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 
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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