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Holocaust Trauma: Psychological Effects and Treatment

By Natan P.F. Kellermann

228 pp, $18.95

Bloomington, IN, iUniverse, Inc, 2009

ISBN 13: 978-1440148873


     A doctor once asked Elie Wiesel: “How does one treat survivors of the Holocaust?” He replied, “Listen to them, listen very carefully.  They have more to teach you, then you do for them.”  It has been 65 years since World War II and the Holocaust, and it is the most studied period of world history.   Holocaust survivors and their families have likewise been the most studied group of victims of genocide.  The survivors are the first group surviving genocidal trauma to reach old age and experience the combination of the normal process of aging.  Decline in function for survivors, however, must be seen in the context and shadow of the Holocaust.  The children and grandchildren of survivors are the largest group to experience the intergenerational transmission of trauma.  And so, the publication of a clinically grounded review summarizing what we know about the psychological effects and treatment of Holocaust Survivors and their families is a monumental event. 


     Natan Kellermann PhD, himself the son of Holocaust survivors, is a clinical psychologist with extensive experience working with survivors and their families.  He is a director of the National Israeli Center for Psychosocial Support of Holocaust Survivors and the Second Generation (AMCHA) in Israel.  The take home of this remarkably clear and lucent text is the uniqueness of each survivor.  There are as many individual personal narratives as there are survivors.  And while some trends and paradigms exist, the clinician caring for survivors must remember that each survivor’s experience was different.  Some survivors experienced the ghettos, others slave labor and concentration camps.  Some survivors spent the war in hiding and others were partisans.  Likewise the experience of adults, adolescents and children were all different (note most of today’s survivors were children during the Holocaust.


     While the exact number of survivors is unknown, it is estimated that there are some 750,000 living survivors worldwide.  Most live in Israel and the US.  Their post war experiences involved immigration, social adjustment, reintegration and now aging.  With that aging has come sensory, cognitive and physical decline associated with social isolation and stress.  Dr. Kellermann's book comes at a critical point in their lives.


     Holocaust Trauma is a comprehensive review of the late and long-term psychological effects of the Holocaust on survivors as well as what we know about the effects on their offspring.  While being careful not to stereotype, the text explores  such topics as  vulnerability to loss, the meaning of aging and sickness, complicated mourning, depression, and complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  As the survivors age and acquire dementia they are triggered with flashbacks, many again thinking they are back in Auschwitz.  Kellermann highlights the problems experienced by child survivors who were deprived of their childhood.  Many were hidden with Christian families leading to later abandonment and attachment issues.  The chapter on children of survivors discusses the problems of enmeshment and the needs to protect their parents.  Many second generation children were named after their parents siblings and family members who were killed. The burden of being a “replacement” for those who perished during the Holocaust is also explored.  Throughout the text Dr. Kellermann presents a clinically astute summary of treatment considerations.

Chapters on the collective effects of the Holocaust on the societies in Israel, Germany and Austria are uniquely insightful.  A final chapter on the role of antisemitism then and now completes this remarkable book. The 36 pages of references provides the reader with a comprehensive source for more advanced study. 

Holocaust Trauma is the most important book to have been published on this topic in a decade and will serve as a crucial guide for clinicians in the years to come.  We must never forget.  In the words of Justice Jackson at the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg “The wrongs which we seek to condemn and punish have been so calculated, so malignant, and s devastating, that civilization cannot tolerate their being ignored because it cannot survive their being repeated.” 

Michael A. Grodin, M.D.

Department of Health Law, Bioethics and Human Rights

Boston University School of Public Health

Boston, Massachusetts

Financial Disclosures:  None Reported