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May 5, 2010 -- Vol.14, No.1

"The Shoah runs through our veins": The Relevance of the Holocaust for Jewish-Israeli Young Adults
by Tal Litvak Hirsch & Julia Chaitin

This qualitative study, based on personal interviews, explored the relevance of the Holocaust on the personal, familial and social-political levels for 50 Jewish-Israeli young adults, with and without family connections to Holocaust survivors. Our results showed that this cohort expresses two main kinds of relevance – Partial Relevance and Paradoxical Relevance, regardless of family background. Citing four examples, we describe these two types of relevance, exploring the differences and nuances of each type of relevance that emerged from the interviews. We conclude that educators and mental/social health professionals who work on integrating the Holocaust past into the lives of young adults can benefit from understanding the different types of relevance in order to help them relate to the past without becoming overwhelmed by its consequences. By helping these young adults find the balance between the need to connect to the trauma and the fear of being overwhelmed by it, we can keep the significance of this horrific genocide alive, without creating a new generation of victims.


This qualitative study explores the personal, familial and social/political significance that the Holocaust has for Jewish-Israeli young adults, with and without family connections to Holocaust survivors. Specifically, we were interested in learning more about the different expressions and understanding of relevance of the Holocaust on the personal, family, educational and social-political levels for Jewish Israeli young adults – with and without a family connection to the Holocaust. As opposed to most of the literature on this topic that has taken an intergenerational approach (see below), we focus on this third generation, an understudied population concerning this topic.

Review of the literature

The Holocaust, which ended in 1945, continues to preoccupy the survivors, their descendants, and Jewish-Israelis, even those without a family connection. In 1965, Herman, Peres and Yuchtman noted that the Holocaust had widespread and ongoing impacts in Jewish-Israeli society, affecting all of the Jewish people. This idea was later echoed by Elon (1981) who observed that Jewish-Israelis were preoccupied with the Holocaust, and related to as a national trauma, one of the fundamental pillars of Israel's civil society 'religion' (Liebman & Don-Yehiya, 1983). Elon concluded that the Holocaust remained central to Israeli life because citizens believed that the Nazis had singled out Jews for extermination since they had not had their own country or the minimum means of resistance. This idea of not being able to defend oneself was also found in the study undertaken by Rakover 15 years later (1997); he pointed out that Jewish-Israelis continue to fear annihilation, leading many to believe that Israel must be strong in order to overcome potential aggressors. In later work on the topic, Zafran & Bar-Tal (2003) stated that since Israel remains a country at war, with many people seeing this situation as a given, there has been constant internalization of beliefs about the need for security.

In sum, then, research has shown, that in Israel, the Holocaust is perceived to be a national trauma, even by those born many years after World War II. Furthermore, studies have highlighted the way in which many Jewish-Israelis understand the lesson of the genocide – that Israel must be militarily strong. As a result, the Holocaust, survival and military strength continue to be continually intertwined with one another.

The Holocaust and survivors in Israeli social context

In order to comprehend the significance of the Holocaust for the third generation, it is important to understand the socio-historical context in which this understanding takes place.

After World War II, the survivor-immigrants to Palestine/Israel encountered a country in the midst of creation. The young society, which had few resources, as it simultaneously built its infrastructure, absorbed hundreds of thousands of refugees and was at war with its Arab neighbors (Segev, 1993), could not provide the emotional support the survivors needed (Solomon, 1998). During these years, there was ambivalence toward the Holocaust victims. On the one hand, people often distanced themselves from the negative image of the passive Jew from the Diaspora, while on the other, the Holocaust was used as the major legitimating reason for the establishment of the state (Segev, 1993). During this period, the Zionist ideal was the important socially held value. The Yishuv (the Jewish community in pre-state Israel) believed that the Zionist dream could only be realized through the emergence of the Sabra – anative born Israeli Jew - who would build and defend the country (Segev, 1993).

The Sabra was the negation of everything that symbolized the Diaspora, especially the survivors who at times were characterized as “human dust” (Volter & Dasberg, 1998). The Sabra was perceived as a strong, virile and heroic figure who contributed to the collective by physically working the land. This image was contrasted to the Diaspora Jew who during the Holocaust, went “like lambs to the slaughter” (Bar-On, 1999; Yablonka, 1996). The only survivors granted exemption from this stigma was the minority who had been Partisans or ghetto fighters (Segev, 1993; Yablonka, 1990). From the psychological aspect, many Israelis were skeptical when it came to understanding how the survivors survived. On the one hand, people pitied survivors, since they had suffered unimaginable pain, but on the other hand, vilified them since they thought that the many who had survived must have been Nazi collaborators, at least to some extent. In sum, the early dominant Israeli perception of the Holocaust survivor tended to be negative.

Perhaps the reaction that typified the reticence of gaining deeper understanding of what Holocaust survivors had faced was the “conspiracy of silence” (Danieli, 1981). Many survivors tried talking about their experiences; however non-survivors were either unwilling to listen to the victims’ stories or refused to believe what they heard. The atmosphere of social avoidance, repression and denial led many survivors to feel alienated and betrayed, but publicly they remained silent. Many victims withdrew into their families; in some the children became captive audiences, in others the silence outside prevailed inside as well, leading to an ‘uncanny silence’ that often bewildered and frightened the second generation (Danieli, 1988).

The Holocaust began making more legitimate inroads into Israeli society with the establishment of The Remembrance Day of the Shoah and Heroism (in 1959) and with the Eichmann trial in 1961 (Segev, 1993). Israelis began to comprehend the stamina that it must have taken for the survivors just to stay alive. During the 1970s, the “roots project” was established in the school system and 7th graders explored their family histories. This was followed by the adoption of a program by the Ministry of Education in which 11th graders travel for a week to Poland in order to learn about the Holocaust. During the First Gulf War (1991), when Israeli civilians took refuge in “sealed rooms” with their gas masks, they had a strong taste of helplessness during a war (Volter & Dasberg, 1998). As a final remark, it cannot be coincidental that from the 1980s, thousands of survivors have had their testimonies documented (for example, at Yad Vashem and the Foundation for the Video History of the Holocaust). This is, perhaps, the strongest sign that a real interest and respect for those who survived the Holocaust has replaced the judgmental attitude that dominated Israeli discourse for many years (Bar-On, 1996; Solomon, 1995).

Psycho-social influences of the Holocaust on younger generations

Much of the literature on the psychosocial effects of the Holocaust has centered on difficulties encountered by survivors and their children, the second generation (e.g. Bar-On & Moore, 1996; Baracos & Baracos, 1973; Bergman & Jucovy, 1982; Danieli, 1988; Davidson, 1980; Krystal, 1968). From the 1990s (Bar-On, 1995; Bar-On, Ostrovsky & Fromer, 1998; Chaitin, 2003; Jurkowitz, 1996; Rosenthal, 1998), scholars began studying the third generation, the grandchildren of the survivors, in order to learn more about the very long-term consequences of the Holocaust. While most studies on the first two generations focuses on pathological symptoms in clinical samples (Lifton, 1988; Niederland, 1968), research on the grandchildren explores non-clinical, 'ordinary people'.

Inclusion of the third generation in Holocaust-related research is important for a number of reasons. Research has shown that major catastrophic stressors (Bernstein, Penner, Clarke-Stewart, Roy, 2006), such as the Holocaust, influence not only family members who experienced them, but their descendants as well. This is due to a combination of personal factors, the developmental history of the family, situational constraints and cultural and societal transformations (Aldous & Klein, 1988; Juster, 1987). Furthermore, family studies have highlighted the importance of interdependency of family members’ lives across different generations (Elder, 1987). Due to this interdependence, individual time, familial time and social-historical time are intertwined with one another, influencing the attitudes and behavior of family members (e.g. Bengtson & Allen, 1993; Germain, 1994). As a result, family members continue to play important roles in the lives of one another, even when they are no longer living together, or when social situations change. For these reasons, in our study we saw importance in understanding the effects of major family stressors on the grandchildren of the victims.

