Adult Siblings in Holocaust Survivors’ Families

This past week we held at the Boro Park Y in Brooklyn the third meeting of the Discussion Group for Children of Holocaust Survivors, and the topic was the relationships between siblings in Holocaust families. Most of the sixty participants who attended this week reported, by show of hands, having grown up with at least one sibling. Indeed, most people in the USA grow up with siblings and, for those who do, the relationships with their siblings are a profoundly important aspect of family life.

The relationships with our siblings are, in fact, the longest relationships we have across the lifespan. Our relationships with our siblings are longer than the relationships we have with our parents, with our spouses and with our children. Studies have shown that, during childhood, siblings are not just pale secondary characters on the stage of family life; rather they are often important attachment figures for each other. In old age, siblings often provide important socialization and support for each other. Despite their potentially important role, sibling relationships have been relatively neglected in the psychological literature, in comparison with the emphasis on the relationship between each individual child and the parent(s).

The discussion this past week centered on the influence of echoes of parental trauma on some unique aspects of the sibling relationships in Holocaust survivor families. I shared with the participants observations I have accumulated over more than 25 years of encounters with survivors and the second generation, in clinical settings as well as in less formal group settings and meetings. I have frequently observed a particular pattern among adult siblings in Holocaust families which suggests markedly differentiated roles between siblings within the same family. One sibling has often remained geographically close to the parents, and leads a life much more emotionally intertwined with them, as manifested by disclosing personal difficulties and challenges to the parents, and being repeatedly “saved” by them from various personal crises. This sibling is often also financially supported by the parents, either directly or by being taken into the family business. When involved in the parents’ business, this sibling is frequently not actually viewed as truly contributing. The employment in the family business is often the solution to the difficulties of this individual in finding or keeping a job elsewhere, and his functioning is viewed as an excuse to provide some structure and a salary. When the sibling who is more intertwined with the parents is a son, the relationships with the survivor father who runs the business are often labile and difficult. When the sibling who is in this role is a female, there are often tensions in her marriage around the intensity of her involvement with her parents. In contrast, another or other siblings in the family seem to have been able to move further away, have been typically more professionally and financially successful, and have been less emotionally involved with the parents, to the extent that the parents or the other sibling sometimes feel emotionally abandoned by them.

The relationships between adult siblings often reveal deep-seated mutual criticism associated with each other’s roles in the family. Each sibling is acutely aware of what they perceive as the hurt inflicted by the other sibling upon the survivor parents. The impact of the other sibling on the survivor parents’ health and well-being is described in extreme expressions such as “he is killing them!” or “she is driving them to the grave!” Such intense feelings reflect the palpable presence of issues of life and death that are part of the explicit and implicit legacy of the family.

When parents suffer from significant post-traumatic reactions, their responses to events and interactions during the normative course of raising children might often be less than optimally regulated. Dysregulated emotional reactions in the parents, such as intense anxiety, fear or depression in response to some action taken by one sibling can have a dramatic impact on other siblings. Having caused parental distress is taken as an act of extreme cruelty in the context of relationships with parents who suffered already so much. I gave the example of my patient M., who was always “the good girl” who did what her parents wanted her to do, and who did not do what she knew they would not have wanted her to do. Responding and internalizing their anxiety, she stayed nearby, and constricted her choices and her personal development to that which did not cause them too much concern. Her brother, on the other hand, had been the “trouble child” all along, unleashing her parents’ anxiety and rage, and often being on the receiving end of physical violence. When he decided to enlist in the military, which he viewed as his only chance to get away, their father cried for days on end for fear that something would happen to his son. M. was unable to comprehend how her brother was able to cause their parents such pain and, as a result of such events, M. had hated her brother and wanted nothing to do with him for many years. It was only in therapy that M. could begin to view her brother’s behavior more compassionately. When survivor parents suffered from post-traumatic reactions and could not contain them well, children had a difficult choice to make with regards to their own developmental needs. This choice, taken partly consciously and partly non-consciously, was on one hand, to constrict oneself in order to appease the anxieties of the survivor parents, a path more typically taken by daughters. Other children, more typically sons, had to “harden” themselves and resist identifying with parental worry, pain and pleas in order be able to maintain their own sense of self and pursue their own direction and goals.

