It would be obvious to assume that Israeli Holocaust survivors who are elderly and isolated during the current COVID-19 pandemic would feel extremely stressed and lonely due to the situation. Therefore, a critical goal is to map risk assessment of who is more psychologically vulnerable and who is relatively resilient vis-à-vis the current pandemic.
Researchers at Bar-Ilan University (BIU) in Ramat Gan (near Tel Aviv) who looked into the problem have found that surprisingly, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and loneliness were more common among survivors who contracted infectious diseases such as tuberculosis and dysentery during the Holocaust compared to older adults who did not experience the Holocaust. According to memory-based theories of PTSD, traumatic events today can trigger involuntary retrieval and reliving of intense trauma-related memories and images.
Jews who survived the Holocaust eight decades ago have shown a wide range of emotional reactions to, and ways of dealing with, the COVID-19 pandemic. Some are coping well with the current crisis, while others experience considerable difficulties. Researchers have found that the way they cope with the current crisis is largely dependent on how they deal with their traumatic memories of the Holocaust.
For many survivors, restrictions on social contacts set down by the Israeli government remind them of various adverse conditions that existed during the Holocaust, among them prolonged isolation and separation from family members, but particularly the frightening risk of contracting infectious disease.
The Bar-Ilan study, recently published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research under the title “Suffering from infectious diseases during the Holocaust relates to amplified psychological reactions during the COVID-19 pandemic,” focused on 127 Holocaust survivors and divided into three groups – 26 survivors who reported having contracted infectious diseases during the Holocaust, 70 survivors who reported not having contracted such diseases, and 31 Jews of European descent who did not live in Nazi or pro-Nazi dominated countries. All of them were born before 1945. Respondents were interviewed during the period of the gradual exit from Israel’s first lockdown (April to June 2020).
PTSD and loneliness were more prevalent among survivors who contracted infectious diseases compared to those who did not experience the Holocaust (38.5% vs. 0% for PTSD; 53.8% vs. 22.6% for loneliness). In addition, worries related to COVID-19 were more frequent among survivors who contracted infectious diseases during the Holocaust (46.2%) relative to other survivors (22.1%) or those who were not exposed to the Holocaust (6.5%).
“We believed that most Holocaust survivors would manifest increased psychological distress during the pandemic because many of them still cope with PTSD symptoms and other impairments. However, heightened distress was evident mainly in a sub-group of survivors whose lives were endangered by infectious disease during the Holocaust,” said Prof. Amit Shrira, of the master’s degree program in gerontology and the Interdisciplinary Department of Social Sciences at Bar-Ilan University, who led the study in collaboration with Maya Frenkel-Yosef from the Nini Czopp Association, which provides social services to Dutch-Israeli Holocaust survivors and their families. Bar-Ilan University doctoral student Ruth Maytles.
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“Most other survivors manifested impressive resilience and were similar in some markers of psychological distress to older adults who were not directly exposed to the Holocaust,” the researchers concluded.