Additionally, since many of the survivors have already died, or are nearing the end of their lives, the third generation is the last generation to personally know victims. This places this cohort in the unique position of passing on family legacies to their children, who for the most part, will not have had a personal relationship with a family member-survivor.

As another point, the studies that have explored three-generational families uncover special roles of the grandchildren. Bar-On (1995) found that this generation represented a return to ‘normalization’ for their grandparents; the grandchildren ‘proved’ that the survivors had indeed rebuilt their lives. The third generation was seen as being freed from the traumas experienced by their grandparents, or by their own parents, who had often grown up in a home that was shadowed by the Holocaust (Kestenberg, 1972). Rosenthal’s (1998) study, however, found slightly different results. Her research on survivor families in Germany and in Israel documented cases in which the two younger generations formed bonds of silence by openly avoiding discussion of the Holocaust. Rosenthal concluded that by not talking about the Holocaust, descendants refrained from dealing with the trauma on a manifest level, while, at the same time, they could not be accused of being unfaithful to this past. This behavior was understood as passing on the legacy of the Holocaust trauma in a latent form.

In 2006, Hever looked at the relations between survivors and their granddaughters and between second generation Holocaust survivors. The study found that in families in which both the mother and father had parents who were Holocaust victims, the grandchildren perceived their parents as less accepting of independence, reported less positive self-perceptions, and according to their peers, demonstrated poorer adjustment during military service in comparison to young adults who came from families where only one grandparent had lived through the Holocaust or from families with no connection to the genocide. Litvak-Hirsch & Bar-On (2006), who examined relationships between a grandmother survivor, her daughter and granddaughter, who was a young adult, found strong emotional ties between the three generations. However, as distinct from her elders, the granddaughter presented herself as “free” from the influences of the horrors, describing herself as much more secure and relaxed then her elders.

Due to these different and complex results concerning family relations, therefore, further exploring the meaning that the Holocaust has for the third generation who are descendants of victims seems important as this age cohort settles into adulthood.

A final reason for researching the third generation is that young adults often face issues of morality and inter-group conflicts. This is especially true of all Israeli young adults who live in a society in which the history of the Holocaust is deeply connected to their national history and to the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli conflict (Segev, 1993). Meanings attached to this past, then, remain highly relevant for the younger generations and for their construction of national identity (Bar-On, 2000). Given the fact that the Holocaust has become a national trauma, regardless of family connection, we also believe that it is important to explore the meanings that this genocide has for other Jewish-Israeli young adults as well, whose families (fortunately) were not harmed by the genocide.

As noted above, there is not much published literature that focuses specifically on the third generation. Two studies of adolescents have explored the differences in attitudes and feelings toward Holocaust related issues, without taking an intergenerational perspective. In 2004, Lazar, Chaitin, Gross & Bar-On found an interplay of family background and situational influences when they examined the effects of an educational trip to Holocaust sites in Poland on Jewish-Israeli teenage participants. The teens exhibited a heightened sense of national identity, which was strongly connected to Zionist and/or Jewish lessons of the Holocaust. From the responses of the participants, the researchers learned that members of the third generation who did not have a family connection to the past, who exhibited a strong sense of national identity and believed in the Zionist and/or Jewish lessons of the Holocaust, also thought that there were universalistic lessons of the Holocaust to be learned from the tragedy. In their responses to the open-ended questionnaire, the students wrote about the need to care about minorities' rights to a greater extent than the grandchildren of survivors did.

In a survey study, Lazar, Litvak-Hirsch and Chaitin (2008) researched the significance of the Holocaust past in the lives of Jewish-Israeli adolescents concerning how these young people perceive the impacts of the Holocaust on themselves, their family and Israeli society. Ninety grandchildren of survivors and 90 respondents, with no family relation, were asked to write about these perceived impacts. The salient themes that emerged in their answers connected the Holocaust with issues of security, education and culture, and the impact, or lack of it, upon family and self. The participants’ responses could be categorized into three distinct groups: youth with no family relations who related to the Holocaust through socio-cultural mechanisms, and two groups of descendants of survivors that were influenced by the same socio-cultural mechanisms, yet divided by the perceived impact of inter-generational processes on their personal and family lives. The results of the study suggested that, regardless of family connection to the Holocaust, there are socio-cultural mechanisms at work in Israel that impact the perception of the Holocaust among the third generation, making this a "cultural trauma." – a trauma that has widespread symbolic meaning for Jewish-Israelis, in general.

The present study extends the body of research on the third generation that has been undertaken to date by using a qualitative approach and by focusing on educated people in their twenties and early thirties, with and without a connection to a family member who experienced the genocide. In order to understand this significance, we explored the concept of the relevance of the Holocaust, described below.


Relevance of the Holocaust - the psychosocial significance of the past

The significance that descendants of victims give to the past is tied to working through - a long-term, ongoing process in which one learns to deal with internal, difficult and unresolved conflicts that s/he has been trying to confront (Bar-On, 1992). Working through originallycomes from clinical, individual therapy and describes the psychological process that occurs, in which the person confronts repressed childhood experiences. When working through is achieved, this content ceases to interfere with the individual’s ability to relate feelings, attitudes and behavior to the present (Novey, 1962). The working through process has been expanded to include social and historical traumatic experiences, in which the person attempts to learn to “live with” the trauma. While working through was first used to describe how Holocaust survivors coped with the traumas from their war experiences in their post-war lives (e.g. Danieli, 1981; Janoff-Bulman, 1992; Prager & Solomon, 1995), it has been further extended to include the descendants of Holocaust survivors. Bar-On (in Bar-On & Selah, 1991) coined the term Partial Relevance (PR) to describe the stages that he perceived as comprising the healthy working through process in the younger generations.

Partial Relevance refers to the situation in which the person sees the Holocaust as holding some meaning for her or his life. This stance is contrasted to undergeneralization, in which the person believes that the past is completely irrelevant for life today, and overgeneralization, in which the individual believes that everything that happens today is an outgrowth of the past. These two stances are considered to be perceptual oversimplifications. In order to reach a deeper understanding, one must be able to see that while the Holocaust is important, it cannot explain all present-day social phenomena.

Bar-On conceptualized PR as having 5 consecutive stages: (a) knowledge of what happened during the Holocaust; (b) understanding why events happened; (c) emotions connected to the Holocaust; (d) attitudes toward what happened, and their implications for the present and future and (e) adoption of specific behavior patterns connected to remembering the past.Based on further research of the concept (Chaitin, 2002), a sixth element was seen as important in the working through process – that of the strength of family ties. In families in which interpersonal ties were strong and warm, individuals tended more toward Partial Relevance than in families where these ties were fragmentary or conflictual.

In their original questionnaire study of PR, in which Bar-On & Selah (1991) sampled over 1100 high school, college and university students, the researchers found that present-day social attitudes (especially toward Arabs) were connected to attitudes toward the Holocaust, thus creating a vicious cycle. In Chaitin's qualitative work that explored the working through process in 20 families of survivors with three generations (Chaitin, 2003, 2004), it was found that the third generation mostly tended toward Partial Relevance, with a few exhibiting overgeneralization. The category of undergeneralization did not characterize any of the people in her sample. In its stead, a fourth category of relevance was discerned, one that she termed Paradoxical Relevance.

When a young adult exhibits Paradoxical Relevance, s/he expresses that the Holocaust has relevance for life, but is unclear as to what this relevance is. These individuals seem to be afraid to consciously confront the past in order to learn “how to live with it.” Chaitin found that Paradoxical relevance took different forms: some younger people exhibited knowledge of what their elders went through but appeared to have no emotional closeness to them. In other cases, there were interviewees who were so emotionally overwhelmed when the topic of the Holocaust arose, that they become paralyzed, as it were, keeping them from gaining knowledge and understanding of the facts. These individuals remained ignorant about what their grandparents had experienced.

