The Third Generation’s Encounter With Their Survivor Grandparent’s Holocaust Memories

studyTogether with Adi Duchins, Hadas Wiseman of the University of Haifa examined the impact of learning their grandparents’ experiences of the Holocaust on the third generation. Many Holocaust memoirs have been written in the last number of years, partly out of a sense that time is running out for survivors to share their memories, and partly due to a shift in attitudes to the Holocaust. As survivors increasingly share their stories and the third generation from the Holocaust grows up, the question arises of how these experiences affect the grandchildren of Holocaust survivors.

As Wiseman and Duchins note, the children of Holocaust survivors are heavily impacted by their parents’ silence about their Holocaust lives. They grow up in a double silence, as the parents don’t tell and the children don’t ask. In Wiseman’s words, the children of survivors often have a strange experience of ‘knowing not-knowing’, as they absorb the existence of their parent’s traumatic memories without knowing the details or ever being told.

While the second generation of survivors experience strong echoes of trauma, those echoes are weaker by the third generation. Wiseman and Duchins refer to clinical studies which have produced mixed opinions about the impact of Holocaust trauma on the third generation, and empirical studies showing that it has had no physical or emotional effects on. For this study, Duchins and Wiseman interviewed five young Israeli adults whose grandparent had published Holocaust memoirs, to discover how they relate meaning and impact to their own family’s Holocaust story. Through narrative analysis, they examined how these adults respond to their grandparents experiences and the ways in which those experiences shaped their own lives and those of their family.

Of the adults interviewed, four expressed some measure of distance from their grandparent’s story. Two of them had not read all of their grandparent’s book of memoirs. Duchins and Wiseman note that these individuals wanted to keep their relationship with their grandparent separate to their grandparent’s Holocaust experience. One wished that the memoirs had not been published publicly but kept as a private family matter, which the authors take to indicate that she has not fully processed the impact of her grandparent’s experiences. In some way, these interviewees feel that their grandparent’s survivor identity takes them away from being Grandma or Grandpa. Most of the interviewees relate to their grandparent’s Holocaust experiences through the prism of their parent’s response. All of them refer to how difficult it was for their parent to be the child of a Holocaust survivor.

On the other hand, two of the young adults interviewed expressed that reading their grandparent’s memoirs brought them closer to them. It formed a connection between the generations and strengthened their relationship. One noted that his grandfather could express in writing memories that he could not verbalize in speech. Wiseman and Duchins comment that the third generation felt a responsibility to bear witness and pass on their knowledge of their grandparent’s experiences, although not all to the same degree.

In summary, the authors comment that all five grandchildren of Holocaust survivors feel a sense of ‘partial relevance’ to their grandparent’s experiences, and at times a ‘paradoxical relevance’. That is, each one felt that their grandparent’s memories relate to their own lives and identity in some way, but none of them felt that it defined them. As some of the interviewees note, the grandchildren of Holocaust survivors are able to communicate with their grandparents in a way that was never open to their parents. In contrast to second generation Holocaust survivors who feel locked in to bear their parents’ burden, Duchins and Wiseman conclude that the third generation feels a freedom to choose how to relate to their family’s Holocaust narrative. They can choose to examine the responsibility to pass on their grandparent’s story, to reshape it and to accept or refuse it in a way that their parents could not.

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On Failed Intersubjectivity: Recollections of Loneliness Experiences in Offspring of Holocaust Survivors


Dr. Hadas Wiseman teaches “Psychological Aspects of the Memory of the Holocaust” for the Weiss-Livnat International MA in Holocaust Studies, as an elective course. Here’s a link for the syllabus to this course. 

In a 2008 article for the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, Hadas Wiseman of the University of Haifa examines accounts of loneliness from children of Holocaust survivors and considers them in light of the psychiatric theory of failed intersubjectivity.

While feelings of loneliness are part of the universal human experience, persistent and severe loneliness is not. In her study, Wiseman focuses on childhood and adolescent loneliness in the children of Holocaust survivors. She notes that loneliness was one of the types of trauma experienced by Holocaust survivors, but adds that loneliness trauma in their children does not seem to have been caused by a transmission of traumatic memories. Rather, she writes, it was provoked by the interpersonal relationship and parent-child dynamic between Holocaust survivors and their children, which was itself shaped by the echoes of the loneliness trauma of the survivor parents.

Wiseman cites previous studies which clarified various ways that parental behavior can provoke severe loneliness in children, such as quality of attachment, parenting style, warmth of connection and promotion of healthy peer relationships. She posits that these were the causes of loneliness in the children of Holocaust survivors, too, as the parents’ traumatic experiences of loneliness during the Holocaust impacted on their parenting approach.

Wiseman interviewed 52 children of Holocaust survivors, using narrative analysis to examine their recollections of loneliness experiences. She found that the children of holocaust survivors shared experiences from childhood or adolescence which fell into one or more of four categories of loneliness.

Two types of loneliness were considered to be directly related to manifestations of echoes of the parent’s traumatic Holocaust experiences: Echoes of parental intrusive traumatic memories impact on a child’s sense of loneliness when the child feels they are carrying the burden of their parent’s memories. In addition, echoes of parental numbing and detachment cause the child to feel lonely because their parents, overwhelmed by the trauma they had experienced, detach from an emotional connection with their child, leaving the child uncertain of how to form strong emotional connections in the future.

A further two categories of loneliness were caused by indirect manifestation of echoes of the parent’s trauma. One of these is the parent’s caregiving style, which causes the child to feel a sense of loneliness and abandonment, with no one to care for them physically and/or emotionally. The caregiving style of Holocaust survivor parents could crush a child’s desires due to the parent’s overwhelming anxiety, leave a child to manage alone prematurely, result in a role reversal for the child and parent, or see the parent incapable of showing concern for the child’s emotions or feelings. Finally, the child’s social comparison between their own family and that of others around them provokes a sense of loneliness as they realize the emptiness left by the loss of all their parents’ extended family.

Wiseman note that there are many theories to explain the incidence of severe loneliness, and explains that she chooses the proposition by L. A. Wood that “loneliness is the individual experience of failed intersubjectivity”. Failed intersubjectivity involves not being understood by others as well as not understanding others and an overall absence of shared understanding. Wiseman’s study matches this explanation, as the children of Holocaust survivors were unable to understand their parents and were not understood by them. The parent could not communicate with the child due to the magnitude of trauma experienced, and the child could not communicate with the detached parent.

Wiseman concludes on a positive note, commenting that later in life, when the parent is able to communicate their traumatic experiences, the relationship between parent and child is somewhat healed and the child’s loneliness may be somewhat eased by their new ability to understand and be understood by their parent.

Hadas Wiseman, PhD, is a professor of psychology at the University of Haifa

Interested in applying for our MA in Holocaust Studies Program?  You can find the application and more information at our website