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Essay/Term paper: The psychological affects of the holocaust

Essay, term paper, research paper:  History

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The Holocaust was a tragic point in history which many people

believe never happened. Others who survived it thought it should

never have been. Not only did this affect the people who lived

through it, it also affected everyone who was connected to those

fortunate individuals who survived. The survivors were lucky to

have made it but there are times when their memories and flashbacks

have made them wish they were the ones who died instead of living

with the horrible aftermath. The psychological effects of the

Holocaust on people from different parts such as survivors of

Israel and survivors of the ghettos and camps vary in some ways yet

in others are profoundly similar. The vast number of prisoners of

various nationalities and religions in the camps made such

differences inevitable. Many contrasting opinions have been

published about the victims and survivors of the holocaust based on

the writers' different cultural backrounds, personal experiences

and intelectual traditions. Therefore, the opinions of the authors

of such books and entries of human behavior and survival in the

concentration camps in Nazi-occupied Europe are very diverse.

The Survivors of the Holocaust: General Survey

Because the traumatization of the Holocaust was both

individual and collective, most individuals made efforts to create

a "new family" to replace the nuclear family that had been lost.

In order for the victims to resist dehumanization and regression

and to find support, the members of such groups shared stories

about the past, fantasies of the future and joint prayers as well

as poetry and expressions of personal and general human aspirations

for hope and love. Imagination was an important means of

liberation from the frustrating reality by opening an outlet for

the formulation of plans for the distant future, and by spurring to

immediate actions.

Looking at the history of the Jewish survivors, from the

beginning of the Nazi occupation until the liquidation of the

ghettos shows that there are common features and simmilar

psychophysiological patterns in their responses to the

persecutions. The survivors often experienced several phases of

psychosocial response, including attempts to actively master the

traumatic situation, cohesive affiliative actions with intense

emotional links, and finally, passive compliance with the

persecutors. These phases must be understood as the development of

special mechanisms to cope with the tensions and dangers of the

surrounding horrifying reality of the Holocaust.

There were many speculations that survivors of the Holocaust

suffered from a static concentration camp syndrome. These theories

were proved to have not been valid by research that was done

immediately after liberation. Clinical and theoretical research

focused more on psychopathology than on the question of coping and

the development of specific adaptive mechanisms during the

Holocaust and after. The descriptions of the survivors' syndrome in

the late 1950's and 1960's created a new means of diagnosis in

psychology and the behavioral sciences, and has become a model that

has since served as a focal concept in examining the results of

catastrophic stress situations.

After more research was done, it was clear the adaptation and

coping mechanisms of the survivors was affected by the aspects of

their childhood experiences, developmental histories, family

constellations, and emotional family bonds. In the studies and

research that were done, there were many questions that were asked

of the subjects: What was the duration of the traumatization?,

During the Holocaust, was the victim alone or with family and

friends?, Was he in a camp or hiding?, Did he use false "Aryan"

papers?, Was he a witness to mass murder in the ghetto or the

camp?, What were his support systems- family and friends- and what

social bonds did he have? These studies showed that the

experiences of those who were able to actively resist the

oppression, whether in the underground or among the partisans, were

different in every way from the experiences of those who were

victims in extermination camps.

When the survivors integrated back into society after the war,

they found it very hard to adjust. It was made difficult by the

fact that they often aroused ambivalent feelings of fear,

avoidence, guilt, pity and anxiety. This might have been hard for

them, but decades after the Holocaust most of the survivors managed

to rehabilitate their capacities and rejoin the paths their lives

might have taken prior to the Holocaust. This is more true for the

people who experienced the Holocaust as children or young adults.

Their families live with a special attitude toward psychobiological

continuity, fear of separation, and fear of prolonged sickness and


The experience of the Holocaust shows how human beings can

undergo extreme traumatic experiences without suffering from a

total regression and without losing their ability to rehabilitate

their ego strength. The survivors discovered the powers within

them in whatever aspect in their lives that were needed.

Survivors of Ghettos and Camps

The Jews, arrested and brought to the concentration camps

during WWII were under sentence of death. Their chances of

surviving the war minimal. Their brutal treatment on the part of

the camp guards and even some of the other prisoners influenced the


The months or years already spent in the ghettos, with

continuous persecutions and random selections, had brought some to

a chronic state of insecurity and anxiety and others to apathy and

hopelessness, even though passive or active resistance had also

occured. This horrible situation was worsened by overcrowding,

infectious diseases, lack of facilities for basic hygiene and

continuous starvation.

When the people were transported to the concentration camps,

they lived in horrible conditions such as filth and lack of

hygiene, diseases and extreme nutritional insufficiency, continuous

harassment, and physical ill treatment, perpetual psychic stress

caused by the recurrent macabre deaths- all combined to influence

deeply the attitudes and mental health of camp inmates.

Observations and descriptions by former prisoners, some of whom

were physicians and psychologists differ drastically. Some

described resignation, curtailment of emotional and normal

feelings, weakening of social standards, regression to primative

reactions and "relapse to animal state" whereas others show

feelings of comeradeship, community spirit, a persistant humanity

and extreme altruism- even moral development and religious


Afer liberation, most of the Jewish camp inmates were too weak

to move or be aware of what was happening. Prisoners were not

restored to perfect health by liberation. Awakening from

nightmares was sometimes even more painful than captivity. In the

beginning of physical improvement , the ability to feel and think

returned and many realized the completeness of their isolation. To

them, the reality of what had happened was agonizing. They lived

with their overwhelming personal losses whose impact is beyond

intellectual or emotional comprehension. They also clung to the

hope of finding some family member still alive in the new DISPLACED

PERSONS' camps that were now set up. Many of the people admitted to

those camps lost all sense of initiative.