Based on the above, the study presented here asked: What is the relevance of the Holocaust for members of the third generation – with and without a family connection to the Holocaust? What kinds of relevance do we find – and are there differences between people who are connected through their family to the Holocaust and those who are not? What is the significance on the personal, family, social-political and educational levels? In order to arrive at in-depth understandings, we chose to use qualitative methodologies. After a brief presentation of our methods, we will turn to the two major results prevalent in our sample – the presence of Paradoxical and Partial Relevance



Sample: Fifty Jewish-Israelis, 25 men and 25 women, between the ages of 20 – 32, participated in this study. All of the participants were either university students or had completed an undergraduate degree. All but two of the interviewees were single and none of them had children. Six described themselves as observant, the rest as secular. The participants were found through the snowball and convenience method of sampling (Marshall & Rossman, 1998); the interviewers either knew the interviewees personally or received leads concerning potential participants from their friends and study participants.

Data collection: We constructed an interview that covered 5 main areas (please contact authors for the interview guide): After opening with a general question inquiring into the effects of the Holocaust in Israeli society, the interviewers asked the participants to talk about the impacts of the Holocaust on (a) personal life; (b) family life; (c) social/political aspects; (d) thoughts about Shoah education; and (e) perspectives about the future. Ten interviewers, students of the first author, underwent training in which they received the interview guide and simulated interviews, practicing the questions and receiving feedback on their techniques. Upon completion of the first interview, each interviewer also received feedback from the first author in order to improve their skills. The interviews took place in a quiet place, usually in the interviewees' homes. The average length of the interviews was two hours. All of the interviews were conducted in Hebrew and were undertaken from August to December, 2007. The interviews were audio taped and transcribed by the student who had undertaken the interview.

Procedures for data analysis: After the interviewees transcribed their interviews, the two authors began separately reading the transcripts. After we had read three to four interviews, we would meet together to discuss our ideas concerning each interview – what were the major issues being discussed, how did the participant relate to the different themes put forth in the questions (e.g. personal, family levels etc.).

As we read the transcripts, we developed criteria for each kind of relevance (see Appendix A), grounded in the interview texts (Marshall & Rossman, 1998). We used these criteria to categorize participants by the type of relevance they appeared to exhibit (Partial, Paradoxical, Overgeneralization – as in the previous studies discussed above, we found no evidence of Undergeneralization). These criteria differed from the stages conceptualized in the earlier work carried out by Bar-On (Bar-On & Selah, 1991) and Chaitin (2004) given that we were analyzing interviews and not closed questionnaires.

After working on 12 interviews together, we divided up the remaining interviews for analysis. Each author separately analyzed her set of interviews. When there was a question concerning type of relevance, we conferred with one another and fine-tuned the criteria list. As we worked, we constructed a table that categorized the participants according to gender, family relation to the Holocaust, and type of relevance expressed.


Results and Analyses

Table 1: Demographic overview of sample

Name Family/Shoah Gender Age Religiosity
Tali 2 sides
25 secular
Orit 24 secular
Chen 27 secular
Liron 26 secular
Olga 24 secular
Mayan 24 secular
Rona 24 secular
Yonit 25 secular
Shachar Male
25 secular
Yoav 25 secular
Amir 25 secular
Gadi 27 secular
Matan 25 secular
Rony 25 secular
Yoni 25 secular
Lior 27 secular
Gil 1 side
20 secular
Moran 27 secular
Keren 28 secular
Yael 24 secular
Chen 26 secular
Inbar 24 secular
Limor 23 secular
Dana 29 secular
Shani 29 secular
Dror Male
32 secular
Yaron 26 secular
Eli 24 secular
Shai 27 secular
Ariel 26 secular
Omri 26 secular
Dan 25 secular
Michael 27 secular
Yossi 28 secular
Hila Without ties
25 secular
Etty 25 observant
Mayan 24 observant
Tamar 27 secular
Daniela 25 observant
Hadas 21 secular
Hagar 24 secular
Galit 24 secular
Raz Male
25 secular
Nir 23 observant
Eliran 25 secular
Elad 26 secular
Ariel 24 secular
Amir 29 observant
Benny 24 secular
Asaf 29 observant


Our results show that 35/50 participants exhibited Partial Relevance, 10 exhibited Paradoxical Relevance and 5 interviewees exhibited signs of Overgeneralization Therefore, the category of Partial Relevance was by far the most dominant kind of relevance attributed to the Holocaust by young adults in our study. This means, that for the most part, the young adults in our sample appeared to be coming to terms with their families' and collective traumatic past in a healthy manner (Bar-On, 1995). However due to the 10 cases of Paradoxical Relevance found among our participants, which reflects psycho-social discomfort for individuals, we believe it is important to take a closer look at these findings as well in order to understand how young adults are talking about the effects of the Holocaust, and what they feel and think about it. Since only 5 of our participants exhibited Overgeneralization, this oversimplification of understanding the effects of the Holocaust was relatively rare. We see this as a sign that the individuals in this study do not tend to see everything in life as colored by the Holocaust, and take a more complex perspective on the impacts of the genocide on themselves, families and society.

In addition, our results show that there were neither gender differences nor differences concerning family relations to the Holocaust vis a vis the type of relevance that the interviewees demonstrated. Across our sample, the same patterns arose regardless of gender and regardless of having a relative who have survived the Holocaust – most of the people in our sample exhibited Partial Relevance, followed by Paradoxical Relevance and lastly by Overgeneralization. Due to these findings, we focus here on the expressions of Partial and Paradoxical Relevance (see Table 2 for the categorization).

Table 2: Categorization of Relevance of the Holocaust/Family Relationship

Family relation Over-generalization Paradoxical Relevance Partial Relevance Total
Two sides:
 8 women
Chen  Liron   Olga   Mayan  
Rona    Yonit
Two sides:
8 men
  Shachar  Yoav Amir    Gadi     Matan
Rony    Yoni     Lior
One side:
9 women
Gil Moran Keren   Yael   Chen
Inbar    Limor  
Dana    Shani 
One side:
9 men
Dror   Yaron
Ariel   Omri  
Dan    Michael  
8 women
Mayan    Tamar     Daniela
Hadas     Hagar       Galit 
8 men
Raz Nir Eliran    Elad     Ariel 
Amir     Benny   Asaf
Total 5 10 35 50


We have chosen four examples to present here: two with family connections to the Holocaust and two without. We begin with examples of interviewees who exhibited Partial Relevance. The first instance is from the interview with Yonit, who was 25 years old, single, secular, and a university student. Both of her grandparents are survivors.

Yonit's information regarding the Holocaust comes from many resources: she reads about the Holocaust, watches movies, participated in the educational trip to Poland, shared her experiences from the trip to Poland with her grandparents, talks about it with them, and took their testimonies for Yad Vashem. While Yonit is very close to her family, in general, and to her grandparents, in particular, she criticized the ways her grandparents parented their children (her parents) and she connected their Holocaust experiences to their inability to be good parents. In our opinion, this shows that Yonit has complex understandings of her parents and grandparents, and while she deeply loves them, she is also able to see and discuss their 'shortcomings' without distancing herself from them or feeling guilty for doing so.

Yonit also exhibits complexity in her social and political perceptions. For example she expresses dual feelings regarding the State of Israel. On the one hand, she loves the country and finds it very important that Jews have their own country, because of what happened during the Holocaust, however, she is critical about Israeli policy in the West Bank and thinks that Israelis emphasize their role as victims while not recognizing the suffering of others, such as the Palestinians. She would like to see Israeli society act in a more moral way, learning the humanistic lessons of the Holocaust.

