Interview of Kerry McElroy’s Interview Series “A Light in the Mineshaft: An Interview Series With Society’s Traumaworkers”
Abraham (Avi) Sagi-Schwartz is a professor of Psychology and Founder and Director (emeritus) of the Center for the Study of Child Development at the University of Haifa.
Sagi-Schwartz was the 2013 Phyllis Greenberg Heideman and Richard D. Heideman Fellow, The Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, DC. In the years 2005/2006 he was a Jennings Randolph Senior Fellow at the United States Institute of Peace, Washington, DC.
Prof. Sagi-Schwartz main research interests are in the area of attachment and socioemotional development across the life span and across cultures, socioemotional development and adaptation under extreme life circumstances and experiences, especially the effects of the Holocaust as well as other violent political conflicts,
Sagi-Schwartz holds a BA degree in social work from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, a master’s in social work, a master’s in psychology, and a Ph.D. in a developmental psychology, social work from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
His published work includes contributions to edited volumes and articles in leading journals pf psychology, early childhood, psychiatry, pediatrics, social work, family, law, and human development,
Kerry McElroy is a Contributing Editor to Narrative Paths Journal. She is a feminist cultural historian and writer holding a doctorate in Humanities from Concordia University, Montréal. Her thesis entitled Class Acts: A Socio-Cultural History of Women, Labour, and Migration in Hollywood, focused on women in performance systems. She has published articles on cinema, women, history, culture, and politics in Irish America, The Independent, and Montréal Serai, among other magazines. She holds master’s degrees from Columbia and Carnegie Mellon Universities.
KLM: Good morning from the United States. Good evening in Israel!
If I could ask you to introduce yourself, and then we’ll get started.
AS: Okay. My name, my formal name, first name is Abraham, but people call me Avi. That’s a nickname for Abraham. Last name is Sagi-Schwartz. And as we move on, I can also explain to you something about that last name, Sagi-Schwartz, which has nothing to do with a spouse, as is usually the case nowadays. But is related to the Holocaust. As you wish, later on.
KLM: Sure. Certainly, we’ll circle back to that for sure. So, you have several different hats. First of all, you’re a psychologist or a practitioner, and you’re affiliated with a university. And then I was put in contact with you by seeing you having worked, done research at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. So if you could talk about the different positions.
AS: Well first, I’m a typical academic person at academia. But my field is– you said that you are interdisciplinary. So I also have interdisciplinary work.
I have a Ph.D. in social work and psychology. It’s from a very unique program at the University of Michigan. My first background is social work. I have a bachelor’s degree in social work. Then I went to the University of Michigan, and they have a special interdisciplinary program combining social work and social sciences. They believe that if you are in social work and you want to do research, you should enrich yourself with a major discipline in social sciences: psychology, sociology, political science, any field which touches upon the area of social work. So that’s what I did. I was at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. And not too far from Chicago, where you are right now? In American terms. [laughter]
KLM: Of course. Closest big airport. [laughter]
AS: Same weather, winter weather. And so that’s my… so I’m basically, I have a background in practice, but most of my work is research.
But because in psychology, in developmental psychology, also because of my background in social work, and basically a great deal of interest in public services and in public policy, I try to transform various parts of my basic knowledge in developmental psychology into issues, practical issues. Like divorce, like foster care, like adoption. So I am engaged in some kind of practice, but not as a clinician. More at the macro level.
KLM: Right. I think I had assumed because of the social work background that at some point you had been a clinician, too.
AS: Once in a while I’m engaged in very, very outstanding cases in court, like child abuse and divorce. And being used as an expert witness, on an individual basis with cases. But that’s the only thing that I do. I try to take what I acquire in academia to its extreme in terms of assisting the court system and the public system with developmental knowledge.
And yeah, and along the same line we’ll get into it: I also got engaged in Holocaust research, as you know. Since that’s actually the motivation for our interview today.
KLM: Exactly. So can you say a little bit about what you did with the museum in D.C. and when that was? And what that work was?
AS: Yeah. I started in the year, I would say that was somewhere around twenty years ago. You see I’m a Holocaust, I’m a second-generation to the Holocaust. And we can talk more about it.
My mother was very traumatized by the Holocaust … my mother was an orphan. She lost both her parents in France. And so I didn’t know my grandparents because they were sent to Auschwitz and exterminated, both of them in Auschwitz.
I knew that one day I will study the Holocaust — you see, I’m in business already forty-five years, since I finished my Ph.D. at the University of Michigan. I didn’t do any research on the Holocaust, but I knew that one day, as I mature and acquire more knowledge in psychology, research, that I have to do something about the Holocaust. And so I would say that it’s something like—no, thirty years now. You know, I started in the early nineties of the previous century. So thirty years I do the research, and in 2000 I started to publish my work on the Holocaust.
So maybe this is a time now to tell you something about, you know, my name.
KLM: Yes, it is a good time!
AS: I just do it by way of association. I hope it’s okay for you.
KLM: Of course, of course.
