The Wisdom of Jewish Trauma
Trauma is an invisible force that shapes the way we live, the way we love, and the way we make sense of the world.
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When the roots of our historical wounds and traumatic episodes run deep, they can be passed on from generation to generation, just like genes.
I learned this from the international bestselling book, “It Didn’t Start With You,” by Mark Wolynn.
One of Wolynn’s patients was overwhelmingly afraid of dying, severely claustrophobic, and feared being unable to escape from a life-or-death situation, describing the feeling as: “I can’t breathe; I can’t get out; I’m going to die.” The patient wasn’t reacting to trauma from her life, but to the experience of her mother’s relatives, who she later learned were murdered in a gas chamber during the Holocaust.
Jews carry symptoms of trauma that we didn’t personally experience and have recurrent feelings or exhibit behaviors which are not the result of any particular event in their own lives.
Traumatic events can also affect our biology. A research team at New York’s Mount Sinai hospital led by Rachel Yehuda found that genetic changes stemming from the trauma suffered by Holocaust survivors are capable of being passed on to their children.
Yehuda and her colleagues also analyzed the genes of their children, who are known to have increased likelihood of stress disorders, and compared the results with Jewish families who were living outside of Europe during the war.
“The gene changes in the children could only be attributed to Holocaust exposure in the parents,” said Yehuda.1
At the same time, our environment plays a significant role in how trauma is enlivened in succeeding generations. Pointing to the Orthodox Jewish community, Yehuda said that being in a “very enclosed environment” can help bring out a different set of traits and “create a new reality for generations and generations and generations to come.”
Finally, Yehuda contended that culture can have an effect on trauma as well, which is why “someone like me, whose parents are Israeli and have really very little connection to the Holocaust, feels that the Holocaust was my trauma too.”
But it’s important to make sure that people understand not all effects of trauma are negative. There’s a wealth of wisdom that comes from our traumas, as painful as they might be. Here are four of them:
1. Being a Part of the Solution
Rachel Yehuda observed that among children of Holocaust survivors is a preponderance of people that are in therapeutic professions: doctors, nurses, social workers, psychologists. An extraordinarily large number of people go into fixing what’s broken.
“You can get stuck in the legacy of victimization, or you can say, ‘No, no, no, no, no. I’m going to be part of the solution,’” Yehuda said. “In the Jewish culture, you have an overwhelming response of, ‘I’m going to make sure this doesn’t happen again.’”
When she was running the Holocaust offspring clinic in the 1990s, Yehuda said she struck with their passion to make sure the Holocaust never happens again.
“They have heightened radar for genocide,” said Yehuda. “To me, it really felt like a post-traumatic response, but in a positive way… Nobody points to the Jewish nation and says, ‘What a bunch of victims,’ because that isn’t really what happened.”
“So, whatever the epigenetic change is, whatever damage was done, whatever difficulties there may have been in connection, or relations, or attachments, you know, the things that Holocaust offspring sometimes talked about in therapy — from a cultural perspective, the second and third generation are not apathetic people, but highly intelligent people who have used the experience in some measure to make the world a better place, heal the sick, make sure it doesn’t happen.”
It’s also been said that many parents who survived the Holocaust understood something important about the past: The greatest gift you can give your children is to free them from the past, so that they can become something new.
2. Humor as a Coping Mechanism
Jews are notorious for their humor, as exemplified by the self-proclaimed joke about most Jewish holidays: “They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat.”
Even in “Schindler’s List,” one of the final scenes includes a Soviet soldier liberating Jews in Brinnlitz. “You have been liberated!” the soldier shouts.
“Where should we go?” someone asks the soldier.
“Don’t go east. That’s for sure. They hate you there.”
There’s also the well-known joke: “A high-ranking general approaches a policeman one day and tells him to round up all the Jews and all the bicyclists, to which the policeman replies: ‘Why the bicyclists?’”
According to Nicholas A. Kuiper of Europe’s Journal of Psychology, humor can have a facilitative role in extremely traumatic situations, and can be an adaptive trait for us to survive.
In addition, a study from the Stanford Psychophysiology Laboratory demonstrated that, in the face of a stressful situation, comedy is a more effective coping strategy than solemnity. These findings support the idea that humor employs psychological effects through a change of perspective. While positive humor gives real reappraisal, negative humor works by distancing the subject from the upsetting picture without creating a new mental scenario instead.
In the book, “A Club of Their Own: Jewish Humorists and the Contemporary World,” the authors argue that Jewish humor did not die in the Holocaust. In fact, Jews depended on humor to endure the period after liberation, both as a psychological weapon to grapple with what they had endured under the Nazi threat, and as a source of coping with the displacement of the postwar period.