Yonit's interest in the Holocaust is both emotional as well as intellectually and value-driven. She feels very sad on Holocaust Remembrance Day, visits her grandparents and goes to ceremonies, but she is not oversensitive to the subject, and she does not dwell on the topic. Yonit can also sometimes laugh about it with friends, using humor as a coping mechanism to more easily face the trauma. She stated that it will be important for her future children to know their family stories, and she plans to tie the personal stories to moral-humanistic lessons learned from the genocide. She believes it is her responsibility, as a member of the third generation, to take on this role. Yonit also thinks that knowing one's family and collective history helps in developing identity.

To summarize, Yonit exhibits Partial Relevance concerning the Holocaust, and chooses to connect to the Holocaust both emotionally and cognitively. She finds ways to learn about and cope with the subject and to understand its lessons, on a personal and collective level, feeling also that she has a role to play for the next generation. Below follow some quotes from Yonit's interview that illustrates the above analysis:


Interviewer: Do you think that the Holocaust is still influential in Israeli society and on you personally?

Yonit: Yes, of course I think the Holocaust influences Israeli society today…the existence of Israel is totally related to the Holocaust. And the perception of the Holocaust as a collective trauma, our need to protect ourselves, to make sure it will not happen to us again…

Interviewer: And personally?

Yonit: The Holocaust has had a great influence on me. As a granddaughter of Holocaust survivors from both sides, and one who was very interested in this subject from a young age, I can say that my attitude to Israel and the claim that Israel is a shelter for the Jews from all over the world is not a cliché for me. It is something important. When I talk to my grandparents and see the pride in their eyes that they have a State, it is important for me… but recently this feeling is mixed up with other feelings and questions, like how do we treat other groups of people in our country….

Interviewer: What do you know about the Holocaust and what are your sources?

Yonit: All possible sources. From a very young age I was interested in this subject, reading books, watching movies, talking and investigating my grandparents' past. And I went to Poland too. I think that I know more then the average person about the Holocaust, it interest me .…

Interviewer: What are your feelings about Holocaust Day?

Yonit: It is a very sad day for me; the feeling is of sadness, not anger or revenge. It is sad that something like this happened in cultured Europe, and not so long ago…It is especially sad since it happened to my people. I think that the Jewish paranoia, the feeling that people want to hurt us…the need to make sure that you are not exploited, and to take care of the people close to you all the time, are part of the implications of the Holocaust. But I also feel that today in society there is more openness to the others who are different then us. The Mizrachim (Sephardim) who once were perceived as others, and the Arab people who live in this country…there is less paranoia among the young generation today and more willingness to accept others.

Interviewer: Do you feel there is a difference between you and your parents in relation to the Holocaust?

Yonit: My parents avoid this subject, perhaps because it is too close to them, it is their parents…and they were affected by it. My grandparents were terrible parents. I feel more sensitive to the subject; for example, I took the Yad Vashem testimonies from my grandparents, I like to hear survivor’s stories. I am very connected to my grandparents.

Interviewer: Can you say that the Holocaust is still a collective trauma for the young generation today?

Yonit: Yes and no…the collective trauma motivates people to do everything they can to prevent it from happening again, contributing to the Israeli State, but the fact that we are moving far away from the Holocaust, and that the existence of this State is taken for granted by the young generation, creating a weakness in the influence of the Holocaust as a collective trauma, people feel less obligated to contribute to this country…

Interviewer: What are the social and cultural lessons of the Holocaust in Israeli discourse?

Yonit: I feel that the Holocaust serves the Israeli interest; it is a way of legitimizing what we are doing, through using the Holocaust we say that we must protect ourselves in any possible way, including hurting other people. The State is trying to educate people to become patriots, using the Holocaust. But I feel it is problematic, because we have to look not only on at what was done to us, but at what we are doing to others. We need to serve as an example for tolerance and treating others. It is not that I am saying that we are acting cruelly toward the Palestinians…but we can try to…behave in more humanitarian ways, to remember how we were treated and to behave differently to others….I think that racism is a natural tendency for people…I feel that the Holocaust needs to reminds us that we were the other once, unfortunately, we did not really learn this lesson

Interviewer: Do you feel there's room for other traumas of other groups in Israel discourse and education?

Yonit: Sure…and it's sad to hear people saying statements like “but it is not 6 million,” there's no need for comparisons, we must hear about other traumas, and make sure it will not happen again in the world. When teaching about the Holocaust it is important to mention that not only Jews suffered in the Holocaust but also Gypsies and other peoples, it is not unique only to us…It is important to show children how each one of us can become a Nazi, maybe frighten them a bit, and not just describe the Holocaust as something that happened in a different place in different time and cannot happen again.

Interviewer: Do you think there's a difference between the third generation with and without family connections to the Holocaust?

Yonit: There are always people who will say, this is not our history, but I do not feel that my friends who come from different origins have less interest in the subject…in our generation we are all distant from the experience of the Holocaust, some of us has grandparents who went through the Holocaust, but we did not experience the influence of it like our parents did, so in this sense the gaps are not big.

Interviewer: Do you feel you have an obligation in transmitting the memory of the Holocaust?

Yonit: It is not easy for me to define this mission, but in relation to my own children I have the responsibility to teach them about the Holocaust, because it is very important. I would like it to be an important part of their lives because it will make them more socially sensitive, and to know your history and roots, it helps you in creating your way... I will emphasize the humanistic lesson of the Holocaust, it is very important for me.


The second example of Partial Relevance is from the interview with Eliran, 25 years old, a single, secular, university student with no family connection to the Holocaust (his mother’s family came from Iraq and his father's family from Iran). Eliran thinks that the Holocaust strongly influences Israeli society, culturally and psychologically, creating a strong sense of fear of annihilation. This threat creates the need to be strong in order to protect the country.

Eliran, in contrast to Yonit who showed interest in the subject from a very young age, only became interested in the Holocaust at the age of 17, when he decided to participate in the school trip to Poland. Before that he had no special interest in the topic. Eliran's grandparents told him many stories about their immigration experiences and their difficulties as Mizrhahi immigrants in Israel. Furthermore, the Holocaust was not an issue that was discussed at home. While Yonit claimed that her parents did not talk about the Holocaust because is was too emotionally difficult for them, Eliran thinks that the subject was not of interest to his parents, and since his grandparents were neither born nor raised in Israel, they did not know much about the topic.

Eliran expressed his interest in the Holocaust as having its basis in intellectual curiosity. He reads many books about the Holocaust and about Europe during WWII. He stated that he does not feel an emotional connection to the subject, although he noted that the trip to Poland was very important for him and did create an emotional link to the Holocaust for him. When speaking about Holocaust Remembrance Day, Eliran stated that he does not feel sadness, but rather an interest to learn new things. Sometimes he feels fear, due to the anti-Semitism that he sees increasing in the world. However, on a daily basis it is not an issue that occupies him.

Eliran exhibits complexity in his thinking about political and social issues. Like Yonit, he criticizes Israeli military policy and feels that the humanistic lesson of the Holocaust is not emphasized enough in Israeli society. He claims that if Jewish-Israelis will not serve as examples of tolerance, how can they expect others to be tolerant? In the future, he would like to transmit his knowledge about the Holocaust to his children, and plans to do so by teaching the importance of tolerance and being open-minded.

In sum, in some ways Eliran is very similar to Yonit in his complexity and moral thinking concerning different social issues. Both reflect on issues connected to the Holocaust and believe that they will transmit it to their future children. Nevertheless, the main difference between the two interviewees is that Yonit's interest in the Holocaust is driven by her family connections and is very emotional as well as cognitive, while Eliran's interest is intellectual and cognitive, and less emotionally oriented, presumably due to the fact that no family members were targeted for genocide. Both Yonit and Eliran find the moral humanistic lessons of the Holocaust important and would like to transmit these messages to the next generation. Below are a few sections from Eliran`s interview that illustrate his understanding of the Holocaust in present-day life:


Interviewer: Do you think that the Holocaust is still influential in Israeli society and on you personally, and if yes, in what ways?