AS: So, you see, I’m an Israeli, Israeli-born. My mother was a Holocaust survivor. She came to Israel in 1946, after the war. And she got married. She was very young. And I was born just a little bit before the foundation of the state of Israel, at the end of 1947. And Israel was founded in the middle of 1948. Now, just to make a long story short, there was a trend in Israel. Prime Minister Ben-Gurion encouraged people to change the names to Hebrew names, from Jewish names to Israeli names. I don’t know how much you are familiar with the difference between the two.
KLM: No, I guess I wouldn’t be so much. Like Yiddish?
AS: Schwartz. My name was Schwartz, which is a Jewish name. That was the name of my father. But you have the Hebrew language, and Sagi is a very Hebrew name, not Yiddish. It’s Hebrew, straight Hebrew. And many of us have European kind of names, you know: Lieberman, Moskovitz, Horowitz, which are all European names. Many of which actually have German origin. Grossman.
AS: So Ben-Gurion pushed the people to change the names, as kind of a– how to call it. Melting pot! He wanted to create a melting pot. And one way was to create a situation that Israelis will change their names. So I grew up actually as Schwartz. And then, I changed my name when I got married, and my wife was supposed to change the name because we got married fifty-one years ago. At that time, it was less common in Israel that women will keep their names.
So she said, I have to change the name, everybody did—so let’s pick out a new name together. So we picked Sagi.
KLM: Wow, I see.
AS: And, I asked my father: is it okay? And he said: yes, it’s okay. But deep inside I was not happy about it, naturally– why I have to change the name?
So going back to the point of the Holocaust. When I started to study the Holocaust, I decided that from now on, all my publications, I have to go back to my previous name. Especially because of the Holocaust background of my mother. And if you wish I can send you an article that I wrote which is called “Back to Schwartz”.
KLM: Oh, wow! Yes, please.
AS: And it’s related to the Holocaust. You will see.
It was also published in English in one of the American magazines. So that’s how I have the name Sagi-Schwartz. I brought it back to my Sagi name– “back to Schwartz” so to speak.
Anyway, so going to the Holocaust Museum. So I started to study Holocaust issues, especially transmission of trauma across generations. And also because I’m myself a second-generation, and my mother was highly traumatized, I know that definitely. As her son, and also as a professional in the field, I knew, I know, how traumatized she was. And then the question was, is there a second-generation effect? Many, many people, you know, when you are doing work on the Holocaust, basically believe there is a second-generation effect. So, I published many articles following what I did.
And then I understood that there is an opportunity to spend time as a fellow at the museum in Washington, DC. which takes a multidisciplinary approach. I said: wow, that’s wonderful. To be in the Center for Research, the Holocaust Museum, talk to historians, talk to sociologists, talk to Yiddish experts. So I applied.
It’s highly competitive.
And luckily enough, I was invited for six months, which was one of my most wonderful times in my academic career. To be there, to be in the Holocaust Museum, to meet day-to-day other fellows, I think we were something like fifteen.
I was a kind of a strange bird there, because I come from psychology and child development. So that was the motivation to go there, to the Holocaust Museum.
KLM: That’s really interesting. It must have been a very rich experience as an interdisciplinary person.
AS: Yeah, I enjoyed it. Well, the only thing that I didn’t enjoy– I guess you’ve visited the museum, I assume?
KLM: I did. When I was much younger, but I did, yeah.
AS: I mean, the only difficult thing is to, every day to enter the museum and to– before you go to the elevator, you see, the foyer, you know. You have to go through the real area of the museum, and you get every day a dark reminder. The lobby is designed as a German train station, a reminder to all visitors.
AS: Which is quite difficult, emotionally. But other than that, it was quite an experience. And I met people–Americans and non-Americans, and journalists and historians. And it was a great idea, which also gave me time to sit down and to integrate my research, which ended up also with a very nice chapter. I can send it to you if you wish.
KLM: Sure. Thank you very much.
[“Does Extreme Trauma Transfer?: The Case of Three Generations of the Holocaust.” In Traumatic Stress and Long-Term Recovery: Coping With Disasters and Other Negative Life Events. Ed. Katie E. Cherry, Springer, 2015.
Intro: “Our field has always expressed interest in whether and how transmission of trauma might take place across generations. Maltreating families can teach us a great deal about the cross-generational transmission of trauma. Scholars have long suspected that parents who were abused as children, in turn, abuse their own children and that patterns of abusive caregiving in general are transmitted from one generation to the next… This type of trauma, though, is inflicted by trusted attachment figures within the family.
In this chapter, we address the consequences of severe trauma that children experienced not within the family but of trauma inflicted by anonymous social and destructive forces external to the normative family. Toward that end, we focus on World War II Holocaust survivors and their offspring…”]
KLM: What year were you a fellow there, at the museum?
AS: It was 2013 and 2014.
KLM: And so to move on then… when I looked at your work I was just fascinated, because it’s so exactly within the parameters of this project. That you moved on to specifically looking at things like cortisol levels.
AS: It wasn’t a major component, but it evolved also as part of the project.
