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Dr. Irit Felsen Co-Authors COVID-19-Related Study About the Reactions of Children of Holocaust Survivors to the Pandemic

Dr. Irit FelsenDr. Irit Felsen, adjunct professor at Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology, and Dr. Amit Shrira from Bar-Ilan University in Israel conducted a study between July and September 2020, based on a North American sample of 297 community-dwelling Jews of Ashkenazi origin, titled “Parental PTSD and Psychological Reactions during the COVID-19 Pandemic among Offspring of Holocaust Survivors.” The study was published in Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, Policy (March 1, 2021).

Here are some of the findings.

The sample included second generation (2G) participants from Canada and the United States who were recruited from 2G who participated in online webinars offered through social organizations for children of Holocaust survivors, and through social media. Participants reported about the experiences of the survivors parents during the Holocaust and rated each parent for symptoms post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which rendered a measure of perceived PTSD of the parents. The 2G study participants were also asked about their own feelings of depression and anxiety and about symptoms of PTSD. Participants described the level of available social support around them, who these supportive others were and how often they had contact with them. Finally, we also asked about COVID-19 specific worries.

The sample was divided into four groups: 1) 2G who had two parents whom they described as having had PTSD; 2) 2G who had one parent with PTSD; 3) 2G whose parents did not have PTSD; and 4) comparison subjects who were Jewish of Ashkenazi descent but who had no Holocaust survivor parent.

Our study found significant differences among the groups.

  • All 2G with one or both parents who had PTSD were different from 2G who did not have parental (probable) PTSD and from the comparison group.
  • 2G with parents whom they perceived as having PTSD symptoms manifested higher levels of depressive and anxiety symptoms and more PTSD in their own lives in comparison with the 2G whose parents did not have PTSD and the comparison group.
  • Most interestingly, the 2G whose parents had PTSD felt more loneliness than the other groups, despite the fact that they reported the same level of social support available to them. In other words, the accentuated feelings of loneliness were subjectively amplified among 2G whose parents had PTSD.

There were no differences among any of the groups in COVID-19-related worries, which we felt was related to the fact that most of the participants, both 2G and the comparison group, enjoyed a relatively high level of socioeconomic accomplishment and were also mostly retired. As a result, most of their participants were realistically relatively safe with regards to the level of exposure to the coronavirus.

We concluded that the higher levels of psychological distress among 2G whose parents had PTSD were not related directly to COVID-19 but rather were a manifestation of more general fears and concerns about the coalescing economic, social and political crises as well as about the rise of anti-Semitism in the United States occurring at the same time as the pandemic, which were explicitly expressed by many 2G in the webinars and interactive online that were offered during the recent months, from which many of the participants in the study were recruited.

The findings of the study, showing elevated psychological distress among 2G with parental PTSD are consistent with earlier findings in research about the children of survivors which have demonstrated high levels of adaptive functioning alongside specific vulnerabilities.  In previous studies, offspring of survivors were observed to show elevated stress reactions in the face of life-threatening situations, such as war, the diagnosis of a serious illness and the Iranian nuclear threat over Israel. These stressors, and the elevated psychological distress observed in the current study, seem to trigger what Shrira, Shmotkin and their colleagues termed “a hostile world scenario” and what Dr. Felsen describes as the “dual reality” of children of survivors.

In other work she has done, Dr. Felsen has conceptualized this “dual reality” using the metaphor of a “glass floor,” a transparent partition that separates the relatively safe reality of the here-and-now during nonstressful times and the reality of the trauma that lies underneath it, sometimes quite dormant but always in view, always in the periphery of the psychological world of children of survivors.

The relationship between these two “realities” is not static since the reality of trauma that amplifies the perception of threat can be easily evoked by current triggers in one’s interpersonal and sociopolitical arena.  The elevated psychological distress observed in the current study seems to reflect such reactions to current events, among which participants in the online webinar mentioned the initial worry about shortages in the early weeks of the pandemic, the steep rise in gun sales in the United States since March 2020, the media coverage of police brutality, and images of broken glass in the streets of cities after some of the protests.

Also, the accentuated subjective feelings of loneliness observed in the study despite the same level of perceived social support seem to echo findings from a previous study that identified what was termed by the authors as “failed intersubjectivity,” that is, experiences of loneliness in the childhood recollections of adult children of survivors. Such early experiences might sensitize adult 2G to the effects of social distancing and isolation that have been necessary to contain the spread of the coronavirus.

Preliminary studies from around the globe, including the United States, are showing that many people, and vulnerable groups in particular, experience an increase in loneliness and feelings of isolation during the pandemic and that these are associated with negative mental health effects. Our findings suggest that 2G might have specific vulnerabilities that might be activated at this time, and it is important to find opportunities to strengthen social connections and find novel ways to facilitate social participation in order to protect against an increase in subjective loneliness.

Getting together with other 2G has been helpful to many as it provides a forum in which they feel safe and comfortable to share their reactions, even when there is great variability in individual experiences, and find support among others who share the unique legacy of genocide and its intergenerational reverberations.

See Dr. Felsen’s other article on this topic, “‘Web-Based, Second-Best Togetherness’: Psychosocial Group Intervention With Children of Holocaust Survivors During COVID-19.”