Do Holocaust survivors unconsciously want to kill their children?

B0000782Erik Hesse and Mary Main, leading attachment theorists, explain the process of second generation trauma this way. During the normal course of child rearing, traumatized parents will reexperience their original trauma, leading to episodes of parental detachment and confusion. This is the case even with good, generally competent, parents. Incapable of understanding the source of the parents’ distress, the child will either blame itself, or be drawn into compulsively trying to comfort the parent. Role reversal, the child comforting the parent, is a common attachment strategy undertaken by children of traumatized or disturbed parents. It is a leading marker of anxious or ambivalent attachment.

The next step: the internalized aggressor

Adah Sachs has taken this argument a step further, suggesting that the alien role the child is forced into is the result of the parents having internalized the aggressor, a consequence of helpless terror.

While most of these parents would have given their lives away to protect their offspring, they could not protect them from the messages of their traumatic introjects, and from the death threats that were carried and implied by them . . . . The survivors of the Holocaust continued to carry the terrifying introjects of the perpetrators and their murderous wishes, in a dissociated way      . . . . These children had to rely on the love of an attachment figure who had a murderous aggressor internalised. (p. 31)

The child senses this murderer in the parent, and lives to keep it inside the parent. The result is a very, very good child. Sachs calls the result “an infanticidal attachment pattern.” (p. 34)

This is a disturbing, scary, awful thought!

Soul murdered parents

Generally it seems a good idea to go with the more radical, disturbing thesis, the one that says what shouldn’t be: that Holocaust survivors are struggling with an unconscious impulse to kill their children. However, I have spent a number of years studying Holocaust survivors and their children, and I just don’t see the evidence for it.

One might argue that my use of videotaped interviews and transcripts prevents me from having the clinical experience of the transference upon which Sachs’ argument depends. I would argue that Sachs’ clinical experience is itself a result of a theoretical assumption that cannot be experienced in the absence of that theory: that not only do terrified people identify with those who are terrifying them, but victims of the Holocaust unwillingly and unwittingly threaten their own children with death. This all happens unconsciously.

Nothing in the expressed experience of the children of Holocaust survivors is explained by this theory that is not explained by the simpler one: that the children of Holocaust survivors experience their parents’ anxiety and despair, and they talk about it when they get older. Sometimes they talk about being unable to escape it, but they talk about it. They can’t, or at least don’t, talk about what Sachs’ experiences, and so she must infer it from her theory. Calling it “the clinical experience of the transference” (or transference-countertransference, as it is often called these days) adds nothing.

If one is looking for a disturbing thesis, try this one. Writing about the survivors of chronic childhood trauma and abuse, Judith Herman says that

Leonard Shengold poses the central question at this stage of mourning: “Without the inner picture of caring parents, how can one survive? . . . Every-soul murder victim will be wracked by the question `Is there life without father and mother?'” (Herman, p. 193; Shengold, p. 315)

Only in the case of Holocaust survivors, one has to say that it is not soul murdering parents, but soul murdered parents, with whom the children must come to terms. Soul murdered parents seem to over-identify with their children, while being afraid that they cannot protect them. Not from their own murderous impulses, but from a world in which a child can be snatched away forever in an instant, from a world in which no one is safe, from a world of infinite sorrow.

In this their children cooperate, seeming to regard their parents as fragile beings who must be protected by the child. Most second generation survivors seem to agree that they have suffered from an over-involvement in their parents’ suffering at the price of their own development. As one young adult second generation survivor put it.

I overheard conversations. I did know about concentration camps. I did know about the ovens. There was so little differentiation in some areas of my life between my mother’s experiences and my own. It went so far as taking showers, and wondering what would come out of the shower heads. You know, I felt like I was almost living in a concentration camp, a concentration camp of the mind . . . . I think it stems from how my mother dealt with it. Being an only child, I was my mother’s little confidant. I was never able to get angry at her. And there was so much to be angry about. (Mason and Fogelman)

Not all second generation survivors accepted their roles without protest.