KLM: Right. And so, we can say– maybe this is a good time to talk about secondary trauma. Both as something you can measure in a social way, right? When you speak with people, when they tell their stories. But then we move into this sort of epigenetic level, of how are we able to find secondary trauma in bodies, in DNA and things like that.
So your work sort of, I think, would meet on both of those levels. And so if you can talk about how maybe you started with the one and also did the other.
AS: Yeah, that’s a good point. You will see in my work in a very organized sequential way, how it evolved.
I’m a psychologist, so I was interested in PTSD, and traumatic symptomatology. Psychological symptomatology, depression, anxiety, the kinds of things which are related to trauma.
Okay, so let’s talk about trauma. Now, we know for sure, definitely for the first generation, like my mother, they experienced an extreme trauma. Being in camps. Running away. Living in hiding. That was the story of my mother, by the way. And she ended up in a monastery, in a convent. Where she– where her parents put her, and her sister, because they realized that that’s it. No way to escape any longer.
So I started obviously, with psychological measurements. And we did not— the bottom line, in our study, and we feel very confident about it: we did not find second-generation effects. We did not. And we feel quite confident about it. And we did some meta-analysis, I can tell you more about it. So we are sure from a scientific point of view that there is no second-generation effect. If there is something as a second-generation effect, it’s on the contrary, it’s a positive effect. I can say more about it later. But I wish to go into your question about the cortisol.
But, you did a Ph.D. so, you know– as researchers we always raise questions. At least in the social sciences and in the life sciences, I guess it’s the same in the humanities, that you always have unfinished questions. You always have new questions. You always have to question to what extent what you did is definite. It always can be disputed.
So you know, me and my colleagues, I have colleagues in this project from Germany for a good reason, non-Jewish. Which is an interesting story in itself. A couple, Klaus and Karin Grossmann. It’s a husband and wife, and well-known senior professors in Germany. And I have two colleagues in the Netherlands. So it was a joint project with these guys.
And when we found and became quite definite, there is no second-generation, negative second-generation effect, we said: okay, maybe psychological measurements are not strong enough, are not robust enough. So everybody goes to, as you say, nowadays, epigenetics, physiology. Because we have this kind of deep belief that if you go to physiology, it’s going to give you a more robust measurement. So we say cortisol. Because we know that cortisol is associated with trauma. And it’s easy to measure. You take a sample of saliva, and you do it. And that’s what we did.
So what we did, what we found, we said maybe what we call– maybe it’s “under the skin”. We use that term. Maybe you don’t see it above the skin, in a psychological measurement. Maybe it’s under the skin. All these assessments of lie detectors always have this basic assumption that maybe you can detect things– under the skin.
So the cortisol is one measure under the skin, metaphorically. It means it’s in our system. And we know that it fluctuates. Cortisol is fluctuating during the day. And when you get to some stress, it could go up.
AS: Easily. And there are many, many studies about it. So we took cortisol from both first-generation and second-generation. So, and what we found– in the first generation, we found a connection between the trauma and cortisol, in Holocaust survivors. But when we went to the second generation, we did not. We did not see any indicator in the patterns of the cortisol.
KLM: Hmm. I see.
AS: And then we got further confirmation, physiologically, to the fact that there is no transmission of the trauma. Because people talk about secondary traumatization and use that. You also use the term “secondary”. When you talk about secondary traumatization, the idea is that you were not exposed directly to the trauma, but it was transferred to you by somebody who experienced the trauma. And that’s the whole idea about second-generation effect in the Holocaust. But, no effect. No. Neither in the psychological level nor at the cortisol level.
KLM: Wow, okay.
So what about– and I’m not from that field at all, but just casually, as a layperson, I’ve listened to podcasts, and someone would say something like, well– like comedians, let’s say. Just a pop culture type thing. Like I remember listening to a podcast with a comedian I loved and he said: well, I was from a Jewish family in New York and my mother was a Holocaust survivor and she was raised by her mother. And, as a result, I always thought of her as very nervous and very anxious. So I’m very nervous and anxious.
So not so much something that you could quantify, but that people have family stories. Or I would think of somebody who was– if a parent was raised in an orphanage and they were very abused, then they might abuse that child.
AS: Right! And these are the kind of stories which motivate the belief. And I say belief, not the evidence.
AS: And, you know, we are in academia. You know this difference in belief versus in evidence. And even in the humanities– I know a little bit about, more than a little bit about the humanities, because I’m at the university. I was a dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences. So I had a great deal of interaction with the dean of Humanities. And I was the dean of the Graduate School at the university, which is a position which oversees all the fields. So I had quite an experience with people in the humanities. And we know that it’s easier in the humanities to develop beliefs, right? You have ideas, but always, always, always evidence. You have to provide evidence.
So going back to your point about nervous, not nervous. Yeah. That’s how I started. I said: I see my mother, I look at myself, I look at my friends. And I started to read studies about second generation to the Holocaust. And we started to identify some, well, caveats– methodological caveats in the research. And I will explain to you in a second, what is the major caveat in second-generation effect studies?
