Published: Jan. 26, 2023 By

Seventy-eight years ago on Jan. 27, the Auschwitz concentration camp closed after liberation by the Soviet army. Now, the world comes together every year on the anniversary to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust, which resulted in the systematic murder of approximately 6 million Jews and 5 million members of other minority groups, by Nazi Germany. 

Janet Jacobs is a professor of distinction in Women and Gender Studies who researches genocide, trauma and collective memory. She discusses the ways in which the experiences and trauma of Holocaust survivors are passed down through generations. 

Janet Jacobs

Professor Janet Jacobs 

What is intergenerational trauma? 

Intergenerational trauma describes the phenomenon in which each generation experiences the trauma of previous generations. While a child or grandchild might not have lived through the same war, genocide or conflict as their ancestors, they can still feel as if they’ve also been traumatized by this past.

It is carried on and experienced through succeeding generations: children, grandchildren and—recently, people are even suggesting great grandchildren. And that's worrisome because it challenges the idea that a conflict or genocide is ever truly resolved once it has ended. The memory and the effect of that violence doesn't just disappear. It begins with that first generation, and then becomes part of the social and psychological experiences of succeeding generations.

It's also extremely common and not just in the context of Holocaust survivors. I also study genocide in Rwanda and Bosnia, and other conflicts around the world. Intergenerational trauma is present across all families of genocide and conflict survivors.  

How does the trauma of Holocaust survivors get passed down through generations?

There are a number of ways that trauma is transmitted. One is through stories and narratives—especially among grandparents, who in some cases are more likely to share their experiences with their grandchildren versus their children.

Another way is through rituals, particularly rituals of mourning. There are times of the year where families commemorate this loss—through religious or family rituals––and it's those times that grandchildren are present and can truly feel the emotions of sadness and loss. While their grandparents are remembering their experience and those they’ve lost over time, the grandchildren are also reminded of those losses and emotions.

How does intergenerational trauma manifest in succeeding generations?

It's different for children versus grandchildren. For children of survivors of trauma, it’s typically more difficult to separate themselves from the experiences of their parents. Although they know they didn't live through the same experiences, it's hard for them not to feel as if they had. Children of survivors may experience nightmares or feelings of anxiety, loss and sadness that don't connect to their present life but to the lives of their parents. 

For grandchildren, it's a bit more emotionally distant. While they connect to the traumas in those ways, it's more of a remote memory than an emotional based memory. It's not as intense. 

What role does silence play?

There are two ways academics typically study intergenerational trauma. One is through these shared stories and rituals that become part of family culture. The other is through silence—things in the family that cannot be talked about, even though there is a knowledge that this trauma took place.

Often the explanation for the silence is that it's too hard to talk about it. Once you talk about it, you begin to remember and reveal that trauma, so I think part of that silence is also a protection from re-traumatizing oneself.

How does the history of silence impact families of Holocaust survivors today? 

I think that silence is becoming much harder to sustain today with the resurgence of antisemitism, hate language and hate images that are actually reinvoking the genocide and violence of the Holocaust. 

Also, because the survivor community is no longer really here to speak of it, grandchildren now have to do more research on their own to understand what their family members might have experienced. When those grandchildren see antisemitic rhetoric in the news or on social media, they're reminded of that trauma in a very different way—there's no way to forget or avoid remembering. 

Why is it important for us to remember the Holocaust? 

I think what's important is that the Holocaust is recognized as an important episode of history to learn from, and that there is still so much we can learn from that period of time. If we don't remember and pay attention, we are at risk of recreating that kind of violence this century.

We also have to remember that the violence doesn’t just end—it lives on emotionally within the psyche and consciousness of those who experienced these kinds of horrors. Because those memories live on in survivors, they become part of the culture of their families, the generations that come after them and their communities. So it is important that we recognize that, and sympathize and empathize not only with that first generation of sufferers but their children and grandchildren as well.