Eliran: The Holocaust influences Israeli society, no doubt about it, there are reasons why we commemorate the Holocaust on a special day, there was much written on it, many movies, and it also influences the generations after the Holocaust. As for me, the influence of the Holocaust is focused on my wish to investigate this issue, to find out why it happened, why it happened to the Jews, how it happened. It is very interesting for me, but not very influential on a private daily basis, maybe because I have no family connections to the Holocaust.

Interviewer: What do you know about the Holocaust and what are your sources?

Eliran: I learned a lot about the Holocaust before the trip to Poland at the age of 17, I read a lot, so it is mainly from reading, and then in the army too, I read a lot about this subject, mainly from a historical point of view. I do not know enough about the Holocaust, but I know more then the average person. I read about Nazism, about the Jews in Europe, I read a lot about Mengele's experiments. I know less about the emotional aspect and much more about the historical aspects.

Interviewer: What do you feel and what do you do on Holocaust Day?

Eliran: Emotionally it frightens me. It is not that far from us and it might happen again. People still hate people with no good reason, and there is still anti-Semitism in the world. On Holocaust day I try to listen to the radio, watch TV, and look for new things that I don't know. It amazes me every time to hear the stories, the experiences of people who saw German solders becoming inhumane, killing people brutally, it is little scary for me.

Interviewer: Do you feel there’s a change in your perception of the Holocaust and its influence in the last ten years?

Eliran: Yes, before the age of 17 I did not feel connected…at all, I knew about it from school, but there was no emotional connection. Going on the trip to Poland opened up many things for me…[it] connected me to the Holocaust.

Interviewer: Do you feel there is a difference between you and you parents and grandparents in relation to the Holocaust?

Eliran: Yes, sure, my parents did not learn enough about the Holocaust and its consequences. I never saw them reading about it, although it was important for them that we go to the commemoration ceremonies as children, and see all the TV programs about the Holocaust. As for my grandparents, they do not know much about it, they did not go to school here. My sister and I are much more interested in this subject, reading, writing, visiting Poland.

Interviewer: What are the social and cultural lessons of the Holocaust in today’s Israeli discourse?

I think that Israeli society is very occupied with anti-Semitism; we are frightening ourselves. We are very worried about what others are doing to us, but do not look closely enough at what we are doing to others, we tend to forget about other peoples' suffering, and we tend to emphasize the Holocaust only as…the Jewish people’s trauma, and it is a big trauma for us, no doubt about it, but other people suffered too, then and now. I feel that the humanistic lesson is not strong enough in Israeli society, if we will not be an example of tolerance how can we expect others to be tolerant? I also think that the collective fear is an implication of the Holocaust, the militarism, the need to be strong and protect ourselves, because no one else will do it for us.

Interviewer: Do you feel that there is room for other traumas or difficulties of other groups in Israeli discourse and education?

Eliran: …In the last decade…there are many groups of people who are acting very humanistic, trying to help other people in the world, for example sending relief delegations to Africa and other places. I think it is important for Israel to show that we care about others. I also feel that lately there is more legitimacy in society to talk about the suffering of the Mizrahim and of the Ashkenazi hegemony that discriminated against them.

Interviewer: Do you feel any difference between the third generation – those with a family background and those without?

Eliran: I can answer in relation to the group to Poland, where I felt very similar and equal to people with family connections to the Holocaust. I felt the pain like they felt it, maybe they felt it differently in ways that I cannot understand because their family was there, but for me, I never felt like I have less legitimacy to talk about the Holocaust or to feel any feelings in relation to it.

Interviewer: Do you feel you have an obligation to transmit the memory of the Holocaust?

Eliran: It is important for me to educate my children for tolerance; I will try to show them the picture from all sides, not just from one side, so they will know that there are many perspectives. I think that no extremity is good. I think that in school they should teach the humanistic lesson of the Holocaust and not just the Jewish lesson. I think they must teach the Holocaust from different perspectives, how to treat the other, and what can happen when you do not accept differences.


We now turn to the issue of Paradoxical Relevance and present two interviews: one with a man with a family relation to the Holocaust and one from a woman without any family connection.

Yaron is 26 years old, single, secular, university student, who is connected to the Holocaust on one side. Yaron finds the Holocaust to be a very important issue, both personally and collectively. He thinks about it often, and sometimes it is "too much" for him. His knowledge about the Holocaust comes from school, reading books and watching TV, but not from family stories; Yaron believes that the Holocaust is a taboo topic in his family, no one talks about it.

Yaron recalls that as a child he used to read books about the Holocaust and become very fearful. He perceives himself as a very anxious person; he is very concerned about what will happen to him and to his family and friends, and on a collective level, he feels that Israel will soon be annihilated. Yaron connects these anxieties to the Holocaust and claims that his family is very “messed up” due to the influence of the Holocaust. For many years Yaron tried to avoid the subject of the Holocaust; he did not go to ceremonies of Holocaust day and did not watch any movies on this subject. Today he understands that it is important to go to the ceremonies and learn about the Holocaust, but he still finds it difficult to connect to the subject.

Yaron is very negative and critical of almost everything - his family and the unspoken issues at home, Israeli society, and official governmental policy concerning matters of security. He thinks that the government uses the Holocaust as a legitimating tool for doing terrible things to others. He is also very critical about the way the government treats the Holocaust survivors, not helping them in their old age. Yaron is very agitated and upset in relation to what is happening in Israel today, but he also feels a strong responsibility to continue living in the country, because of the Holocaust.

According to Yaron, he has yet to find a good way to connect to the Holocaust, and to cope with its influences on him. He is very critical of the way the Holocaust is taught in school, and claims that the topic is discussed in a very technical manner. He believes that the educational system must find ways to connect the children to the subject. As compared to Yonit and Eliran, his interest in the Holocaust appears to be one that is not of his choosing, but rather due to an obligation that he feels to his family history, since he is a grandson of Holocaust survivors who lost their family. He feels obligated to transmit the memory to his children, to tell them the difficult stories that he never fully heard from his grandparents. However, he is unsure how he will do this, when he has children.

To summarize, Yaron appears to want to connect to the Holocaust but finds it very difficult to do so. He cannot avoid the subject, because it is important for him, and an obligation to his family, but he has not yet found the ways to cope with it. He is very negative and critical towards his family and society. His negativity is not helping him, but creating many tensions, fears and irritations for him. Below are a few sections from Yaron's interview that illustrate the above analysis:

Interviewer: Do you think the Holocaust is still influential on Israeli society and on you personally. If yes, in what ways?

Yaron: I think that the Holocaust influences Israeli society in this sense that we feel like we are being hunted by others all the time and it gives us the political legitimacy to do whatever we want to do to our enemies.

Interviewer: And personally?

Yaron: We grew up with “really messed up" parents who are children of more “messed up” parents, and it is influential. For example, I see it with relation to food. If food is given free of charge, I cannot refuse to eat it, I see this in connection to the Holocaust.

Interviewer: What do you know about the Holocaust and what are your sources?

Yaron: My knowledge about the Holocaust comes from school, from reading, or hearing other survivors, not from my family. I know a lot about the subject but I can learn more. My grandmother survived the Holocaust, but her husband and little son died, she never spoke about it, my grandfather was saved by a German friend, but his family all died. My grandparents met after the Holocaust and then my mother was born. Nobody speaks about it in my family, it's all a secret. …As a little boy I read books about the Holocaust and I was very frightened…even today, I think of my self hiding in some small hiding place and it makes me shiver.