But then you know, I was already full professor when I started to study the Holocaust. I have a family, a wonderful family, I have a wife. I told you, I’m married fifty-one years. I have three wonderful daughters. I have seven wonderful grandchildren.
And so, what is the best measurement to indicate if you are doing okay? Do you need all these psychological testings? Yeah, psychological testing is okay. But what about real-life information? You get married, you have a spouse, you have friends, and you have a positive sense of yourself, and about life. And you have children and you become successful in your career. I became successful. So, do I have a second- generation effect? I have some anxiety about some things, sure. But, if you are anxious, does it mean that you have a second- generation effect?
KLM: Right. We don’t know!
AS: What does it mean? It depends– what is the level of the anxiety and what it affects. And then I said: okay, I’m one case. But around me in Israel, I have so many– almost everyone around me, my age, is a second generation. Unfortunately, that’s the situation.
And I say to myself: you have a friend, he is a professor. I have another friend, he is a Supreme Court judge. Another friend, he is a very successful surgeon. Another friend, he’s a great writer, journalist. This is my milieu. And my milieu is made of achievement-oriented people– successful, families, children.
So maybe there is an issue with the research on the second generation of the Holocaust. So then we started to look into it, and we realized that most of the research on second generation of the Holocaust relies on what we call select studies. Convenience samples. How do you collect data, in the social sciences? You need to get participants.
AS: Now you do research on the Holocaust. So what do you do? You put an ad in the newspaper. You put an ad at the university. You go to a clinic. You go to organization which supports Holocaust survivors. So what you do, you create a convenience sample.
KLM: Selecting sample in some ways, for people who are already–
AS: Selecting bias! Biased sampling! I’ll give an example of this major organization in Israel. It’s called AMCHA. I don’t know if you heard about it. It’s an organization which supports Holocaust survivors. Now, some people are referred to that organization to get support. Some people apply, because they sense they need support. But what about those who don’t apply?
AS: What about those who don’t use the services? So if you go and sample your participants from that organization, it’s a convenience sample. It’s a biased sample. And then we started to see, that actually most of the research is based on convenience samples. Which may bias the results toward the negative direction.
And, so then we decided to do studies which are non-convenient samples, studies which are not biased. Which is very tricky, it’s very difficult to do. I don’t know if you want to get into the methodologies. It’s very particular to go into the methodology.
But we found all kinds of ways to identify, to recruit participants, who represent the entire population. Those who may go to support-based organizations, and those who don’t go. Those who use clinics and those who don’t use clinics. Those who say that they’re nervous, and those who say: no, everything is fine!
So we constructed samples that are clean of this bias. And we took three generations: first generation, second generation, and third generation. And we found first-generation effect, which is no surprise to us. I’m talking about Holocaust survivors who suffered between 1939 and 1945, and our study was in the late nineties. So let’s say something like fifty years later. So you study first-generation Holocaust survivors, and you find fifty, sixty years later, you find still heavy elements of the trauma.
But you go to the second generation, into the third generation, and you don’t find it. You don’t find it. Then we said: okay. And again, going back to– you have to be modest in research, always to be modest and always able to say: okay, maybe, maybe you went wrong, maybe you did something inadequately, not correctly. So we said: okay, we have studies here in Israel. And we did them with specific methods. Let’s see what’s going on in the field. Globally. In the USA, in Canada.
And by the way, for your knowledge, most of the research on Holocaust survivors and second generation to the Holocaust is in English-speaking countries. So USA. Canada, UK, Australia, and maybe New Zealand. And South Africa, also in a way.
So we picked all these studies.
Now, I don’t know if you got exposed in your studies to a research method called meta- analysis. Meta-analysis is a study of studies. It’s a highly sophisticated statistical study of studies. You read all the studies. You know, you do a search. A very, very intensive search of what is available in the field. And you read very carefully each study, you look at the statistics and you create a mega-study. You put into one mega-study all the outcomes that you find in all these particular studies.
So we said, let’s do a meta-analysis and see what the meta-analysis provides. And amazingly, what we found, we found in the meta-analysis, that you find second-generation effect only in biased studies. Only in studies with convenience samples.
KLM: Wow. I get it.
AS: But when you compare it to studies with non-convenience samples, you don’t find effects. So now it’s not only our study in Israel, but it’s all the studies all over the world. And I’m talking about many, many studies. I’m talking about, in the first generation, something like seventy-five studies that made very careful selection criteria. And we talk about thirty-two studies of second generation to the Holocaust, with thousands of participants. Where you see an effect, negative effect only with convenience samples, but not with non-convenience samples.
KLM: Wow. So it goes counter to kind of a kneejerk or layperson’s assumptions. Right?
AS: Yes! Yes, yes, yes.
And by the way, I’m not saying that some people don’t suffer! Definitely some people suffer, but also people without Holocaust background suffer as well!
KLM: Right. But I’m just curious, just to keep the conversation going and get it right in my own head, live. How then would you– as a comparative study, what about a population like Indigenous people in the US, or First Nations people in Canada or something, who are still suffering very quantifiable socioeconomic conditions? As in, the conditions haven’t improved, and so the mental and physical problems are still going on. Would you see– that’s the missing or the different piece there, maybe?
