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The Intergenerational Transmission of the Holocaust Trauma: The Legacy of an Impossible Memory

The Letter, Issue 28, Summer 2003, Pages 1 - 22


Veroniek Knockaert, Gertnidis Van de Vijver, Filip Geerardyn

Remember you are forbidden to remember.

Remember you are forbidden to forget.[1]


Although the scientific and clinical interest in children of holocaust survivors dates from the end of the 1960s, fundamental questions and controversies remain unsolved.[2] Is the trauma of the holocaust transmitted to the next generation, and if so, by what mechanism(s)? Some authors consider the concept of the 'second generation' as an illusion and judge the transmission process as nonexistent. Further, many dispute whether or not the second generation displays more or less psychopathology than other comparable groups. Some scholars even emphasize that the heritage of the holocaust can positively affect the descendants. Clinicians tend to agree that it is impossible to grow up in a family with holocaust survivors without actually becoming infected with the injuries they sustained.[3] In recent literature on the intergenerational transmission of holocaust trauma, reviewed in the first part of this paper, some authors have tried to overcome the sharp differences between the viewpoints of 'researchers' and 'clinicians'. Inspired by the difficulty or even impossibility 1) to define the effects of the holocaust trauma uniformly and 2) to describe the descendants of the holocaust survivors as a homogeneous group, this new stance aims at a differentiated approach, focusing on the singularity of each subject concerned.

As a first step, the development of a conceptualisation of trauma is needed that can account for the complex and various vicissitudes of survivors of the holocaust and their descendants. In the second part of this paper, we will argue that Freudo-Lacanian psychoanalysis provides numerous interesting points of departure for such a project, such as its conception of the singularity of the subject and of the complex, circular interaction between a subject and its environment.

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