Interviewer: When do you think about the Holocaust?

Yaron: I think about it a lot, not just on Holocaust day, not everyday, somewhere in between…I connect politics to the Holocaust. So when I think of politics, I think of the Holocaust. In the past, on Holocaust days, I avoided the ceremonies, it was too much for me and I tried to distance myself from it, to suppress it…there was no emotional connection for me… recently I stopped avoiding this subject, I feel it is important, I need to see and hear about it. But still I don't feel connected to Holocaust day, I go to the ceremony because it's important to remember but I can't connect to the ceremony emotionally, I want to but I can't find the way. Lately, I've been thinking a lot about the Holocaust, especially after I was exposed to the terrible conditions of the survivors, I think about it so much, how is it possible that this country is neglecting them? It's terrible.

Interviewer: Do you perceive yourself as often frightened? If yes, do you think it relates to the Holocaust?

Yaron: Very much so, I am full of anxieties, I'm afraid of people close to me dying, of the destiny of this country and of dying myself. I feel that Israel will stop existing soon, I'm afraid to find myself stuck in all kinds of situations…collectively the Holocaust is connected to it through the ethos of us as an oppressed nation, that is in danger all the time, and this is a strong feeling that I personally live with…It's complex because my family lost so many members, but they still gave me a message of victory, so together with the anxieties I also feel strong, that we can protect ourselves. So basically, this ambivalence, these fears and feelings are related to the Holocaust for me.

Interviewer: Do you feel there's a difference between the way you and your parents perceive the Holocaust?

Yaron: My parents were more exposed to the influences of the Holocaust so they take it harder then I do, all this theme of danger, the threat is stronger for them then for me.

Interviewer: How do you see the influence of the Holocaust on Israeli society today?

Yaron: I see it all the time and in every step. This country was built as an answer to the Holocaust. Without the Holocaust there was no Israel…the Holocaust is like a shadow, there are those who try to get closer to it or to get away from it; they are parallel processes that are happening all the time, one that connects you and one that distances you.

Interviewer: Do you think there's a difference in the generations in relation to the perception of the Holocaust?

Yaron: …the second generation…even if they wanted to distance themselves from the Holocaust, they could not. It was too close in time, it was their parents… for our generation it is easier to distance ourselves, especially for our younger brothers, the Holocaust is gloomy, and there is a frame, but less content in it.

Interviewer: What are the collective lessons of the Holocaust today?

Yaron: We are in constant war here, all the time, it is always us or them, our wars are total… so we don't really care about the terrible conditions of the Palestinians, the fact that we let a pregnant women wait at the checkpoint and her child can die, it is all legitimate because they want to kill us…I am very upset about it, I think that we should listen and learn about others suffering but unfortunately we don’t (he is very agitated)

Interviewer: I can see it is not easy for you to talk about it

Yaron: Yes, it's upsetting for me…

Interviewer: Do you see a connection between your family's connection to the Holocaust and your Israeli identity?

Yaron: I have a very strong sense of duty to live in this country, if I leave the country it will be a failure for my parents. For me, there is no choice, I cannot chose to live in Belgium, Argentina or the U.S, it doesn’t work like this, we have to live in Israel … I was brought up that as Jews the only thing which saves us is having a country of our own, being strong, having an army. I feel it very strongly in relation to myself and can relate it to my family history.

Interviewer: What do you think about the way the Holocaust is being taught in school?

Yaron: I think that the way they teach the Holocaust in school is very bad, it is very technical; you learn, remember it for the test and forget it…what is important is the stories, the emotions…. I think they should teach this subject through workshops, to try to connect the children to the subject… they should bring survivors to testify, to listen, to feel, I am not sure how…

Interviewer: As a member of the third generation do you feel you have an obligation to pass on the memory of the Holocaust?

Yaron: Yes, very much, when I will have kids it will be important for me to tell them what I know about the Holocaust, there is no choice, we have to transmit it to the next generation so their information resource will not be just “Shindler's List.” I will have to take on myself this mission of transmitting the memory.


Our last example comes from Etty, 25 years old, female, single, college student, religiously observant, with no family connection to the Holocaust. Her father came from Egypt and her mother's side is from Morocco. Etty exhibits Paradoxical Relevance in her understandings of the Holocaust, but in a slightly different way from Yaron. Etty only became interested in the issue of the Holocaust in the last few years, when she moved in with her boyfriend, who lives next door to his grandmother, a Holocaust survivor. In addition, in college, she heard and read a lot about this subject.

In Etty's family, the Holocaust was a distant subject, discussed only on Holocaust day. As a teenager, Etty was not interested in going to Poland, because she did not feel close to the subject and because she did not have the money for the trip. Recently, she finds the topic very interesting, but is very ambivalent about it. Etty appears to want to connect to the subject; she spent a lot of time with her boyfriend's grandmother, listened to her horrific Holocaust stories, and feels sorry for her. However she cannot find the way to connect to her, since, in her words, she finds the grandmother "repulsive."

Etty notes that she would like to connect to the Holocaust in different ways, for example, through “nice” movies like “Life is Beautiful,” which she can watch. This is not an easy solution for her, since the grandmother and her stories “haunt" her. Etty feels relief that she belongs to a family without a Holocaust history. On Holocaust day she forces herself to watch movies and go to the ceremonies; she feels obligated to feel sad, although usually it does not work out for her, since she fails to connect emotionally to it. She would like to find alternative ways to connect, but is not sure what are those ways.

Etty is critical of Israeli society, especially concerning the discrimination against Mizrhahim. She feels that the Holocaust takes up all the social “space” and there is not enough interest in learning about other people's history and suffering, whether they are part of Israeli society or from other places in the world. She also thinks, like Yonit, Etty and Yaron, that the Holocaust is used as an excuse for Israel's violent behaviors in the West Bank, something she finds hard to accept. Etty feels that as time passes, the importance of the Holocaust in Israeli society is declining. She would like to transmit knowledge (which she finds too little) to her children, and to try and connect together with them to the Holocaust, perhaps by going to Poland, an experience she missed.

To summarize, Etty wants very much to connect to the topic of the Holocaust, but finds it difficult to do so. Her experience with her partner's grandmother has created a sense of ambivalence and confusion, when the contradictory images of the “ideal” survivor and the “real” one do not mesh. Etty is looking for new ways to connect, maybe through alternative ceremonies or “nicer” movies about the Holocaust, but her search still leaves her frustrated. Below are excerpts from Etty's interview:

Interviewer: Do you think that the Holocaust is influential in Israeli society and on you personally? If yes, in what ways?

Etty: Of course there are influences of the Holocaust on society; everything happening with the Arabs and with our political policy is affected by the Holocaust. The Holocaust is used as an excuse to do all kinds of things. And on a cultural level, the fact that we are commemorating the Holocaust on a special day, and even today on the news, all this issue with the poor Holocaust survivors… it's an everyday topic. And of course we study it in school…For me personally… it influences me much more then in the past, because of my partner who has a grandmother who is a survivor. We live next door to her.

Interviewer: What do you know about the Holocaust and what are your sources?

Etty: I know almost nothing in comparison to what I need to know. Most of the knowledge has been from the last few years in college. At school I did not learn much about the Holocaust, more history, but it was not connected to what is happening in this country today. …in the army, I missed the personal aspect and the emotional aspect, this is why it wasn't important for me to go to Poland, it wasn't a personal issue for me… Now, I would like to go to Poland, I very much want to connect, I find it interesting.

Interviewer: Do you feel there’s a change in your perception of the Holocaust and its influences in the last ten years?

Etty: Now, because of Dan's grandmother…the subject is very much alive for me. She constantly talks about the Holocaust and about what she went through, and you can see it on her body, the experiments she was forced to participate in, and it's in her personality, to look for pity from others.

Interviewer: How do you feel about it?