AS: That’s an interesting point, you raise. I’m not that familiar. When you talk about Indigenous people in the United States, as much as I know, I don’t know enough. You know more. But from my own understanding, the United States, for one reason or another, never took care properly of these people. I mean, there is a great deal of–
KLM: Poverty. Illness.
AS: Poverty. And living conditions.
KLM: Reservations, often.
AS: Yeah. They live in reservations. So I don’t know to what extent, the second generation– I mean, now you have so many generations. I don’t know where it started 250 years ago, more, right? When the people from Europe came to the United States, and so we are talking about generations and generations.
But to some extent, if you don’t find recovery in getting out of poverty, it may have to do with the lack of policy. Lack
of acceptance that we, the Westerners, did something wrong. We the Westerners don’t take responsibility.
You go to Washington DC. How old is the National Museum of the American Indian? Twenty years? Ten years? It’s a very young museum, right? How come? That it took so many years for the Congress of the United– I don’t want to be critical of the politics in the USA, but we are talking openly here. How come?
KLM: No, but you’re not. It has really profound implications based on– what you’re saying is you found, in your own personal milieu and your experience, that people have a track record of achievement and success and being relatively well-adjusted. And it would seem to me, based on other people I’ve interviewed, from Indigenous communities, Black scholars, trauma is still sitting in different ways because opportunities and equity have not gone that way.
AS: Yeah! I don’t know if there is or there isn’t a Jewish component. Everybody talks about Jewish people, smart, motivated. Maybe yes, maybe no, I don’t know. I don’t want to get into that point. But we have to keep in mind that the Holocaust survivors were Jewish people. And they went to very developed countries, like USA, Canada, UK, Australia.
Some came to Israel, which was not a developed country. Israel started as a developing country. And it’s a miracle. I would say it’s a miracle, after seventy years and with all these wars. How come?
So the idea was– always the people, especially Holocaust survivors, were conveying the message that you have to work hard, you have to invest, you have to study, you have to go to school. You have to get a profession. I’ll tell you a joke about it. About the Jewish. If you wish.
KLM: Of course! [laughter]
AS: You know about the first Jewish president in the USA?
So the mother, Mrs. Moskowitz, is sitting in the inauguration ceremony, and everybody comes to congratulate her. And they say to her: Mrs. Moskowitz, your son is going to be the president of the United States. She said, yes, thank you, thank you. But you see, in the other place sitting there is my other son. He’s a doctor.
So just telling you about the motivation.
AS: So, I don’t know. It’s very difficult to– when you go into it. We know in other studies. If you go to other places looking at traumas, like even here.
We know about studies about Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. I had some collaboration with colleagues in Gaza some time ago. Now it’s difficult with Hamas but we had interaction, direct interaction. And we have indications that even highly traumatized Palestinians because of attacks and fires and all that– that the second generation is doing well if the family is aware that they have a function, to protect the child.
KLM: But so, and we can’t solve this, of course– but it sounds to me like the difference… This is hard to wrap one’s head around.
But the difference is, maybe– when has the trauma stopped? Like put the brakes on and stopped, versus the continuing re-traumatization in a society? Of an oppressed people. Right? If the trauma is continuing because of sociocultural and sociopolitical forces, then the family can’t heal either.
AS: Yeah. I think that to a large extent. You’re talking about sociopolitical context.
I think that in countries where the context allows people to grow, allow people to succeed, it takes less than a generation to recover. The second generation will succeed. The second generation will do okay. And that’s what we find, in our studies.
KLM: Wow. It’s very, very interesting for me because I do a bit of ethnic traumawork. I have my feminist work with sexual assault and women in certain work fields. But I also have my own cultural background and I do a bit on that. Like the Irish famine, for example, an Gorta Mór. And the people who left Ireland in the 19th century. And, you know, there are famine memorials, just like we have commemoration. In Québec, I’ve been to the one, and there’s New York and Boston as well. Dublin, Cork.
AS: Yes, yes.
KLM: It’s very similar questions of– what in history leads to depression in families, what leads to substance abuse, what leads to domestic violence? And so these questions are always rattling around in one’s head. But to hear that you’ve really done it in a highly objective way, and you find that it’s not necessarily the way we think about it, is really so interesting.
AS: Yeah, but now you remind me of another important point. When you talk about sexual abuse and abuse within the family, it’s within the family. It’s an issue. When you have a trauma within the family, then you may see second-generation effect. You see, the Holocaust, the traumas of the Holocaust survivors, were imposed on them. Not within the family, but by external forces. The Nazis, the torturers, the murderers.
KLM: Right, that’s true.
AS: Which probably makes it easier to recover. It was very difficult, the Holocaust, for the Holocaust survivors. But the Holocaust survivors– again, we have also to remember one more thing. You see many of the Holocaust survivors, even those who were children before the outbreak of the war, before the Holocaust began, they had families. And many of the Jewish people in Europe– in Paris, in London, in Berlin– so, so many of them actually entered the Holocaust with, and I write about it, with some prior strong emotional infrastructure. They had good-enough functioning parents.
