBI), and other “invisible” injuries and diseases: Because people can’t see it, they don’t believe that you’re suffering. And while I’m happy to see that the topic of intergenerational trauma is gaining greater visibility, much of the conversation is focused on the symptoms and triggers from an academic perspective. My goal is to shift the conversation to hope—and healing.
About The Author
Emily Wanderer Cohen is the daughter and granddaughter of Holocaust survivors. Ever since the day she came home from religious school asking her mother about the Holocaust, Emily heard her mother’s stories of incarceration in and escape from concentration camp as well as eventual immigration to the United States. Her mother also spoke to schoolchildren and other audiences about her personal Holocaust experiences, helping to ensure that this horrific event would never be forgotten.
Emily now works with multiple generations of Holocaust and other trauma survivors to understand and heal their transmitted trauma through writing. She also speaks to Jewish and other organizations about her mother’s history as well as how her mother’s trauma affected her as a second-generation (2G) Holocaust survivor.
Emily’s first book, “From Generation to Generation: Healing Intergenerational Trauma Through Storytelling,” is available on Amazon.
Lead image: Emily with her daughter and mother