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The psychological affects of the holocaust

The Psychological Affects 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 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 death.

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 Jews.

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 revelation.

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 positions.

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 countries.

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



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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