You see, my mother, for example. She lost her parents when she was fourteen. And she was separated from her parents when she was thirteen. But until then, she was together with them. She went to school even during running away and hiding. It was a very positive, embracing family. So, it’s a big difference from these families and families experiencing abuse within the families.
AS: And that’s one of the explanations that we give. Why it’s easier to recover, and not to have a secondary traumatization.
KLM: Wow. That’s really interesting. And so, were you surprised by these findings as you encountered them?
AS: So I’m a psychologist, as you know, and a social worker. And my training many, many years ago was a very traditional training– that once you get exposed to trauma, there is a risk that the trauma will be transmitted. That the traumatized person is unable to run a normative family, and it will transmit.
So well, yes. At a certain point I was surprised, because it went against my training as a psychologist. And theories, against various theories. That’s on the one hand.
On the other hand, as I told you, because I look at it from a scientific point of view and methodological point of view, I got convinced and convinced and convinced. If you do the research in a proper way, you are not supposed to be surprised.
KLM: Right. [laughter]
Although from the perspective of doing this work– because that’s been one of my meta- questions for everyone, is: how do you feel about the work you do? How do you feel about your findings?
And I would imagine, based on what I’m hearing from you now, for the first time… Like I came to this series with a premise that working in something like epigenetics can be really depressing, and it can be traumatizing in itself. Because you have a sense that people are doomed from the start and they’re doomed in the womb. But I would almost feel like your findings would be sort of joyful and liberating. It’s exciting to find out that we’re not doomed! It’s very existential.
AS: Sure! I have a former PhD student. She did a Ph.D. with me, and she was engaged in the projects as a student, an MA student. And then she came and told me: Avi, I want to do a Ph.D. What can I do? I said: you know, Salit, we’ve almost exhausted all the possibilities, we know so much already. Think about, be creative, think about something new. Try to look into maybe the positive side… some years ago, we started to talk about what we call post-traumatic growth. Maybe people can grow from trauma, of trauma.
And then she started to review the literature and she said: yes, I will go and study prosocial development. Maybe, let’s see to what extent, second generation are more or less altruistic, and empathic to the stress that other people experience . And she did a wonderful study, and it’s cited also in my chapter.
And you know what she found? She found that the second generation to the Holocaust in our studies can deal more effectively, empathetically and altruistically, with their mothers even if they sometimes give them a harder time.
Because, you know, it’s difficult to be with a Holocaust survivor. I can tell you. It wasn’t an easy issue with my mother! She was so anxious. So, so anxious. But I think that what I was able to develop is understanding of her fear. That she’s suffering. And I was always accepting her, empathetic to her, and helping.
And I can tell you a story, and you can cite it. This is okay.
My mother didn’t sleep well. She hardly slept. And I don’t know how she survived without sleep. She passed away at the age of eighty-four. And so I called her every midnight to say hi. Every midnight to say hi. You know why? Because I knew… she told me! She told me that if we talk at the end of the day and she hears my voice, she- it’s a kind of a comforting situation for her. Maybe she will sleep better, because she knows that I’m okay and everybody in the family is okay.
And she was always hooked to the radio, to the television. If she heard about a bomb in Jerusalem, she called me. Everything is okay? I said: Mom, I’m in Haifa. I’m not in Jerusalem. Or, you know, attacks by Hamas in the Gaza Strip. I said: I don’t live in the Gaza Strip. I’m okay, I’m in Haifa. But she had this outstanding anxiety.
I knew that when I talked to her at midnight, it helped her. It’s a kind of an empathetic thing, you see.
So and she told me– she was smart. She said: you know, I know it’s very stupid. This talk is very stupid. It doesn’t make sense because I know! That as soon as we hang up the phone, something can happen to you. To me. I know it, because it’s exactly what happened to us when the Germans invaded into Belgium. My mother was Belgian. She was from Belgium.
And she said: we had to leave, like within a few hours. We had to pack and to escape. And to be uprooted from my home, from everything. Home, school. So I know that it can happen right away. Things happen in our life. And that’s what she told me every time. I know it’s stupid, you know, to talk at midnight, but it makes me feel good. It makes me feel good.
And I did it all the time, even when I was on sabbatical in Salt Lake City, nine hours difference. In Washington, in New York. And I called her every midnight, her midnight. I called her. Just to– you know.
So what I’m saying, it’s going back to the study of Sarit, Dr. Sarit Alkalay, who did this doctorate with me. She found that it was the other way around actually, all these issues actually leading you to develop more sensitivity rather than pathology. Your state of mind is willing to accept the suffering of the other.
KLM: It’s fascinating. I don’t know, two things come to mind with that, for me.
There’s been some flipside research to that where, a negative trait can be– like, for example, in work about survivors of the Irish famine. They’ve looked at Irish-American culture, which I come from. And they said in the 19th century there was a pull towards right-wing politics because people who survived a famine raised their children with a scarcity mindset. That you can’t help the neighbors. You have to look after your own. And kind of become smaller and closed off to the world.
