Holocaust Horrors Are…Genetic?

In my professional life I often provide trainings on mental health, trauma-informed services, and suicide safety, among many other topics. One of my favorite trainings to provide to a wide variety of audiences focuses on trauma. In this particular program, I explain how adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are positively correlated with negative health outcomes later in life. I then explain how stress works chemically in the brain and body. All of this stress influences development, behavior, adaptation etc. In short, the more traumatic your childhood has been, the more at risk you are for everything from depression, to diabetes and broken bones. Those with high ACE scores have an average life span that is 20 years less than peers with an ACE score of zero. I could go on and on about these findings and how you can actually apply trauma-informed approaches in your own workplace, and general life. Contact me if you are interested in more about that.

One of the more abstract and fascinating segments of this training for me is the discussion of epigenetics and historical trauma. Epigenetic inheritance is the fairly complicated way that environmental factors can actually be genetically transmitted to offspring. There is probably no better example of epigenetic inheritance than what has been witnessed and studied in the offspring of Holocaust survivors. It has been well-documented that the children of individuals who were directly involved in the Holocaust are more likely to have anxiety disorders than those who were not. Even more interesting than this is the fact that researchers have been able to pinpoint exact genetic changes in the children of Holocaust survivors. A gene that is largely responsible for the control and release of cortisol (the stress hormone) has been found to be in activation mode in both the Holocaust survivors and their children. The finding areas are so specific that researchers are convinced that this particular expression is no coincidence. In short, it seems that extreme trauma, or at least its impact, can be passed down. 

I hope we all know how important it is that we teach current and future generations about the horrors of the Holocaust, and remain vigiliant so that such atrocities never occur again. As the last survivors of the Holocaust reach very old age, we will soon find ourselves standing in an era with no direct reporters to speak of. What could remain however, is the terrible trauma. The stress and anxiety of the Holocaust will remain alive for at least another generation. I do not think the science is there yet to tell us if this trauma can be passed down over multiple generations. 

In my trauma trainings, we always make sure to brainstorm regarding how to keep ACEs stagnant. In other words, if we know a student or someone we work with definitely or probably has an ACE score of 4, how do we keep it from moving up to a 5? The first step is recognizing and accepting that the trauma is very real. Also, you do not have to understand it on a personal level to be compassionate. Be careful of re-traumatizing individuals, and most importantly, be caring, safe, and supportive. As Jews, we want to improve and heal the world. We know that many people suffer from trauma-related maladies, and we can support people in order to enhance their resilience. Science is even telling us that someone’s trauma could actually be from another place and time. 

The Holocaust was so devastating that it literally sent shock-waves through generations. Be kind to everyone, and remember that even though we are a bit over 70 years removed from Auschwitz, Buchenwald, and the like, the trauma has absolutely survived and multiplied. Here is to hoping that the genes responsible for feelings of safety and well-being can be expressed over and over for future generations. But while we are here, let’s be kind, compassionate, and understanding. 



Published by Joshua Gray

I am Joshua Gray. I am a husband, father, not-for-profit-worker by day, and a former professional actor/singer. I am very active in the Jewish community in my area, helping to teach at religious school on Sundays, while also serving on the board of trustees at my local temple. My relationship with Judaism is a joy of mine, and I find great pleasure in studying texts and learning more and more Hebrew. I still enjoy warbling tunes, and I even got to sing the Kol Nidre on Yom Kippur, which was a definite highlight. Please feel free to contact me with any ideas for topics, conversations, or general inquiries. Shalom!

3 thoughts on “Holocaust Horrors Are…Genetic?

    1. The actual science itself is pretty complex and has a lot to do with scientists studying very specific genetic profiles in certain cohorts of subjects. There are also a lot of other findings that are specific to the offspring of holocaust survivors that they simply are not finding in other subjects. Enzyme and cortisol changes that seem to occur in utero, among others. If interested, I would search for the work of Dr. Rachel Yehuda, who is a pioneer in this particular area of epigenetic research.


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