Holocaust survivors experienced periods of protracted emotional and physical torture, malnutrition and mass exposure to disease. Considering what horrors – both physical and psychological, including the loss of loved ones in front of their eyes – that survivors went through, it is amazing how resilient some of them are and that over 900 Israel survivors are older than 100.
The damaging effects of life under Nazi rule have long been known, but recent research from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (HUJI) shows that even for those who survived, their health and mortality continued to be directly impacted long after the end of the Holocaust.
The study, led by Dr. Iaroslav Youssim and Dr. Hagit Hochner from the School of Public Health and Community Medicine at HUJI’s Faculty of Medicine and published in the American Journal of Epidemiology under the title “Holocaust Experience and Mortality Patterns: 4-Decade Follow-up in a Population-based Cohort” investigated mortality rates from specific diseases over the course of many years among Israeli Holocaust survivors.
The researchers analyzed death records of some 22,000 people who were followed-up from 1964 to 2016. Of these, there were 5,042 Holocaust survivors, 45% of them women). They compared the rates of mortality from cancer and heart disease among survivors to the rates in people who had not lived under Nazi occupation.
Among women survivors, the study found a 15% higher death rate from all causes and a 17% higher risk of dying from cancer. Among men, while overall death rates of the survivors were not different from those of the unexposed, mortality from cancer during the studied period was 14% higher among the survivor population and the rate of death from heart disease was 39% higher.
“Our research showed that people who experienced life under Nazi rule early in life, even if they were able to settle in Israel and build families, continued to face higher mortality rates throughout their lives,” Youssim explained. “This study supports prior theories that survivors are characterized by general health resilience combined with vulnerabilities to specific diseases.”
Hochner concluded that “these findings reflect the importance of long-term monitoring of people who have experienced severe traumas and elucidates mortality patterns that might emerge from those experiences.”