So just as I think it’s a beautiful idea that someone could become more sensitive and more altruistic by living with traumatized people, it could, it could so easily tip the other way towards: we look after ourselves.
So that’s– I like your findings better, of course! [laughter]
AS: There’s hope, you know? You know the work of Viktor Frankl.
KLM: Yes, yes.
AS: Who was a Holocaust survivor. And he talks about search for meaning. People’s search for meaning. People want to live! People want to survive! It’s part of our epigenetics, it’s part of evolution. We want to survive. And we want to survive with quality of life. So, yeah, I take this hope. Hope is a very helpful component.
And again, as I told you, most of the Holocaust survivors that we know, actually had good lives in Europe before the war broke out. I wouldn’t say that everybody was wealthy. But, many, many were middle-class, at least middle-class, doing well, normative families, providing the emotional infrastructure the children needed. Which helped the Holocaust survivors to survive, you know? And to become members of functioning, well-functioning families.
And again, I’m not saying that some people don’t suffer, but I don’t think that they suffer more than other people. I mean, if there is suffering, it’s not because of the Holocaust. It’s because of other reasons which characterize also other people who suffer, who are not necessarily Holocaust survivors.
Now, I wish to– you asked me for what might be some implications. I want to tell you some second-generation in Israel don’t like my findings. They don’t like it! Because some of them are those who suffer.
And I appreciate it, I really appreciate it! Some of them who suffer think that Israel did not do enough. As far as the compensations from Germany. That Israel– the Holocaust survivors got compensations from Germany. And I said: yeah, my mother definitely deserved to get compensations. You know, she lost her parents. She suffered. She didn’t go to school. She could have become, I don’t know, what have you, if she stayed in Belgium. So she deserves. Maybe the politicians in Israel did not negotiate enough to let her get sufficient funds to make her life better, you know.
But why should I get compensation as a second-generation? Why? But many of the second- generation don’t necessarily like my findings, because my findings suggest that second generation is doing fine.
KLM: I see, I see. Right.
And along those lines, that leads back to a kind of final big area that I wanted to touch on, which is what you said at the beginning. You did your PhD work in a completely sort of secular– not related to your own identity, as far as I could tell– way. But you said: I always knew later in life, I would come back. At some point I would work on Holocaust studies or Holocaust research. And so, why? What’s the draw to that? And did you worry that it would be traumatizing, or did you just feel compelled? As an honoring of sorts.
AS: Well, why did I choose social work and psychology to begin with? Before the studies?
I started, by the way, to study mathematics. My majors were in mathematics and physics, and I didn’t like it. I felt like I have to do something with people.
Why? I guess it is connected to my Holocaust experience. I guess I developed a state of mind. I say that I think the effect of the Holocaust is less in the field of psychopathology, in secondary trauma, but more the fact that you are able to develop a state of mind about the Holocaust. To understand what was going on, to take into consideration the horrible consequences of genocides and what we do to people. And what the consequences are.
I guess because my mother was… she always talked about: we have to be more tolerant to the Palestinians, for example. And you know why, she said? Because we suffered! So we have to do our utmost, to avoid suffering of others. So it’s a kind of a state of mind that evolved.
Remind me of what else you asked.
KLM: Something about the idea of putting yourself into family history, or dealing with things that might be upsetting because we feel maybe compelled–
AS: Yeah. Not for me, it’s not. I guess you develop this state of mind about trauma, about the Holocaust. And you see that what we did, especially in Israel in seventy years. From a developing country, under-resourced country, we became a very developed country. One of the successful countries, with all the difficulties.
And this is, to a large extent, because of the first generation. Who were able to look into life as a big… to say: I’m lucky I survived. I was able to get married, my mother said, and other people like her, to get married, to have children. And it’s a big revenge. You also hear that: it’s a big revenge on Hitler. He wanted to eliminate us from the globe. He didn’t eliminate us.
On the contrary, we have successful children. We have happy children. And we will do our best to make sure that they will remain happy.
KLM: I see. Yeah, I think we kind of covered a lot because so many of my questions go in the direction of assuming your findings will have been negative. And that you’re dealing with depression or the secondary trauma of yourself, or other researchers. But that’s not really your area. So many of my questions are more about how do people break these traumas? And you’re saying: happily, they have already, right? In so much of your work. So those questions don’t exactly apply.
And finding the positivity in it, finding the positivity in the negative, also seems not to be such a question of your work.
But I guess then– maybe just one final thing that goes back towards the personal, which is like– I always sort of joke around with people. I’m a feminist, as a woman I’ve experienced misogyny. We’ve all experienced sexual harassment. Some of us have sexual assault in our pasts, domestic violence. And you can do a PhD on animation, you can do a PhD on chamber music. What compels some of us to go to painful places?
And so, I’ve interviewed PhDs who’ve worked on the Rwandan genocide. I’ve interviewed Indigenous women who work with the missing and murdered women campaign, and raped women. My final interview is with a Black scholar, an art historian, who looks at images of lynchings all day long. I mean, some of this work is very painful.
