Stories of Survival: Transgenerational Trauma and the Children of Holocaust Survivors

PrintIn one week, I will be speaking about transgenerational trauma and the impact of being a child of a Holocaust survivor. Presenting alongside me are some very special people: Debbie Martin, PhD; Melissa Spann, PhD; and Johanna Kandel, Executive Director of the Alliance for Eating Disorders Awareness. I am very fortunate to work with and know these compassionate and interesting women. I am almost 49 years old, and can tell you this will be the most meaningful presentation of my life.

Where do I begin to explain why this means so much to me? Growing up in Carson City, Nevada, it was such an odd thing that my name was Wendy Freda Oliver. My friends were Mary Anne, Julie Ann, Shirley Anne, and Deanna Sue. I was quite secretive about my middle name, and very embarrassed by it. There was always something different about not just my middle name, but also our home and lifestyle. The lack of tradition around holidays and religion in general really stood out in a town as homogenous as Carson City — home of Bonanza, and the capital of the state. From very early on, as a young girl maybe only five years old, I somehow knew of the Holocaust and that my father was a survivor. This was not because it was spoken about. In fact, it was the elephant in the room. My father’s unusual temper and intense reactivity or avoidance around birthdays and holidays were blatant outward examples of the unspeakable pain within him. The pervasive and endless fear, and the ways in which we planned for doomsday (gold coins and dehydrated food to last 10 years were stockpiled in the garage) were the less obvious, though clear representations and manifestations of his past. I was surrounded by unspoken and unacknowledged fear, anger, and sorrow.

For a trauma survivor, one of the most alienating aspects is felt in how “normal” conditions and struggles of daily life are perceived and felt as unimportant, trivial, and perhaps indicative of being self-absorbed or selfish. For a girl growing up in Nevada in the 1970s, the developmental needs, challenges, and emotions I experienced were inconsequential when compared to what occupied my father’s mind. To say it another way, when compared to the reality of the sheer terror in my father’s mind associated with being a survivor, my normal developmental needs were experienced by my father as indications of selfishness and were of little meaning to him. This created, in my mind, a locus of shame around my needs, which may have contributed to how my eating disorder evolved. It took some time to work out in my mind that my needs and emotional experience came from a valid place.

But this is just one aspect of how being a child of a survivor has an impact. There are perplexing and fascinating aspects beyond the psychological that are often overlooked. The biological and cultural components that reach beyond interpersonal and familial are of great significance. Perhaps the most recent scientific development is within the field of Epigenetics. More specifically, the study of how exposure to trauma impacts the very DNA – DNA inherited by myself and other children of trauma survivors – and adds another layer of depth to our understanding of the transgenerational trauma experience.

It means so much to speak on this subject, to share some of my background, and how this has impacted me as an individual and as a clinician in the field of eating disorders. Yet, I cannot speak of the Holocaust in Europe without a mention of our own version of a holocaust here in the United States: slavery. The same foundations that apply to my psyche must also impact every African-American descendent of slavery. Connecting the very unique, sacred knowledge of the Holocaust in Europe, with a more general understanding of transgenerational trauma, whatever the source, allows us to understand individuals impacted by being children of survivors; whether they experience eating disorders or not, whether it is the Holocaust, slavery, or other forms of trauma.

I consider the stories my father has been able to verbalize to me over the years as sacred and almost unspeakable. That is why it is both painful and meaningful to share my perspective. As an adult, words cannot describe how honored I am to have been named after Freda. She stole potatoes and gave them to my dad during the war. Based on my father’s stories, her courage is why she and my dad were the only members of their family of six who survived the camps.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Be not the slave of your own past. Plunge into the sublime seas; dive deep and swim far, so that you will come back with self-respect, with new power, with an advanced experience that shall explain and overlook the old.” These words have deeply comforted my father in helping him to understand and forgive himself for the ways his personal trauma played out in our family life. Compassion and understanding are key. And this turns out to apply to all of us helping people recover – from any form of trauma.

– Wendy Oliver-Pyatt, MD, FAED, CEDS

To hear more from Wendy please join us for “Stories of Survival: Jewish Culture, Eating Disorders, and the Children of Holocaust Survivors,” Wednesday, November 13th from 6:00 to 9:00 pm at the Sonesta Bayfront Hotel in Miami, Florida. Please RSVP to Christy Celi at or call 786.442.8120.