After the war, organizations such as THE UNITED NATIONS RELIEF


and the International Refugee Organization were founded. Their

work was useful but their methods were not suitable. The ex-

prisoner, now a "displaced person", was brought before boards set

up by different countries which decided on his or her worthiness to

be received by that country. Most survivors tried to make their

way to Palestine. Then Israel was founded and they integrated

quickly into a new society. The majority of the people adapted

adequately to their changed life, in newly founded families, jobs

and kibbutzim, many however still suffered from chronic anxiety,

sleep disturbances, nightmares, emotional instability and

depressive states. The worst however were those people who went to

the United States, Canada, and Austrailia, some of them with

extreme psychological traumatizations. They had to adjust to

strange new surroundings, learn a new language, and adapt to new

laws, in addition to building new lives.

After the survivors received compensation from the West German

government, they were examined by specialists in internal and

neurological medicine. In most cases, no ill effects directly

attributable to detainment in camps were found. The reason for

this was because the repeated selection of Jewish victims for

extermination in ghettos, on arrival at the camps, again at the

frequent medical examinations, in the sick bays, and at every

transferment that all those showing signs of physical disease had

already been eliminated.

Many survivors described themselves as incapable of living

life to the fullest, often barely able to perform basic tasks.

They felt that the war had changed them and they had lost their

much needed spark to life. Investigations show that the extreme

traumatizations of the camps inflicted deep wounds that have healed

very slowly, and that more than 40 years later, the scars are still

present. There has shown to be clear differences between camp

victims and statistically comparable Canadian Jews: the survivors

show long term consequences of the Holocaust in the form of

psychological stress, associated with heightened sensitivity to

anti-semitism and persecution.

The survivors, normal people before the Holocaust, were

exposed to situations of extreme stress and to psychic

traumatization. Their reactions to inhuman treatment were "normal"

because not to react to treatment of this kind would be abnormal.

Survivors of Israel

There were few studies done, following the Holocaust that were

made in Israel of the psychological effects of the Nazi persecution

even though the number of survivors was high as time passed,

research increased and in 1964, a comparison was made between

Holocaust survivors now in Israel and non-Jewish Norwegians who

returned to Norway after being deported to camps. The results

showed that the Jewish survivors suffered more from the total

isolation in the camps, from the danger of death, which was greater

for Jews, and from "survivor guilt", than did the Norwegians. It

also showed that most Israeli survivors were suffering from

symptoms of the so called survivors syndrome, but were active and

efficient, and often held important and responsible jobs and social


Another study, of Israeli Holocaust survivors in kibbutzim

(collective settlements), revealed that survivors who could not

mourn their losses immediately, after the war began mourning and

working through their grief when they adjusted to life in the

kibbutz. The study also indicated that many Holocaust survivors

had a low threshold for emotional stress. This was brought out

during situations that reminded them of the Holocaust- especially

during the EICHMANN TRIAL, when they had to testify against Nazi

criminals, and during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. These were the

times when they suffered periods of depression and tension.

Studies made in Israel more than 30 years after WWII did not

show significant differences in the extent of psychological damage

between people who were in hiding during Nazi occupation and former

concentration camp inmates. The only difference that was found was

that the inmates experienced more pronounced emotional distress

than those who survived the occupation outside the camps.

The research done on the elderly Holocaust survivors in Israel

indicated that they encountered particular difficulties in

absorption because of the serious problems they had to overcome

(loss of family and of the social and cultural backround they had

known before the Holocaust). The community in Israel tried to

provide them with personal and professional care. Nevertheless, to

those survivors who immigrated to Israel when elderly it was more

difficult to adjust than the younger survivors.

There was also a study done in the University Psychiatric

Hospital in Jerusalem 40 years after liberation. It revealed a

difference between hospitalized depressive patients who had been

inmates of Nazi concentration camps and the match group of patients

who had not been persecuted. The camp survivors were more

belligerent, demanding, and regressive than the control group.

Oddly enough their behavior may have helped their survival.

Despite the many hardships and difficulties faced by the

survivors in Israel, their general adjustment has been

satisfactory, both vocationally and socially. In the end it has

been more successful than that of Holocaust survivors in other


When looking at it from a general point of view, the

survivors, for the most part have shown to be as strong as humanly

possible. Not one person who hasn't seen what they saw can

possibly imagine how they feel. Many people are greatly affected

by things the survivors would consider menial. There is no other

way they are supposed to act. These people were lucky to have

survived but there is no doubt that there have been times when

their memories have made them think otherwise.


Bettelheim,B. The Informed Heart. Glencoe, Ill.,1960

Des Pres,T. The Survivor:An Anatomy of Life in the Death Camps.

New York, 1976

Dimsdale,J.E.,ed. Survivors, Victims, and Perpetrators:Essays on

the Nazi Holocaust. New York, 1980.

Eitinger, L., Concentration Camp Survivors in Norway and Israel.

London, 1964.

Krystal, H.,ed., Massive Psychic Trauma. New York 1968.

Lifton, R.J."The Concept ofm the Survivor." in Survivors, Victims,

and Perpetrators:Essays on the Nazi Holocaust, edited by J.E.

Dimsdale, pp.106-125. New York, 1980.


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