The determination of which child in the family took the more dependent role, and which took the rebellious role, is one to which many factors contribute. Gender, birth order, the age difference between children, changes in the life of the family and in the state of the parents’ post-traumatic symptoms, can all play an important role. Many other factors, related to the individual child, their innate temperament and their interactions with parents are also important in determining the path of individual children. The roles taken by other siblings in the family also constitute additional important influence on each child.

The pattern I have come to identify shows that, throughout life, the more independent children seem to have striven to hide their developmental challenges from the parents, to cope with their problems on their own, to protect the parents from worry, and to protect themselves from having to cope with the manifestations of parental worry. These children of survivors learned to keep it all to themselves and rely on their own resources. “Hiding” many aspects of their lives from the parents, these children were able to venture out and expand into many activities without having to deal with the intrusive anxieties of their parents, who had no idea of what their children were doing. However, these children did not get the benefit of adult, parental “scaffolding”, and in many ways have “’raised themselves” on their own. While developing many real strengths and skills through this process, these traits have often become characteristics of these individuals who, in their adult relationships, often find themselves also “hiding” their needs and vulnerabilities from friends and even from spouses. Unable to truly let anyone in, always proudly self-sufficient, these adults might experience an inexplicable sense of sadness or anger, and feel, or organize their life in such a way, that they shoulder a heavy burden alone. In their relationships with parents and the more dependent sibling, the self-sufficient children resent the never-ending care-taking that takes place continuously between the parents and their sibling. They look down at their needy sibling, who elicits this care-taking, and who they feel drain the parents physically, emotionally, and sometimes financially. What they fail to see is that the survivor parents, who lost so many loved ones, are often unable to handle the normative losses and changing roles as their children grow up. When parents need to feel needed, some children respond to such unspoken relational expectations by remaining enmeshed. Staying near by the parents, they adopt the role of the care-taking and care-eliciting child, responding to the parents’ emotional needs to remain intensely connected and not suffer new losses.

These more dependent children, on the other hand, have their own perspective and their own reasons to criticize their siblings. They often feel that their sacrifices freed their siblings from the commitments toward the parents and allowed them to pursue their own life. They, who live by the parents, are also often privy to the parents’ hurt feelings about the self-sufficient child who seems to not need them, to not share their personal challenges with them, and who is perceived by the parents as having disconnected from them and emotionally abandoned them.

Resentments between siblings often intensify around the care of aging Holocaust survivor parents, and at times lead to cutoffs in the sibling relationships after parents pass away. This is a particularly tragic phenomenon in the small, new families established by survivors after their families were decimated in the Holocaust.

Sibling differentiation and de-identification is a common phenomenon in family life, not just in Holocaust families. Each sibling attempts to establish their own path and their own “niche”, as different from those of their siblings. Each sibling tried to find their own “claim to fame”, their own way of being unique and worthy of parental love. These processes lead in all families to differences in character, interests, personality style, and life choices. Such differences among siblings can also lead to mutual dislikes. However, extreme parental trauma interacts with many facets of life in the family, and also with the ways in which each child perceives and reacts to parental emotional cues. In my observations, sibling differentiation is impacted by trauma-related dynamics in the family, and the intensity of parental distress impacts also the quality of the relationships between siblings.

It is important to understand the influence of the extreme trauma suffered by Holocaust survivors also on the relationship between siblings, and the factors that can protect or repair these relationships. A better understanding of the family dynamics can help adult siblings see each other’s path with more compassion. Gaining insight to the different needs that survivor parents might have communicated, implicitly and explicitly, might help siblings accept with greater appreciation each other’s attempt to protect the parents from some aspects of pain and suffering. In recognizing the price that each sibling paid in choosing their path, there is a chance for some new insight and greater mutual tolerance. The repair of sibling relationships, and the prevention of cut-offs, is particularly important with respect to the opportunity for the third generation in the family to develop close family ties. In such a vast country as the USA, when adult siblings cut off relationships or do not wish to make efforts to maintain them, the members of the next generation in the family can quickly become completely disconnected and estranged from each other. This can lead, de-facto, to a destruction of the fabric of the extended family, and can constitute another ripple of the genocidal trauma that the survivor parents lived through. This intergenerational enactment, through family dynamics that impact the relationships between siblings, can threaten the structure and culture of the extended family in future generations of Holocaust survivors. Future meetings of the Discussion Group for Children of Holocaust Survivors will continue to address how to counter and repair this and other aspects of relationships impacted by the legacy of trauma.

Irit Felsen, Ph.D.

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