KLM: So even if you feel adjusted and you feel grateful for the work you’ve done and grateful to be a fellow at the museum, the actual histories and memories are highly painful. So how have you dealt with feeling drawn to work in that, but also at the same time kind of not letting it affect you on a level that’s too much?
AS: Well. So first of all, it took me about twenty years since I got my PhD. You asked me how did you. I needed– I was young when I got my Ph.D. So, you know, it takes time to grow, to develop, to mature. Not only to mature personally, but also to mature professionally. It takes time.
And I knew that I wanted to study the Holocaust because of my background. Because I felt that I’m doing well. I’m basically doing well. But one case is not enough. My friends are doing well, too, though. So what’s going on? How come?
So it took me some time to grow into it. And when I felt secure enough to get into it, and knew also that emotionally, I will be able to handle it.
But it was difficult, you know? I have recorded sessions, interviews with Holocaust survivors. It’s very difficult. Very, very difficult. But I guess I have the resiliency to deal with it. You know, it’s heartbreaking. Some of the stories are really heartbreaking. But I grew and I developed there, capacity to deal with it.
Also it comes back to the opening of our interview. I told you that I have colleagues in Germany and in the Netherlands. We are colleagues for many, many years. And the German colleagues, it’s a very interesting story because you see, my German colleague, the man, Klaus Grossmann, he is older than I am. He’s like 85. He was in the Hitler-Jugend.
AS: Yeah. I mean, he’s 85. He was in the Hitler-Jugend, his father was a soldier in the German army. He said that his father was not in the Gestapo. But we became very close friends and colleagues, all the time talking about it. And I used to visit them in Germany. And I saw all these pictures of his father, with the uniforms. Which always made me– kind of shaking me.
KLM: Yeah, one would imagine!
AS: Yeah. But we became very close friends and I– it’s a story itself. We are very, very good friends and very, very good colleagues. And I know the story of his life and the suffering that he had, because he was away from his father, who was a soldier. And his wife who grew up in a Nazi family. I mean, we became very, very good friends.
So when I started to do the– you ask me, how do you do this research? How do you deal, with the emotion? I said back then: I would like to have German colleagues who are going to be part of the studies. It’s going to help me a lot.
AS: You know, I want to see good German people, scholars who are going to be part of this study. And then I have a very good colleague in the Netherlands with some background in the Netherlands. I mean, there are all kinds of stories about how the Dutch collaborated, with the Germans, with the Nazis. So that’s how I guess it helped me a lot, when I had this scientific support, and emotional support of colleagues. Not necessarily Jewish colleagues, but colleagues from Germany.
And then we also hired– for my students who collected data with Holocaust survivors and had to record. And to be in the interviews, and to hear these stories– we provided psychological support. We had a psychologist, who discussed with the team, the feelings. At least, you have to have the awareness, that you have to take into consideration the stress.
KLM: Yes, right. And because there could be people who get involved with doing this work that it causes them to kind of collapse. Because they aren’t sort of ready to do this work in a way, maybe for whatever reason.
AS: Luckily enough, it didn’t happen in our case.
KLM: Right. But I’m thinking of, that’s why if they’re younger, graduate students. You need to provide them that support, because it’s heavy for them and…
AS: When we accept graduate students in areas like clinical psychology and school psychology and developmental psychology, we interview them. And we always ask them, at least in Israel, to prove, to provide proof, that before they start studying psychology with practice implications, that they have to go themselves and get some counseling. Psychological counseling, to be able to process their own feelings. So I guess, I’m not saying that we don’t have mistakes once in a while, but basically the students come quite equipped to deal with it.
KLM: Right. I think I’ve got a great overview from this point. Is there any last bit that you’d like to say? Anything we didn’t cover?
AS: We can talk five more hours about this! But no, thank you. I always appreciate, I don’t know– journalists, writers, whatever you define yourself as.
KLM: Hybrid? I’m a hybrid. [laughter]
AS: Hybrid, yeah. You raise these issues. I think we should disseminate it. We should circulate it. We have to create a legacy. And so thank you for approaching me.
KLM: Thank you very much. I think it’ll be really rich in the series because it’s such a different perspective than some of the others.
At the same time, I’m learning my initial assumptions were wrong. Everybody kind of ends on a note of some hope. You can’t have an article that ends with: the work I do is miserable. It makes me miserable. I hate it. No one would ever say that.
AS: Did you interview other psychologists?
KLM: Yes. I interviewed the current president of the International Society for Trauma Studies. So from a very clinicians’ perspective– how do they prepare clinicians to not become traumatized themselves? And so very much meta for the field.
And then not exactly psychologists, but scientists. I interviewed Dr. Moshe Szyf from McGill, who’s one of the leading founders of epigenetics, as it stands right now. So really deep into epigenetics, the DNA, not working with human subjects. Hardly at all. Really in lab work.
So kind of like what are the philosophical and existential and humanities implications for the work of epigenetics? And that was really, really interesting.
But your findings are so hopeful. It’s beautiful. So I’m happily surprised that that’s the direction we went. So thank you so much.
AS: Thank you.