Psychotherapy for 2nd generation holocaust survivors

Photograph of Auschwitz

Consider the last time you threw a rock into a calm lake … the ripples from that impact can end up travelling a long way and taking quite a while to settle back down. If they reflect from other objects in the lake then the resulting addition and cancellation of the waves can create patterns that would be difficult to predict.

And so it is with trauma. Complex symptoms can often have simple root causes when you look deep enough. The thing that many people are surprised to find out is that the root cause may not even be in their lifetime. Much of the work I do with people involves healing traumas from their parents’ lives, their parents’ parents lives, or even beyond.

How could something that happened so long ago, and to someone else, possibly be affecting you? The last century of European history certainly contains many situations of almost unimaginable suffering. That anyone could live through those situations without any physical or psychological scars would be surprising.

Consider someone who lived through the holocaust of world war two. If they didn’t see horror directly then chances are they were painfully aware of it. If they survived then they probably knew many other people who didn’t. Their survival may have come as a result of other people’s sacrifices. But they coped. And got through it.

When we experience traumatic situations we often don’t have the luxury of being able to process them at the time. If action is required then better we take it in order to survive. The problem comes if we never take the time to really reflect upon the past and allow the emotions to move through us. The unresolved emotional content stays with us in our body but becomes partitioned off. A psychological no-go zone.

All parent’s unconsciously invest their hopes and dreams in their children. For survivors of a significant traumatic time such as the holocaust then what better evidence of their survival than to bring in a new generation? The children pick up their parents’ attitudes – which will now be coloured by their experiences of scarcity, helplessness, or physical danger. Children realise that there are certain things that trigger their parents to become upset. They may feel responsible for this upset and may even be blamed for it and told off for being ‘bad’. While their physical needs may be being met it may be like they are walking on emotional eggshells.

And eventually they have children of their own. These are usually the clients I see. Clients with anxieties, relationship problems, or psychological blocks that are difficult to pin down as they often can’t point to anything significantly traumatic in their lives. And they are often quick to emphasise that their parents tried their best and did a good job of bringing them up. Despite that they often describe their parental relationship as either ‘very close’ or ‘distant’ … both of which bring their own relationship challenges.

By working back through the generations I can help reconnect both the maternal and paternal family lines. In the client’s imagination I start to open up a channel of honest communication with their mother. As the truth begins to flow then it is likely to bring up unresolved emotional content from the mother’s childhood. I work to reconnect the mother to her mother (alive or dead … it makes no difference as I am working through my client’s imagination). As the truth flows back another generation it starts to nudge on the mum’s mum’s psychological no-go zones. This is where the real healing needs to happen. Mum’s mum gradually remembers the times that she decided to forget. She reconnects with her younger self. She allows the sensations to move through her body and complete.

When the major trauma is healed then mum’s mum is feeling more herself. She is totally available for her daughter. She can take anything her daughter has to throw at her. And then hugs her (usually). Her daughter (my client’s mum) feels safe and grows up. She is less reactive and more available for her partner (my client’s father). Once the father’s side is also clear then any relationship issues can be sorted out and it becomes clear between them. In their imagination my client may see their mum and dad hugging. And then be invited into that loving space between them. In this healing space my client gets what they need. Finally their problems simply melt away.

I am very grateful to a client for providing the following links:
New Israeli study finds signs of trauma in grandchildren of Holocaust survivors
The impact of the holocaust on survivors and their children

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