Etty: At the beginning I listened to her because I wanted to learn and understand; it was very difficult for me and I was in shock. It was the first time I heard these terrible stories. Now I understand that I will never fully understand what happened in the Holocaust, and that her talking comes from her need for attention. She has the right to tell, although sometimes I feel it is not in the right time and place. Sometimes I feel relief that I come from a family without this terrible history. I can see how it affected her daughter, Dan’s mother; I can't imagine living in a house like that. How can you stay sane?

Interviewer: What are your feelings and actions on Holocaust Day?

Etty: Usually I watch some films, but I have my limits now, I can't watch movies where they show the dead bodies, the skeletons, you've seen one you've seen them all; I can't stand it every year again and again…I would like to see more films like “Life is Beautiful” that describes their life story. I feel it can connect me more to the Holocaust on a personal level; the terrible movies don't take you to a personal level…I understand now that my need to watch movies comes from my desire to connect to the Holocaust because my family was not part of it… as a child watching these horrific Holocaust movies came from the need to punish myself, to experience little of what they experienced. I was trying to connect, to be sad, to think of sad things, but it's not natural to me; it's forced. Now during Holocaust day I think of Dan's grandmother, this is more personal to me, but it is still very difficult for me.

Interviewer: Do you feel there's a difference between you and your parents/grandparents in relation to the Holocaust?

Etty: The difference is mainly on the intellectual level. We studied the Holocaust in school…no one taught my grandparents about the Holocaust. We were educated to learn and to remember the Holocaust. But there is no difference on an emotional level; if you didn't experience the Holocaust in your family, it's the same... My grandparents tell many stories about their difficult life, and to that I can connect more emotionally…

Interviewer: What are the social and cultural lessons of the Holocaust in today’s discourse?

Etty: The Holocaust is used as an excuse for things that we are doing in the West Bank, it's our claim that we have to protect the Jewish people in any way; Palestinian children are being killed and we justify it? I find it difficult to accept…I also think that the Holocaust connects us as a nation, a Jewish people and Israeli nation, without the influence of the Holocaust I think more people would have chosen to leave this country, maybe choose not to celebrate the Jewish holidays.

Interviewer: Do you feel there is room for other traumas or hardships of other groups in the Israeli discourse and education?

Etty: I feel that it is important to talk about other things, and especially about social issues, for example the discrimination of the Mizrahim. I feel that the young generation is open to talking about different social issues, and we can see it mainly in academia, there critical discourse is very popular. But they don't teach it at high school; only after the army, at college, I was exposed to critical issues, like the suffering of the Palestinians.

Interviewer: What do you think about the way the Holocaust is being taught in school?

Etty: I think it's very important to make room for other social issues, and that doesn’t minimize the place and importance of the Holocaust; on the contrary. In school I missed the personal aspect, and also with the trip to Poland, I think it's very important, but…it brings up discrimination, because it's expensive and sometimes only the Ashkenazi children can afford it. At college I learned a lot about the Holocaust…but I still miss the personal connection…

Interviewer: Do you feel you have an obligation to transmit the memory of the Holocaust?

Etty: I think that the Holocaust is losing its influence, it will not be forgotten, but it is less meaningful. Maybe we should remember it as something which happened in the past and stop using it all the time; I don't know. As for my children, I want to give them something more then what they will learn at school, maybe to go to Poland with them…


In sum, all of the interviewees view the Holocaust as an important and interesting subject; they want to learn about it and pass on the message in the future. However, each one of them, in his/her own way, tries to find ways to cope with this topic and its personal and collective influences. Most of the participants found ways of coping with this difficult past, ways that felt "right" to them, but for a large minority, it was hard to find ways to connect to the Holocaust that provide a balance. This leaves them uneasy about the relevance of the Holocaust, that preoccupies them to no small extent.


Discussion and conclusions

This study explored the relevance of the Holocaust in the personal/familial and social-political lives of college educated Jewish-Israeli young adults. We found that regardless of gender or family connection to the Holocaust, most interviewees in our small sample exhibited Partial Relevance, followed by Paradoxical Relevance and lastly by Overgeneralization. One possible conclusion, therefore, is that for the most part, Jewish-Israeli young adults, who have a college education, have come to terms with this traumatic past in a healthy manner (Bar-On, 1995; Chaitin, 2004). However, we also found a number of cases of Paradoxical Relevance, which reflects psycho-social discomfort when trying to deal with the Holocaust and its consequences (Chaitin, 2004). In addition, in our interpretation of the open-ended interviews, we discovered expressions of partial and paradoxical relevance that differed from conceptualization of the types of relevance in earlier studies. In this section, we will offer explanations for these main findings.

In our opinion, those who exhibit Partial Relevance are able to employ a number of different strategies for coping with the consequences of the Shoah. For example, many of our interviewees deal with the traumatic past by using humor. Our findings are in line with Zandberg (2006) who noted that, unlike the second generation, the third generation allow themselves to use humor when dealing with the impacts of the Holocaust. Humor is also perceived as a way for the younger cohort to critique traditional ways of commemoration, which are often perceived as irrelevant or superficial, and as a way of criticizing using the Holocaust as a tool for legitimating political and military actions. Our results show that the use of humor was true for members of the third generation whose family connects to the Holocaust; those without family connections did not use humor, perhaps due to their need to be cautious and not hurt the feelings of survivors and/or their descendants.

A second coping mechanism was involvement in social/political/educational activities. Some interviewees were politically involved, while others worked in the educational and social/national spheres, for example, as army commanders, teachers, and social activists. Being active appears to help them deal with hard emotional feelings often connected to Israel's social and political situation. “Doing” is perceived as a defense mechanism in psychological terms (Freud, 1936), one that masks hard feelings and an inability to cope with them. However, in our case, we perceived the action-taking as derived from a very positive individual choice, one that offers the young adults opportunities to express themselves and to try and create a change in society. Therefore, it appears to us that these young adults' social and political involvement is one positive indirect outcome of the Holocaust for the third generation.

A third difference was that although everyone in our sample found the Holocaust to be a significant issue for their generation and future ones, the individuals who exhibited Paradoxical Relevance expressed an obligation to deal with the Holocaust, that burdened them, with no real choice to ignore it. Their need to connect to the past and the difficulty to do so appeared to be driven by guilt feelings and family obligation, due to their perception of the Holocaust as a major family/collective trauma.

Another difference between young adults who exhibit Partial Relevance and Paradoxical Relevance, among those whose families had suffered the genocide, was tied to the quality of family relationships. For those expressing Partial Relevance, there were indications of close positive relationships with parents, siblings and grandparents. These interviewees presented their families as open to discussions of the Holocaust, in general, and in sharing family stories, in particular. This was contrasted to the conflictual ties noted by the interviewees who demonstrated Paradoxical Relevance; they spoke of closeness mixed with criticism, often noting topics that were taboo, reminiscent of the conspiracy of silence noted by Danieli (1988) and of Chaitin's (2003, 2004) findings concerning difficulties in coping in families of survivors. Therefore, we see that such difficulties and silence still exist, making it hard for these young adults to deal successfully with the impacts of the Holocaust on their lives.

Looking at Rosenthal's (1998) findings, in contrast to Bar-On's (1996), Chaitin's (2003) and Litvak-Hirsch and Bar-On's (2007) work, our study showed that the third generation that exhibited Partial Relevance finds ways to cope with the Holocaust and its effects on the family, thus creating a secure family space for discussion of the topic. This ability, to connect to the family and open up the stories, thoughts and feelings, creates a psychological security for the third generation. Furthermore, these young adults are able to simultaneously love their grandparents, while criticizing the less than optimal ways they parented their parents (as noted by Danieli, 1988; Kestenberg, 1972, and others). For some of the young adults who exhibited Paradoxical Relevance, however, the closeness of the family coupled with the perception that it is taboo to speak about the Holocaust, creates discomfort, fears and uneasiness. Therefore, while these individuals express love for their parents and grandparents, they find it difficult to balance their criticism with a sense of ease concerning their confrontation with the past.

