Living in a dual reality

Living in a dual reality

Psychologist Irit Felsen talks about Holocaust survivors’ children

This is the only photo Dr. Felsen has of her family. Her father, Abraham Felsen, is in the center; her grandparents, Helen Oberland and Herman Felsen, are surrounded by five of their seven daughters.
This is the only photo Dr. Felsen has of her family. Her father, Abraham Felsen, is in the center; her grandparents, Helen Oberland and Herman Felsen, are surrounded by five of their seven daughters.

The children of Holocaust survivors live on a glass floor, psychologist Irit Felsen posits.

Horrors happen below their feet. Their parents and their families and their friends and vast networks of Jews are tortured and starved and humiliated and beaten and shot and gassed to death. They see it but they cannot help it or stop it or fix it.

They can try to throw rugs over the floor, so they no longer see the horrors, but they cannot get it out of their peripheral vision.

They know that the glass won’t crack and they won’t fall into the horror — but it cracked for their parents, so maybe it will for them too.

And glass is slippery. It’s not like walking on solid pavement. Look away, and you’re down on it.

These children — who are no longer children at all any more, but who easily could have young adult children of their own — live in a dual reality, their own and their parents’.

Dr. Irit Felsen, a clinician and researcher who lives in Mountain Lakes and practices both there and in Englewood, studies the victims of trauma and their families, chief among them Holocaust survivors. She will talk about some of her research at Congregation Rinat Yisrael in Teaneck for Yom Hashoah. (See box for more information.)

Dr. Felsen comes by that interest logically, as the Israeli daughter of two survivors, who came to the United States to get her doctorate at Yale, married an American, and stayed. She began her work as part of the Yale trauma study group that pioneered the work on trauma as a phenomenon.

A Holocaust survivor and her young son in 1948.
A Holocaust survivor and her young son in 1948.

Trauma, and the post-traumatic stress disorder that follows, has been around for as long has human beings have been. (Possibly longer; Dr. Felsen did not discuss whether animals suffer from it as well, but certainly they might.) It is soldiers’ frequent reaction to war; “after every major war you see that there is a lot of interest in it, and a lot of good stuff published about it, but then it’s forgotten about again until the next war,” Dr. Felsen said. World War I veterans suffered from what was called shell shock, and then veterans of World War II, Korea, and Vietnam all returned home with problems resulting from what they’d seen and experienced. Still, “it took quite some time for the profession to recognize it,” she said. “In 1970, a quote from a very prestigious Army psychiatrist in a very prestigious journal said that there were no mental health casualties among Vietnam veterans. To the extent that there were problems, they are related to childhood issues.

“We didn’t even have the diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder until 1980, in the DSM-III,” she said. “And that was because of the political and social attention paid to Vietnam vets, about 10 years too late.”

The same thing happened to Holocaust survivors, she said. “It took about 20 years for the mental health profession to begin to address their issues. And of course if you didn’t recognize the effect on survivors, you weren’t going to recognize it in their children.”

Once psychologists began focusing on Holocaust survivors, they learned lessons that could be transferred to other populations, Dr. Felsen said. “We learned a lot from looking at them all over the world, through many different lenses.”

One thing they learned is that Holocaust survivors on the whole did better in Israel than any place else. “Think about what Israel was like in 1948,” Dr. Felsen said. “You arrive from one war to another war. And also to a country that has no technology, no infrastructure, where life was so primitive.” In some ways, that offered some protection; it certainly kept people busy enough, tired enough, involved enough to ward off some terrors.

Also, “it seems that being in your own culture, not being a minority, made it seem as if the country and the people were an extension of their old culture.” Even though there was no general discussion of the Holocaust in Israel for decades, “there was a higher concentration of survivors, so that people immediately created surrogate families for themselves. And the culture was close-knit, so there was a lot of support, and people felt more comfortable entrusting their children to the culture. They didn’t feel that they were losing something, that their children were becoming Americanized. They were coming home from school with the Jewish holidays, with Jewish culture and songs. They felt protected.”

