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
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 otherwise.
Bettelheim,B. The Informed Heart. Glencoe, Ill.,1960
Des Pres,T. The Survivor:An Anatomy of Life in the Death

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

London, 1964.
Krystal, H.,ed., Massive Psychic Trauma. New York 1968.
Lifton, R.J."The Concept ofm the Survivor." in Survivors,

and Perpetrators:Essays on the Nazi Holocaust, edited by

Dimsdale, pp.106-125. New York, 1980.


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