~ I carry someone else’s memory.
Ilya Ehrenburg, Novyi mir cycle, January 1945
Offspring of trauma survivors often feel that they carry the memory of their parents. They were not alive at the time. They were not supposed to know. Often, they were not even told. But they know. They know it in their bodies, in every cell of their body. It’s almost as if they were born with that knowledge.
While walking home on a rainy day, they may think: ‘It’s not so bad really. Getting wet is not the end of the world.’ Then there is an afterthought: ‘After all, it’s not a death march, is it? It’s not like during the war’.
Or, is it?
They are offspring of Holocaust survivors, now middle aged or older. But it’s not only happening to them. Offspring of other war-related trauma also have such memories of their parents’ stressful life events.
When they have these reminiscences and associations, it’s as if they remember how it was then and there, when people suffered and died or were butchered all over the place. And even if they were not alive at the time, they can feel the terror, the panic and the loss.
Sometimes they also have nightmares and flashbacks of things they never experienced.
Such thoughts are so familiar for many. It’s as if they were carrying the burden of their parents’ war experiences even though it’s been more than 70 years since it all happened.
Remembering Implicit Feelings
Hereditary memory does not refer to the actual recollection of the war experiences of the parents with specific audio-visual details.
More accurately, the child remembers the implicit feelings aroused from the experiences of their parents and particularly the learned fears absorbed during the war. They remember the terror of their parents which was imprinted in them. Consequently, offspring of survivors inherited the physical responses to hunger, cold and pain and the emotional residues of terror, panic and loss.
Such ‘non-declarative’ memories are similar to the paradoxical recollections of the trauma survivors themselves. Since unbearable trauma is often managed by dissociation and fragmentation, they often forgot many details of the actual events that occurred.
At the same time, however, intrusive images and anxiety provoking ‘flashbacks’ of the more disturbing details remain. Even if, or perhaps because, the trauma was denied, repressed or ‘forgotten’ in the first generation, it sooner or later will find expression in the second.
Why are they still remembering these things? Can it be because the parents tried to forget and so they now appear in the offspring? Is it possible that such memories really can be passed on to the offspring and become unconscious instinctual fears? I believe it is. But how? How can a repressed memory from a traumatic event of a parent be transmitted to a child?
Transgenerational Transmission of Trauma
Transgenerational transmission of trauma occurs when offspring absorb the trauma of their parents. Resilient children of Holocaust survivors continue the legacy of survival, while the more vulnerable children carry the burden of war trauma.
For the first group, survival in itself becomes a source of creative inspiration that motivates them to make the world a better place.
For the susceptible individuals, the atrocities of war may fill their inner lives with terrible anxiety-provoking associations.
At the end of the day, however, they all seem to struggle with contradictory forces of resilience and vulnerability, trying to find the best balance between fight-flight and relaxation. In doing so, they seem to have inherited a kind of implicit survivor memory of their parents that helped them to hold on to life even at its most challenging moments.
Manifestations of Holocaust transmission have been reported in numerous studies over the years. From these reports, it appears that people ‘remember’ more than they realize consciously.
It becomes a biological cell memory of what the parents experienced. Standing in line evokes reminiscences of the roll call in camp (appell); seeing a tattoo makes them think of the numbers inscribed on camp prisoners; a cattle train; a German word, etc.
Such stimuli trigger a specific Holocaust imagery with its accompanying painful emotions. The concealed cell-membrane deposits contain frightening memories assimilated over a long time as a readiness to respond in certain ways to danger. Like past-life regression, it’s as if the child was born with some knowledge that it did not learn by themselves.
Transgenerational transmission of trauma – TTT – has been described in hundreds of papers over the years. Many explanations were suggested. Some parents talked too much or too little about their experiences. Others became overprotective, or they became too distant or too attached. Many believed that children who had grown up with traumatized parents had learned also to become fearful.
These largely psychoanalytic theories, however, were increasingly doubted. It was felt that the severity and persistence of mental problems in this population could not stem only from the psychosocial environment.
There seemed to be more to TTT than only unconscious ‘transposition’ or ‘projective identification.’ The likelihood that parents had been harmed by the war in a neurobiological manner and that their children might have inherited this same wound, received more attention.
As a result, a new theory appeared to explain TTT. It was based on a kind of biological heredity mechanism called ‘epigenetics.’ This theory suggested that children of trauma survivors were born with a particular chemical marking upon their chromosomes similar to the numbers tattooed on their parents’ forearms. This biological memory would make it possible for the children to remember what their parents had forgotten.
Whether we call such biological memories ancestral or genetic, there seemed to be a real biochemical origin to the stress responses of descendants. In fact, numerous studies found that mammals can inherit certain stressful emotional experiences of their parents.
Epigenetics control the nervous and endocrine systems in ways that were previously unknown. These theories were used to explain how signals from the brain instructs the body (through stress hormones) to act on certain cues.
For example, the subtle disapproving gut-feeling when leaving food on the plate because ‘then and there, they died from starvation’ was explained with electrochemical signals between neurons in the brain. Such theories were also used to explain how the offspring would lose their emotional balance and develop (secondary) post-traumatic stress disorder.
Epigenetics makes a lot of sense because it describes how the body continually adapts to the environment. When there is too much stress, various psycho-physiological mechanisms are initiated and the total organism tries to adjust.
Methyl groups tag DNA and histones (the proteins around which DNA is packaged to form chromatin) change the transcription potential of the genes and respond by either switching them on or off.
The bottom line is that if there was an epigenetic alteration in the regulation of the cells of the parents as a result of a catastrophic event, this alteration can be passed on to offspring.
These children could then be born with a specific modification of the glucocorticoid receptor gene (FKBP5), making them disposed to traumatic stress disorder, or vulnerable to stress.
All offspring of trauma survivors obviously do not have the same disposition. But vulnerable children of trauma survivors seem to have been born, not only with their parents’ hardware (DNA), but also with their old, and ‘infected’ software (epigenome).