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The War in Ukraine and First-Generation Holocaust Survivors

Emotional consequences of the war on first-generation Holocaust survivors

This story originally ran in Psychology Today and is reprinted with the author's permission.

Posted March 8, 2022 | Reviewed by Vanessa Lancaster

By Dr. Barry Lubetkin

Refugees fleeing Ukraine in March 2022
Refugees fleeing Ukraine in March 2022

Key points

  • Adults of Holocaust survivors are contending with physical and emotional reactions to television and social media images of the war in Ukraine.

  • Some patients report a deeper understanding of what profound terror their parents endured, accompanied by a sense of sadness, shame, or guilt.

  • Patients have also had various somatic complaints, wonder if they should stop watching news completely, and elevated anxiety.

As a practicing psychologist, I have treated many children and other close relatives of holocaust survivors for various emotional and behavioral problems throughout my fifty-year career.

Many such problems have included coping with parental silence about their war experiences, or conversely, feeling overwhelmed with guilt and helplessness when parents were open and honest about their trauma.

But this is different!

I am currently treating three first-generation female survivors aged 64, 66, and 70. All three have acknowledged regularly watching television news reports of the physical and emotional devastation of the Ukrainian citizens caught up in the barbarism unleashed on their country.

Each has reported similar reactions :

  1. A deeper understanding of what profound terror their parents endured, accompanied by a sense of sadness, shame, or guilt at the lack of having had such understanding earlier in their lives. This was particularly powerful during the first few days of the war, as they recognized the pure shock their parents must have felt as their lives changed completely.

  2. Various somatic complaints (e.g., headaches, gastrointestinal complaints, etc.) often seemed temporally related to the television viewing.

  3. A cognitive conflict about whether to continue watching the news regularly or attempting to avoid it altogether.

  4. In observing this particular real-time war, they were aware that they experienced anxiety that felt qualitatively different from the anxiety they had felt watching old World War II films of similar bombings and refugee displacement. The difference was particularly acute when observing women and children crowding onto trains, traveling toward safety, or leaving their husbands and sons at border crossings to defend their country. Each pointed out that their parents had never had those opportunities.

Clinicians working with this population need to be particularly aware of the potential for the unique effects of the current invasion and war on their patients.

Barry Lubetkin Ph.D. founded The Institute For Behavior Therapy in New York City in 1971. He has written Why Do I Need You to Love Me in Order to Like Myself and Bailing Out.

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