When the Holocaust is part of your family DNA

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When Genie Glucksman was growing up, her mother told her bedtime stories about her own youth — how the family celebrated holidays and vivid descriptions of her family life before the Holocaust.

“I could tell you now which sibling was a coquette,” said Glucksman, 68, of Rockville. “She created a whole world for my sisters and me so that those who didn’t survive were not cardboard, but living breathing human beings.”


Both of Glucksman’s parents were Holocaust survivors. “I would attribute a lot of who I am to having grown up in the shadow of the Holocaust,” she said.

For the children of Holocaust survivors, trauma didn’t end with their parents. Trauma had a way of shaping their lives, too. What about the grandchildren? Do they inherit the trauma? And is that inheritance a genetic one? With children of survivors groups giving birth to third-generation survivor groups, it’s becoming clear that survivorship, whether traumatized or not, whether genetic or not, is a central part of these Jews’ identity.

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According to Steven Salzberg, a psychiatrist and the son of a Holocaust survivor, children can be affected by their parents’ traumas.

“Children of survivors have [Holocaust] nightmares as if they were in them. It becomes, in a sense, part of their psyche,” he said.


Survivors can be overly protective parents too, Salzberg says. Toby Handelsman Kansagor, 72, of Silver Spring, can relate to such smothering.

“I was an overprotected only child,” he said. “I never rode a bike, ice skated or roller skated, played sports or learned to drive until I was 25. I was always to be protected and could never get hurt. Any cough, sneeze, rash, pain meant a visit to the doctor.”

Other parents showed their trauma with anger. Edith Cord, 91, a Holocaust survivor and author in Pikesville, said her mother was controlling and compared her to her brother, who died in Auschwitz. “He would have been the perfect child. Obviously I was not, and you cannot compete with the dead,” Cord said.

But others say that their parents did not let their trauma affect their parenting.

“There’s a whole range of how parents treated their kids,” said Nancy Kutler, who lives in Howard County. “Mine were all about assimilation and pretending everything was normal. Some parents were bitter and angry, but mine were very resilient. Friends’ parents talked about [the Holocaust] at dinner every night, so others may carry more baggage.”

“I know 2Gs [children of survivors] who were brought up with parents who had tremendous survivors’ guilt,” said Dena Hirsh, 69, of Gaithersburg, daughter of two survivors. “My father was one who believed in making the best of every opportunity. I think I am more like my father than my mother.”

Glucksman, a sociologist and board member of Generations After, a Washington-based organization for survivors, their children and grandchildren, said many children of survivors learned resilience. “I was taught how to adapt to adverse circumstances. I think I got a strong sense of determination to plow through and see something to the end.”

Salzberg, who has seen survivors in his practice, said some parents pass on an obligation to their children to keep the parents’ Holocaust memories alive. He said this can “often create a vicarious traumatization.”

“It was a burden on us little kids to know so significantly what my parents went through,” said Sarah Baum, of Columbia.

Can trauma be passed down through genes?

“Even if a parent represses their trauma, their behavior to attachment expresses itself to the child and that affects the child negatively, predisposing them to some trauma down the line,” said Mohammed Younus, a psychiatrist in Mt. Washington who studies epigenetics, the study of changes in genes that don’t involve changes in their DNA.

“A lot of Jewish families try to repress those memories because they don’t want their children affected, but there are studies that their behaviors still affected the children. That predisposes the children to trauma too,” Younus said.

Genes, according to some studies, are affected by experiences. A 2016 study in Biological Psychiatry showed that Holocaust exposure had an effect on the gene’s expression in survivors as well as their offspring, many of whom showed signs of depression and anxiety. While the gene itself is the same, its expression becomes more prone to that experience.

Gene expression is the process by which the information encoded in a gene is used to direct the assembly of a protein molecule.

According to Younus, children of those with post-traumatic stress disorder are more susceptible to suffer from PTSD if exposed to trauma. He named cases in which the child may have a nightmare about the parent’s trauma, even when the parent did not tell the child about the trauma. This trans-generational transmission of trauma fades out after one or two generations, according to Younus.

“This science is extremely young,” said psychologist Anat Bar-Cohen, of Bethesda. “Epigenetic changes happen after birth and are not transmitted through genetic heredity.”

Not all of the science is disheartening. “Children of traumatized parents are not simply born with a PTSD-like biology,” said John Krystal, a research psychiatrist at the VA Connecticut Healthcare System and editor of Biological Psychiatry. The children “may inherit traits that promote resilience as well as vulnerability.”

Most of the children of survivors interviewed for this story said that they strongly believe they are more resilient because were raised by survivors.

“You can’t lose hope if you want to survive,” said Olimpia Sulla, 44, of the District.

How does trauma follow adults and their children today?

A common thread among children of survivors is a desire to talk about their upbringing and learning more than what their parents told them.

Olimpia Sulla was raised knowing about her father’s experience under the Nazis. But he treated it casually, Sulla said, “like starvation was nothing.”

As an adult, she is so inquisitive about her lost family that “my husband thinks I’m confused about whether it happened to me or my father.”

Glucksman attributes her interest in the social sciences to her desire to understand her parents’ experiences. She wants to educate the public, make sure the Holocaust is remembered, and pay tribute to those who didn’t survive.

These effects are also passed down to grandchildren. Glucksman said that her responsibility to carry on her family’s Holocaust heritage may have affected her parenting.

“My son was exposed at a very early age to the stories, to the world of Holocaust survivors. I would have preferred it to have been later in his life in a more controlled fashion. Perhaps consequently, he distanced himself from it. But I think it’s also taught him values of persistence and being adaptable.”

Salzberg said that he tends to check in on his kids a lot.

“It made us a little more cautious,” he said. “I want to know where they are.” He likes to convince his kids that having been raised by a survivor made him a better parent.

“Knowing the worst that can happen — optimism was passed on to my kids, who think of my father as a hero,” said Bar-Cohen. “I think the legacy is one of resilience and strength and standing up for yourself.”

Regardless of the Holocaust’s effects on her, her family and her community, Baum said she ultimately decides who she is.

“I have to grab life on my terms.”

Carolyn Conte is a reporter for the Baltimore Jewish Times, an affiliated publication of Washington Jewish Week.

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1 COMMENT

  1. Interesting analysis. I am also a product of Holocaust survivors but I was born in 1945 in Uzbekistan prior to the wars end. All of my parents friends were also survivors and when they came into our home they spoke in hushed tones when I entered the room. I’m sure most of you experienced the same thing. Regarding my children, they don’t seem to have experienced the same things as my sister and I have. If my father was alive he would have had been incredibly proud knowing my youngest son of 20 is now in the IDF. My youngest son

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