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How the Grandchildren of Holocaust Survivors Can Shift from Trauma to Resilience

How the Grandchildren of Holocaust Survivors Can Shift from Trauma to Resilience

My grandparents were holocaust survivors. It is a phrase about me that says everything and nothing.

From the time I was very young, too young to understand, my grandmother decided that I was the one who should carry her stories. I remember being five or six years old and sitting on the couch in her suburban Detroit home, semi-dissociating as she told me her entire story of survival, start to finish.

Her story begins in the Warsaw ghetto and follows her “escape” to a work camp in the Black Forest under the false identity of a Polish girl. It charts her return five years later to her family farm, quickly followed by her departure, chased away by neighbors who wanted the land. It covers the years spent jumping from one country to the next until she finally receives her visa and crosses to the United States to reunite with the last of her family — my namesake, her Aunt Toby.

We would repeat the ritual of story once or twice a year, every time I came to visit, until her death 20 years later. For two decades, I received the privilege and burden of my grandmother’s transmission.

Lately, I find myself thinking often about how stories like hers have driven the discourse of an entire population. I come from a generation of American Jews raised on a steady diet of “never again.” We carry our grandparents’ stories in our hearts and minds, in our bones, and if epigenetic research is to be believed, in our DNA.

The first time I came across the concept of intergenerational trauma and epigenetics was in my senior year of college in an Anthropology & Religion seminar. As I read citations of a landmark study on holocaust survivors and intergenerational trauma, so many things clicked into place about my own family, myself, and my grandmother. The study talked about the children of holocaust survivors, but I saw my own nightmares and anxiety implicit in the same results.

Since that class, I have continued to investigate these ideas in my personal healing journey during the last 10 years, and professionally as a credentialed Empowerment Self-Defense (ESD) instructor over the last six years. When we teach women to fight back, say “no,” and protect themselves from abuse and attack, we don’t just prevent future episodes of violence; we also create space for healing a lineage of sexual and domestic violence, which countless women carry.

I ask myself and my students to consider, How do we pass trauma from one generation to the next? And even more compelling, how might we develop resilience and pass that along in our genetic code alongside it? I suspect the answer (as is so often the case in ESD and in therapeutic processes) begins with self-awareness and reflection.


It is only recently that I began to understand the role that trauma—intergenerational, collective trauma—has played in twisting that “never again” of my Jewish education into something hierarchical, blinding us to the inherent interconnectedness of all struggles for justice and freedom. I cannot help but draw parallels between this selective, hierarchical “never again” and the now infamous “white feminism,” which gives precedence to the oppression, and thus liberation, of some women over others.

When someone’s trauma response is activated, their limbic system, sometimes referred to as the “lizard brain,” switches on. They are not thinking “rationally,” using their neocortex to process complex ideas, but rather reacting based on instinctive, fear-based, survival mechanisms stored in the amygdala.

In the animal brain, survival is selfish: me over you. Or, us over them.

As has been laid out in detail in foundational works such as “The Body Keeps the Score” and “Trauma and Recovery,” when a person’s trauma response is activated, that person defaults to the survival mechanisms, also called adaptive strategies, they developed as a child: Fight or flight. Freeze or dissociate. It is a pattern I have witnessed again and again since Oct. 7—when Hamas attacked Israel, killing 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and taking more than 240 hostages—amongst family, friends and community members carrying what I believe to be intergenerational trauma and its accompanying adaptive strategies. When we default to these adaptive responses, we are not acting with our greatest human potential for compassion and empathy, but rather reacting with the cold, survival-driven instinct of the amygdala.

The body does not necessarily know the difference between immediate danger, such as an imminent car crash, imagined danger, such as a plate shattering to the ground, and existential danger, such as the fear of the annihilation of one’s entire community. For Jews raised and educated on the coattails of the Holocaust, many things can activate a sense of imminent danger.


My grandmother had 10 aunts and uncles. None of them were there when she tried to go home after the war. There are dozens of great aunts and uncles, second and third cousins, a whole family tree that I will never know, because their line was cut before they could come into this world.

The thought is almost too big to comprehend. Usually, when I try to think about it, the dissociative skills I developed on my grandmother’s couch as a young girl kick in, and I do not feel the pain. I am unable to fully feel my family’s loss — my loss.

It is the healing work of a lifetime, both as individuals and as communities, to learn to hold and honor our grief without usurping the rights of others to hold theirs, too. As Pema Chödrön writes,

“This is the real work of the peacemaker, to find the soft spot and the tenderness in that very uneasy place and stay with it. If we can stay with the soft spot and stay with the tender heart, then we are cultivating the seeds of peace.”

If we do not do this work, it is inevitable that the cycle of violence will continue at the family, community, and global level. I am far from qualified to offer any political analysis of our current global crisis. However, I do not need to be an expert on International Relations in order to speak to the very real impact of trauma that I have witnessed in my own circles since the latest iteration of conflict ignited in Israel and Palestine.


Recently, I found myself lying on the wood floor of a yoga studio in the jungle in Costa Rica with tears streaming down my face. Rhythmic music pulsed in the background as the facilitator invited us to connect with our roots, with our ancestors.

Holotropic breathing was developed in the late 1960s by Stanislav Grof as a substance-free alternative to psychedelic therapy. Its potential to create change at the epigenetic level has not yet been studied, but the results in official and unofficial therapeutic applications are incredibly promising.

Lying on that wood floor, eyes wet, electricity humming in my palms and jaw, I revisited that scene in my grandmother’s living room. From the vantage point of over 25 years of life and learning and healing into my future, I was able to acknowledge both my grandmother’s pain and trauma, and my 6-year-old self’s bewildered, overwhelmed secondhand grief. And I was able to hold space for them both, without anger. For a few moments, I was able to feel the overwhelming grief at the death of more than a thousand people in Israel and nearly 30,000 people in Gaza, from which I have largely dissociated since October 7th — my personal adaptive strategy, or default trauma response.

When we do not process trauma, it becomes illness in the body and mind. It can manifest as chronic pain, as anxiety, and as cyclical violence in the home and beyond it. Epigenetics, however, offer hope for another path — a path of resilience and recovery.

If we can pass on nightmares to the next generation, then we can pass on dreams, too. If we can pass our wounds, then we can also pass our healing.

I am determined to do something else with my family’s trauma and grief. I am determined not to forget it, not to minimize it, but to transform it through my life and my work into something meaningful.

I invite others carrying their family, community or intergenerational trauma to hold space for both their grief and their humanity. We are not responsible for the actions of governments, but our narratives matter. We must not leave our raw and angry wounds open to manipulation; we must choose to tell a story of healing.

There is another path. There must be, or we have carried our grandparents’ stories for nothing. The way forward begins with each of us finding enough space in our hearts to hold empathy and justice alongside our own loss.

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