Intergenerational Effects of the Holocaust in Survivor Families

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Ruth Reiner Nov 2014 smallerAs I’m writing this blog, Toronto has launched its 2014 Holocaust Education Week. Public reaction to this historical time remains high and emotionally charged. Not only is it an example of universal obscenity, but it continues to evoke reactions in us all. Its effects are not over. And our imaginations go to its families: families that appear to have moved forward. They boast of grandchildren, SUVs, winters down south, vast community contributions, relatives in the film industry, RRSPs, and discussions about Toronto’s mayors. But these families have histories. And they certainly have secrets.

With OAMFT’s upcoming presentation around resiliency in families, how fitting to look at the Intergenerational Effects of a time that could not be survived without resiliency. Certainly, our work always touches aspects of resiliency from pain and hurtful patterns. However, is there something to be understood about trauma that goes beyond personal histories and family collusions? What happened to families after mass genocides and world drama? How do the after-shocks shift through the generations?

 Attachment patterns over time

In working with survivor families, we often uncover symptoms of long standing pain that hold a specific flavour. Patterns of attachment get translated through their historical underpinnings, and resilience must be understood in a distinct context. The chains of loss and pain, however diluted, hold the frame for coupling, personal and collective identity, loyalty, community, individuation, and a general view of the world. So, in endorsing and encouraging our clients’ resilience, we can add information to their personal hardiness, emotional histories and family dynamics. Through centers such as Amchah in Israel, these are themes that have been researched and documented worldwide, and, with greater distance and decades of clinical material, we now have a way of broadening our understanding.

Changes in our clinical understanding

The emotional effects on families of the Holocaust became a topic of study when more and more clients presented clinically in the 60s and 70s. The implications that these families were “sick” was met with rage and horror by communities of survivors. And, indeed, many survivors and their families made remarkable cultural, academic and financial contributions that spoke of remarkable strength. But we are not interested in classifying as much as optimizing.

We as therapists are interested in understanding how the generations have moved forward, created new legacies, and reframed the experience. But we also want to look how unusual circumstances evoked reactions that have impacted on families over time. Resiliency to a sick time in history holds thought provoking implications.

Focus of this presentation

I will be concentrating on the Holocaust because my work has centered around many Holocaust families. Moreover, being a child of survivors myself, I have had to take a good honest look from the outside in. Although it is a theme that can generalize to other victims of genocide, I will delineate its particular history and cultural underpinnings, which might provide a data sheet for understanding other historical dramas.

The relevance to the main topic is clear in looking at how families have become adaptive and creative in their coping mechanisms. However, despite applause at resiliency, we will look at how patterns that emanated from a difficult time have mutated into present day challenges. Resiliency can sometimes be misunderstood. And the aim of this discussion is to help therapists work with subconscious material that has evolved from old coping strategies.

The presentation will begin with some historical stage-setting and data. The concept of survivor syndrome will be explained, as well as the cultural details that helped form the survivor identity. The recreation of family structures will be examined, followed by the implications to family dynamics and inter-generational experiences. Research and clinical data will be shared. And, finally, we will look at a family’s natural life cycle and the effect that the trauma can have on progressive stages of a family’s growth. Time permitting, the material will be brought to life through a case example.

Recognizing resilience

The goal is to sensitize therapists to the nature of Holocaust families and their particular style of resilience. This involves becoming attuned to an emotional flavour, and being mindful of the shaping of coping styles and resulting family systems.

Ruth Reiner, MA

About Ruth:

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Ruth has been a member of AAMFT since the 1980s.  She is a psychologist (Ontario College of Psychologists, L’Ordre Professionelles des Psychologues du Quebec) as well as a Registered Marriage & Family Therapist. After a 37 year clinical private practice career in Quebec, she has recently moved to Toronto and opened a private practice in the Yonge/St Clair area. She describes herself as comfortable addressing any experience clients bring that touches their heart.

November 6, 2014

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