I felt like I was the image of my mother’s mother [who was murdered at Auschwitz]. I asked her today what she [grandmother] was like and I was told that I look like her, that I act like her. I was named after her. And I felt I don’t want any part of this. I felt I don’t even want to talk to my mother. I want me. (Mason and Fogelman)

Some became overly good, overly compliant children. Others rebel. But the terrible parental suffering, and the hold it has on the children, including the way it trivializes the children’s everyday life, is real. Not only the children’s suffering, but everything they do, or could do, is insignificant compared to the suffering exacted by the Holocaust.

A thirty year old married daughter said. “When my mother separated from her mother [in Auschwitz], her mother went left [to the gas chambers] and my mother went right. How could I possibly do anything like that?” (Danieli, p. 283)

Many children feel obligated to feel their parents’ pain. “I feel the pain my mother and father went through. If I don’t, I am a disloyal son.” (Danieli, p. 290)

Helen Epstein says “I listened hard. I thought I could somehow leach the pain from her by listening. It would leave her body, enter mine, and be lessened by sharing. Otherwise, I thought, it would one day kill my mother.” (p. 60)

So what is being transmitted from parent to child?

Fear of not being able to protect child, not being able to provide a secure holding environment, knowing it can be forcibly breached at any moment is transmitted. The parents’ own anxiety and depression is transmitted, often despite a desperate desire not to do so. These transmissions represent failures in holding: the failure to provide an “internal working model” that is sufficiently calm and inwardly stable that it can be internalized as self-calming. A failure of attachment, resulting in anxious attachment is the usual result.

Overall, the story is actually more pathetic than tragic. If, that is, we hold to the original Greek sense of pathos, the suffering we endure because we are creatures at the hands of fate (tyche). Identification with the aggressor is action, albeit the action of the frozen, who have no other means of escape. Holocaust survivors are generally not so much frozen as broken, going on with their lives in order to bear children, their most important act, the most dramatic way to demonstrate their triumph over Hitler’s mad dream. Holocaust survivors say this repeatedly, and a curious statistic lends it support: between 1946-1948, the Displaced Persons camps in Europe, occupied overwhelmingly by Jews in their twenties and thirties, were the most fertile spot in the world. (Encyclopedia Judaica, 2008).

Consider what it must be like to discover, as all parents do, that their children belong to themselves. Consider too the price paid by children who are unable to take full possession of this gift. Not necessarily PTSD. Few second generation survivors, as they call themselves, suffer from that, but less dramatic suffering, a constriction of the life force, if that is any sort of diagnosis at all. Many recover, some don’t. Therapy helps.


Yael Danieli, “Treating survivors and children of survivors of the Nazi Holocaust,” in Post-Traumatic Therapy, ed. F. Ochberg, 278-294. NY: Brunner/Mazel, 1988.

Encyclopedia Judaica. “Displaced Persons.” jsource/judaica/ejud_0002_0005_0_05258.html.

Helen Epstein, Children of the Holocaust. Lexington, MA: Plunkett Lake Press, 2010.

Judith Herman, Trauma and Recovery. New York: Basic Books, 1997.

Erik Hesse and Mary Main, “Second generation effects of unresolved trauma in non-maltreating parents: dissociated, frightened and threatening parental behavior,” Psychoanalytic Inquiry 19 (1999), 481-540.

Edward Mason and Eva Fogelman, Breaking the Silence: The Generation After the Holocaust [a film]. National Center for Jewish Film, Brandeis University, 1984.

Adah Sachs, “Intergenerational transmission of massive trauma: The Holocaust,” Terror Within and Without: Attachment and Disintegration, ed. Judy Yellin and Orit Badouk-Epstein, 21-38. London: Karnac Books, 2013

Leonard Shengold, Soul Murder: The Effects of Childhood Abuse and Deprivation. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989.


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