After the war, humor was a poignant affirmation of mir zaynen do — we are (still) here — a declaration that the Jewish People had not disappeared and indeed could at times have the last laugh.
3. Creating a Trauma-Informed World
So much of what we call abnormality in today’s culture is actually normal responses to an abnormal culture. The abnormality does not reside in the pathology of individuals, but in the very culture that drives people into suffering and dysfunction.
This is according to Gabor Maté, a physician and international bestselling author whose maternal grandparents were killed at Auschwitz.
Maté advocates for a trauma-informed society in which parents, teachers, physicians, policy-makers, and legal personnel are not concerned with fixing behaviors, making diagnoses, suppressing symptoms, and judging. Instead, they seek to understand the sources from which troubling behaviors and diseases spring in the wounded human soul.
When Jewish survivors of the Holocaust arrived in Israel, many of them were shamed by Jews already living in Israel during this atrocity: “Why didn’t you fight back?” and “How could you let them do that to you?” the locals would say to them. True story. All they knew was what they read in the newspapers, heard on the radio, and perhaps some hear-say.
Instead of asking survivors what really happened, they jumped to conclusions based on quite minimal information. And it’s not like these survivors landed in Israel happy and joyful, eager to pour out their unimaginable traumas to anyone who would lend an ear or two.
Today, Holocaust survivors are universally celebrated in Israel, with initiatives to preserve their stories on videotape, as well as organizations dedicated to supporting the diminishing group of Holocaust survivors, such as one called Adopt-A-Safta (safta meaning grandmother in Hebrew) which pairs young adults with aging survivors to create interpersonal companionships. And of course, there’s Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, which offers complimentary entrance to visitors.
So, what exactly changed in Israel? Survivors started talking about their stories, and the rest started listening with a real intent to learn, to understand, to come together.
If we would just ask more questions — with a real intent to learn, to understand, to come together — we could rather quickly fan the flames of this pressing desire that results in knee-jerk assumption-making.
Dr. Warren Goldstein, the Chief Rabbi of South Africa, calls this “making space for each other” which means “transcending our ego, rising above ourselves, and developing the capacity to show understanding, forgiveness, and compassion to those around us.”2
4. Trauma as Social Glue
In the wake up Hamas’ October 7th terror attacks, Israel went from a budding civil war (as a result of controversial judicial reform legislation) and a more generally increasing “everyone for themselves” environment, to one big happy Jewish family in a matter of hours.
It turns out that traumas are not merely psychological but collective experiences that play a key role in defining the origins and outcomes of critical social conflicts.
According to Gilad Hirschberger, a professor at Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya in Israel, individuals and nations possess a collective memory of historical events, even those that took place long before they were born, and certainly ones that recently transpired.3 This collective memory does not constitute an accurate record of history, but rather is constructed by members of the group who function as “lay historians” in an attempt to inject meaning into history and provide a usable past that serves an important function in the present.
One primary function of collective memories is to create and maintain social identity, and history provides us with narratives that tell us who we are, where we came from, and where we should be going. It defines a trajectory which helps construct the essence of a group’s identity.
Collective memory not only promotes the construction of identity, but also the preservation of a positive collective identity and a sense of worth. This can be achieved through social comparisons and devaluations of other groups, and also through the reconstruction of reality and memory as to uphold a positive image of the group.
Collective trauma may threaten collective identity; it may raise questions about the significance of the group, and about core belief systems for both the victims (e.g., “Where was God when the trauma happened?”), and the perpetrators (“How could people commit such crimes?”). It may raise questions about the wisdom of continuing one’s affiliation with the Jewish People, a victimized group, because being a member could be continuously traumatic, and may also include feelings of humiliation and loss of agency.
These processes may compromise group cohesion and lead to the disintegration of the group. Collective trauma, however, does not necessarily have a negative impact on group identity and cohesion and often bolsters affiliation with the group through a feeling of shared fate and destiny — an integration of the traumatic experience into one’s Jewish identity and narrative.
For instance, massacres and kidnappings, as terrible as they may be, provide fertile ground for the production of cultural narratives and shared belief systems that infuse meaning and support social identity in the aftermath of calamity.
Thus, historical trauma may be integrated into the social representation of victim groups (i.e., “We are historical victims that continue to survive against all odds”; “it is our responsibility to promote values of acceptance and tolerance”), and then the trauma may have a solidifying and identity-building effect as it becomes a central feature in collective memory and group narrative.
“Study of Holocaust survivors finds trauma passed on to children’s genes.” The Guardian.
“Striving for unity among the Jewish people is a practical undertaking.” The Jerusalem Post.
“Collective Trauma and the Social Construction of Meaning.” Frontiers in Psychology.