"Breaking the Cycle"

Discussion with Dr. Serry - Psychiatrist

Dr. Serry is a psychiatrist who has a lot of experience dealing with the issues of surviving the Holocaust and of children who grew up in survivor families.

Dr. Serry explained that the memory of a major trauma is not a memory as we understand memories to be, like a memory of a holiday or a childhood event. It is a reliving of the experience with all the associated feelings. It is not a story recounted and not something one gets over with the passing of time. The memory of the experience can re-traumatise the person over and over again.

This can result in disassociation, which is distance from the event in emotional terms, distance from the experience and the feelings. People who have experienced trauma may have long-lasting difficulty attaching to present experiences and feelings. The trauma does not stop when the event stops and may even get worse with time. With advancing years the trauma of the Holocaust does not disappear or even diminish in the memories of the survivors.

It is important to look at the point in our parents' lives the Holocaust occurred, how old they were and at what stage of development they were in their lives - children, adolescents, young adults. People unconsciously idealised their pre-holocaust lives, the more mature they were. This concept is difficult to change. Alternatively, adults growing up without a childhood may experience a lack of spontaneity, rigidity in their thinking and behaviour and an inability to experience fun, if it is not valued.

Dr. Serry explained survivor guilt. If one suffered a major trauma early in life, the person may develop self-hatred and a diminished sense of self. It is impossible for them to separate the event of trauma from their involvement in it and this leads to self-blame.

There are other consequences of trauma we need to understand. The avoidance of situations which are a reminder of the trauma: this can symbolically or actively be a revival of the experience, therefore lots of things are avoided or are a reminder of the event, for example the ambulance siren which was similar to air raid sirens. Unusual response to needs: this can be either denial or exaggerated response to needs of self or others. This goes on through life, eg. financial security may be heightened or response to food. This can result in an inability to understand the needs and feelings of the next generation as the traumatised parent is unable to respond to the child's needs. The parent may not respond or over-respond. The child develops behaviour patterns to cope with this. Can we see this in the third generation and if so, how do we deal with it? Behaviour can be repeated across generations, or subsequent generations may over-correct, going to one extreme or the other - over-protective or lacking in discipline.

A parent who has suffered major trauma may not understand how to relate to a child. Frequently the child can become withdrawn or agitated to evoke a response from the parent. The parent may expect over-identification from the child with Holocaust issues or with Jewish culture.

Alternatively, there may be ambivalence to Jewish culture and no clear identity for subsequent generations. Then when this child becomes a parent these behaviour patterns may be carried on or reacted to in the opposite manner.

An important lesson: persecution belongs to the person who enacts the behaviour, not with the person upon whom the behaviour has been enacted.

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