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Holocaust survivors’ memories affect their descendants in several clear and compelling ways that relate directly to the migrant crisis unfolding at America’s southern border.
My research into the families of Holocaust survivors shows that when children were separated from their parents during the Second World War, they were more likely to pass on messages of trauma to her own children. But when children were able to stay with their parents, regardless of the circumstances, they were more likely to pass on messages of empowerment and optimism.
As historical data, my findings reinforce the work of child psychologists and others who have noted the trauma that separated children are experiencing due to the current migrant crisis. But they also go one step further. Separating children from their parents doesn’t only traumatize those children. It also causes trauma in the young victims’ own children and grandchildren.
Stories of the American government separating migrant children from their parents at America’s southern border have recently flooded newspapers, cable news channels and social media. Photos and videos of children experiencing the anxiety and pain of separation have outraged and divided us.
The potential analogy between the Holocaust and the migrant crisis is not an exact one. The Nazis and ICE are not synonymous. As historian Richard Evans recently said, “America is holding children in cages at the border, separated from their parents. The Nazis took children they thought of as mentally handicapped and gassed them.” It is less about the analogy, then, than it is about the result. Children are traumatized through family separation.
In interviewing close to 100 children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors, 52 had one or more child-survivor relatives. I define “child” as those sixteen and younger at the time Nazi occupation affected them. Of these 52 child-survivors whose descendants I interviewed, 33 were separated from both parents for some duration of the war, while 19 remained with at least one parent.
Of the 33 children and grandchildren of the separated children, 32 received messages of trauma. These messages include fear of people outside of the family, an inability to make decisions and take risks, a belief that some unnamed catastrophic event was about to happen, and a deep desire not to “stick out.” The children and grandchildren described here are emblematic of these messages.
Sarah, a 71-year old retired teacher who lives in New Jersey, and whose mother survived the Holocaust but was separated from her parents, learned never to trust her neighbors and grew up afraid of “something awful” waiting around the corner that she would be unable to fight without her mother’s help.
Jonathan, a 68-year old accountant from Connecticut and the son of two separated child survivors, suffered his whole life with nightmares about losing his parents. He reported trouble forming meaningful relationships as an adult and lived with his parents until their deaths.
Eden, a 33-year old Florida nurse, the mother of three young girls herself and the granddaughter of one separated child survivor, said simply that her life was “consumed by the trauma of hiding and not fitting in.”
Karen, a 40-year old South Carolina human resources manager and mother of two sons, another granddaughter of one separated child survivor, explained that her maternal grandmother and mother both struggled with depression and anxiety, and she did, too. All three of them had sleep issues, and spoke on the phone daily. If she was late in calling her mother, her mother was certain that something catastrophic had happened to her. She once traveled to Europe for work, and set her alarm “for the middle of the night” so she didn’t change the routine and worry her mother to excess.
These examples illustrate what the children and grandchildren shared of their experiences growing up, and as adults. Their stories recounted sleep issues, trouble trusting others, difficulty forming relationships and overly connected bonds with parents.
Every single direct descendant of separated children grew up traumatized in some way, as did almost all grandchildren. The outlier in my sample, the one participant who did not share messages of trauma, was a grandchild. This lone grandchild is, perhaps, a symbol of hope that the cycle of trauma can be broken over the course of generations.
Those descendants of the child survivors who remained with at least one parent for the duration of the war exhibited a very different set of experiences. Of the 19 I spoke with, 17 inherited messages of empowerment. These messages include taking chances, helping others, persisting in the face of insurmountable odds, and standing up for oneself. These messages, and others, are evident in the children and grandchildren described below.
Edith is a 74-year old retired special-education teacher born in a Displaced Person’s Camp and raised in New York City. Edith’s mother survived the war hiding in the Polish forest with her own mother after the murder of the rest of her family. Edith says she learned to take risks, trust her instincts and help others.
Adam, a 70-year old Arizona man with four children and 12 grandchildren, says his mother, who survived the war with her brother and mother, taught him to “look out for the underdog,”
Edith is a 29-year old dentist who grew up Philadelphia, around the corner from her cousins. The granddaughter of two child survivors who both remained hidden with their mothers, she was taught about the value of kindness, hope, and optimism in the face of impossible odds.
Finally, there is Michael, a 33-year old man, married with three children in Maryland. His grandfather remained with his sister and mother during the war, is now an immigration attorney. Michael says that he wants “to give back to as many people as he can.”
The implications of this research are clear, and could not be more urgent. The United States government has a “zero-tolerance” policy about refugees entering our country. President Trump has stated that there are legal ways to enter the United States, and those who enter this country legally will not be separated from their children. The policy here seems hazy, but the result has shocked much of America: images of young children in Mylar blankets, audio recordings of toddlers crying, and reports of teenagers being held in shackles. These children, of various ages, are without their parents. They are traumatized. Regardless of the “good care” they are receiving, they are experiencing trauma.
We need to take the long view of this trauma. Children who are separated from their parents are traumatized. Moreover, as my research suggests, a policy separating parents and children has the capacity to inflict long-term damage and trauma on their children and grandchildren.
If we look to the past as prelude, we see that there must be a change in policy. At the moment, despite the loud and persistent calls for this change, it seems unlikely that the current administration will take meaningful steps to help these children. It falls then, to the rest of us, the teachers, lawyers, therapists, doctors, community activists and neighbors. If we can’t create policy change, we can help the migrant children we interact with compassionately, and seek to understand the causes of the migrant crisis in all of their messy complexity. As the subject arises, at summer barbecues, at family meals, in classroom discussions, we can encourage open conversations that acknowledge this complexity. We can arm ourselves with facts. And the fact is this: on the basis of historical precedent, parent/child separation is devastating for multiple generations. It must be stopped.
This story about childhood separation trauma, the migrant crisis and the Holocaust was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.
Jennifer Rich is an assistant professor in the College of Education at Rowan University, and the director of research and education for the Rowan Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. Her research and teaching focus on “hard histories” (such as slavery, the internment of Japanese-Americans and the Holocaust), and how teachers can talk about these time periods in more honest and inclusive ways.