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On Failed Intersubjectivity: Recollections of Loneliness Experiences in Offspring of Holocaust Survivors

Dr. Hadas Wiseman teaches “Psychological Aspects of the Memory of the Holocaust” for the Weiss-Livnat International MA in Holocaust Studies, as an elective course. Here’s a link for the syllabus to this course. 

In a 2008 article for the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, Hadas Wiseman of the University of Haifa examines accounts of loneliness from children of Holocaust survivors and considers them in light of the psychiatric theory of failed intersubjectivity.

While feelings of loneliness are part of the universal human experience, persistent and severe loneliness is not. In her study, Wiseman focuses on childhood and adolescent loneliness in the children of Holocaust survivors. She notes that loneliness was one of the types of trauma experienced by Holocaust survivors, but adds that loneliness trauma in their children does not seem to have been caused by a transmission of traumatic memories. Rather, she writes, it was provoked by the interpersonal relationship and parent-child dynamic between Holocaust survivors and their children, which was itself shaped by the echoes of the loneliness trauma of the survivor parents.

Wiseman cites previous studies which clarified various ways that parental behavior can provoke severe loneliness in children, such as quality of attachment, parenting style, warmth of connection and promotion of healthy peer relationships. She posits that these were the causes of loneliness in the children of Holocaust survivors, too, as the parents’ traumatic experiences of loneliness during the Holocaust impacted on their parenting approach.

Wiseman interviewed 52 children of Holocaust survivors, using narrative analysis to examine their recollections of loneliness experiences. She found that the children of holocaust survivors shared experiences from childhood or adolescence which fell into one or more of four categories of loneliness.

Two types of loneliness were considered to be directly related to manifestations of echoes of the parent’s traumatic Holocaust experiences: Echoes of parental intrusive traumatic memories impact on a child’s sense of loneliness when the child feels they are carrying the burden of their parent’s memories. In addition, echoes of parental numbing and detachment cause the child to feel lonely because their parents, overwhelmed by the trauma they had experienced, detach from an emotional connection with their child, leaving the child uncertain of how to form strong emotional connections in the future.

A further two categories of loneliness were caused by indirect manifestation of echoes of the parent’s trauma. One of these is the parent’s caregiving style, which causes the child to feel a sense of loneliness and abandonment, with no one to care for them physically and/or emotionally. The caregiving style of Holocaust survivor parents could crush a child’s desires due to the parent’s overwhelming anxiety, leave a child to manage alone prematurely, result in a role reversal for the child and parent, or see the parent incapable of showing concern for the child’s emotions or feelings. Finally, the child’s social comparison between their own family and that of others around them provokes a sense of loneliness as they realize the emptiness left by the loss of all their parents’ extended family.

Wiseman note that there are many theories to explain the incidence of severe loneliness, and explains that she chooses the proposition by L. A. Wood that “loneliness is the individual experience of failed intersubjectivity”. Failed intersubjectivity involves not being understood by others as well as not understanding others and an overall absence of shared understanding. Wiseman’s study matches this explanation, as the children of Holocaust survivors were unable to understand their parents and were not understood by them. The parent could not communicate with the child due to the magnitude of trauma experienced, and the child could not communicate with the detached parent.

Wiseman concludes on a positive note, commenting that later in life, when the parent is able to communicate their traumatic experiences, the relationship between parent and child is somewhat healed and the child’s loneliness may be somewhat eased by their new ability to understand and be understood by their parent.

Hadas Wiseman, PhD, is a professor of psychology at the University of Haifa


Interested in applying for our MA in Holocaust Studies Program?  You can find the application and more information at our website

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Strochliz Institute for Holocaust Research
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