Psychological Effects of the Holocaust
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
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
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 REHABILITATION ADMINISTRATION, THE JOINT DISTRIBUTION COMMITTEE
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.
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.