We further discovered that, regardless of family connection to the Holocaust, there are socio-cultural mechanisms at work in Israel that impact the perception of the Holocaust among the third generation, lending support to the notion that this is a "cultural trauma" (Lazar et al., 2008). Most of the young adults in our sample stated that the Holocaust is a collective and cultural trauma that continues to influence Israeli society. This is evidenced by the fact that all of the interviewees expressed interest in the subject; many participated in trips to Poland and continue learning about the topic after their formal years of schooling, through books, films and the ceremonies on Holocaust day.

However, there was a clear difference between young adults with a family connection and those without that connects to the roots of this perception of the Holocaust as a cultural trauma: while all of the people without family connections showed an interest in the topic due to intellectual curiosity and issues of morality, young adults with a family tie expressed an interest which further combined emotional aspects with the intellectual and moral ones. Therefore, we suggest that the meaning of cultural trauma differs for Jewish Israeli young adults depending on presence or absence of family ties. While this still appears to be important for the third generation, who still personally know survivor-grandparents, it would be interesting to see if in years to come (for example, with the fourth or fifth generations), these distant family ties continue to play a part in the meaning of the Holocaust as a cultural trauma.

Our research, which was based on interviews, as opposed to an earlier survey study (Lazar et al., 2008), echoed the results concerning the strong criticism that young adults have about political abuse of the Holocaust. This was most strongly expressed in relation to Israeli policy regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the military's activities in the Occupied Territories that are often seen by the young adults as immoral and excessive. The voices of the interviewees were mixed; on the one hand, most of them connected the Holocaust to the existence of the State, and reflected the need for security, as was found in previous research (Zafran and Bar-Tal, 2003). However, the strong criticism that characterized our interviews differed from normative discourse in Israeli society. This criticism may be the result of psychological security that this generation has, given that they were born and raised in Israel. This appears to enable young adults to take a more complex and critical perspective of social and moral issues.

Bar-On (2005), in his analysis of the development of Jewish-Israeli identity, theorized that the first stage of Israeli identity was characterized by a monolithic perspective, in which Jewish Israelis saw themselves as "good" and victimized in relation to their enemies - the "evil" Nazis and Arabs. In the second stage of identity construction, there was a move away from this dichotomy, and the creation of complexity, which made it possible for the Israelis to see themselves not only as victims, but also as oppressors. In our study, this perception was expressed as moral criticism of Israel's policies in the territories, regardless of family ties to the Holocaust. Furthermore, many of the interviewees stressed the universal lesson of the Holocaust (Auron, 1993), sometimes together with the national Zionistic lesson (Auron, 1993), but not as two dichotomous lessons.

These findings differ from the results of the study undertaken by Lazar et al. (2004), who found that the universal lesson was expressed more by adolescents without family connections to the genocide. Our findings showed that young adults who demonstrate Partial Relevance, both those with and without family connections to the Holocaust, are able to integrate the particularistic Zionist lesson together with the universal moral lesson of the Holocaust – reflecting a complex perspective on social/political life. We assume that the differences between our findings and Lazar et al.'s results can be explained by age and by education: Our participants were older than those in the earlier research; therefore, they were able to look at the lessons of the Holocaust with more mature and complex thinking. Secondly, since our interviewees had finished their army service, this surely helped them became more aware of the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and military actions in the Occupied Territories. Thirdly, all of our participants were university students and graduates, thus, they had at least three more years of formal, high-level education. Therefore, it appears as if the combination of these factors – age, experiences in life and in the military, and higher education – contribute to a more complex understanding of the relevance of the Holocaust.

The analyses of the interviews also led to nuanced conceptualizations of the typology of relevance of the Holocaust (Bar-On & Selah, 1991; Chaitin, 2004) As noted above, we developed criteria for each kind of relevance that were grounded in the interviews (Marshall & Rossman, 1998). This qualitative methodology helped us arrive at a more ‘finely-tuned’ understanding of what it means for a young adult to have a partial or a paradoxical understanding of the Holocaust. This approach to analysis, therefore, may be a good way to further research the relevance of the Shoah for young adults, not only from Israel, but also from other societies (for instance, Jews in North America) or with other demographic characteristics (for example, working young adults who have not attended university, more religiously observant individuals, etc.)

Based on the above, we find it important to be very cautious concerning generalization of our findings. Our interviewees were homogeneous in a number of ways; they were mostly secular, mostly single and all well-educated. Due to their education, they all had opportunities to gain further knowledge concerning the Holocaust, and to engage in critical thinking on the topic. Therefore, there is a strong need for future research that will explore the relevance of the Holocaust for third generation adults, who have not attended university and who are more observant in their religious beliefs. Moreover, it would be of interest to study the relevance of the Holocaust for third generation members who are not Israelis and did not go through the educational system in Israel, as well as Jewish immigrants who came to Israel during their teens.

In conclusion, we believe that the concept of Relevance of the Holocaust, and its specific types, can serve mental/social health professionals who deal with trauma and its long-term effects on individuals and societies by using it to map the population, and then devising creative, sensitive and relevant strategies for helping those who may have difficulties dealing with the consequences of the social trauma.. While our study focused on the trauma of the Holocaust, we suggest that it might also be useful for other populations who have suffered war, genocides and ethnic cleansings. We need to think of creative ways of aiding them to live better with their traumatic pasts. By helping young adults find the balance between the need to connect to the trauma and the fear of being overwhelmed by it, we can keep the significance of this horrific genocide alive, without creating a new generation of victims.


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Appendix A: Criteria for categorization of type of relevance of Holocaust

Irregardless of the type of relevance exhibited, all of the interviewees expressed that the Holocaust is important and was perceived as being critical for understanding family life and Israeli social-political life.


Partial Relevance:

  1. Person exhibits complexity in their understanding of the effects of the Holocaust on others and on the socio-political levels in Israel (e.g. 'my grandmother can express racist views at times, and I tell her it's not right, but I understand that it is because of her experiences during the Shoah, and I still love her')
  2. The individual exhibits an ability to use different ways of coping with the effects of the Holocaust (e.g. social activism, using humor, attending alternative commemorations etc.)
  3. The basis of PR differs for those with family connections and those without. While both choose to deal with consequences of the Holocaust, the basis for this confrontation and interest appears to be different. For those with family relations: its basis is emotionally/family driven. For those without a family connection: its basis is intellectually/cognitively/value driven.



  1. There is very little expression of criticism/complex understanding of the effects of the Holocaust.
  2. The family is very prominent in discussions of the importance of the Holocaust to the person's life.
  3. The interviewee states that the Holocaust has many effects on his/her life.
  4. The person expresses negative feelings about using Holocaust humor.
  5. The interviewee criticizes the trivializing of the Holocaust in Israel society.
  6. The Holocaust is seen to be the central trauma; therefore, there is very little/no room for dealing with the suffering of others or other collective traumas.


Paradoxical Relevance:

  1. The person shows a wish/desire to connect to the topic while expressing great difficulty in doing so.
  2. There are signs of frustration/anger concerning the 'ideal' image that the person has concerning ways of dealing with the past and with survivors that they either know/ meet behave. That is, when the two images do not mesh, the person expresses frustration and anger.
  3. The individual expresses ambivalence toward family members (especially grandparents who are survivors)
  4. There are expressions of unfinished business in the family (e.g. secrets, one cannot be honest about one's feelings etc.)
  5. There is an overall negativity and cynicism toward life and others.


Key Words: Relevance of the Holocaust, Third generation, Young Adults

Copyright © 2010, Tal Litvak Hirsch & Julia Chaitin