The need to protect is a huge motivation for Holocaust survivors and their children, and that need goes in both directions, she said.

Children of survivors tend to be “parentified children,” Dr. Felsen said. They often put their parents’ needs ahead of their own. “That becomes a strength in terms of their empathetic abilities.” That’s why a disproportionate number of survivors’ children are in the helping professions, where their openness to other people’s distress made them very good at dispelling it. But they are not so good at taking care of themselves. That very openness “can be a vulnerability in their own personal and professional lives, because whenever someone else has needs that conflict with their own, their automatic response is to make their own needs secondary,” Dr. Felsen said.

“You see that a lot in women. There are women who are really running the show at whatever place they work. Let’s say they are the secretary in the school. They are the person everyone knows runs the show, the person everyone goes to, but these women are in positions that are way below their real responsibilities, in terms of title, prestige, and compensation.

“They will be the secretary rather than the principal or the director, who will be a figurehead.

Dr. Irit Felsen
Dr. Irit Felsen

“That is directly related to the difficulty in putting her strengths, her talents, her assertiveness, her ambition, and her appropriate aggression in her own service.” That, Dr. Felsen suggested, is because this second-generation survivor is so used to putting her parents’ needs before her own — her parents, who have suffered so unimaginably, who cry out at night, who have no other family, who depend on them for everything, whose dead parents’ and siblings’ names they carry, who deserve all this and so much more.

These second-generation children are now in midlife. “They already will have gotten to a place where they have raised their children, built their careers, have done the major tasks of early adulthood. They have already accomplished things, proven their strengths, and now they are freer to deal with other, internal, unresolved issues.

“They can bring the strengths they have now, the wisdom they have learned, all the things that are available now that were not available when they were 25 or 30, to bring to bear on their vulnerabilities.”

Separation is always difficult for parents, and it can be particularly difficult for the children of survivors, but “they can bring this new, better self-reflective knowledge to bear on how they handle these tasks now.””

Second generation children do have to deal with the dual reality of the world they live in and the world their parents survived. “They were born after the end of their parents’ trauma, but they continue to absorb it throughout their lives,” Dr. Felsen said. “They live in the here and now of their own lives, and the social rules of those lives — be nice, behave, wait your turn, don’t snatch, don’t scratch. We are supposed to have basically positive expectations about other people’s behavior, an essentially positive worldview. That is our reality.

“But being the children of survivors, we also have absorbed fragments of their trauma, of their reality. We also live with that reality, which has completely different rules. You have to do whatever you can to keep alive.” Everyone is a potential enemy, a possible betrayer.

So second-generation children live in these two worlds, “and there is a background and a foreground reality,” Dr. Felsen said. “There are moments when one reality is more dominant, and others when the other one is, but they are both always relevant and referenced all the time.”

The relationship between adult siblings also is affected by their parents’ trauma, she added. Their children know that their parents suffered terribly, and they know that the things that hurt them were very bad. That means that even in the present, anything that hurts their parents is inherently bad. But even normal life causes unintentional pain, and all children, in the unavoidable course of normal life, accidentally or incidentally hurt their parents somehow or other. Children of survivors see their siblings cause their parents accidental pain — he didn’t call to say he’d be home late! She didn’t do well enough on the test! — and they resent it bitterly. Complicated dynamics, involving guilt and the need for escape and the need to protect and the inability to protect — can push siblings apart.

Dr. Felsen has studied these and many other related issues; she fleshes out abstractions with anecdotes and stories. She has lived her own research and sees not only pain but also hope.

She will discuss some of her work at Rinat; information about it is on her website,

Who: Psychologist Dr. Irit Felsen

What: Will talk about “The Effects of the Holocaust on the Children of Survivors: A Tale of Courage”

When: On Sunday, April 23 at 8 p.m.

Where: At Congregation Rinat Yisrael, 389 West Englewood Ave. in Teaneck

Why: To commemorate Yom Hashoah

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