The Legacy of the Holocaust: Psychohistorical Themes in the Second Generation (Book Review)

Author:  Prince, Robert M.
Publisher: Other Press, 1999 
Reviewed By: Marilyn S. Jacobs, Summer 2000,, pp. 15-16

First completed as a doctoral dissertation in psychology in 1974, and originally published by UMI Research Press in 1985, Robert M. Prince’s The Legacy of the Holocaust: Psychohistorical Themes in the Second Generation (1999) has recently been reissued with a new Preface. This seminal contribution to the literature of the Holocaust is a unique work of scholarship that is focused upon the impact of the Holocaust on the Second Generation. We are most fortunate to have this work reissued, especially as it incorporates a psychoanalytic perspective.

As Prince tells us in his Preface, at the time of his initial research in 1971 and even at its completion in 1974, issues related to the psychological study of the survivors of the Holocaust and their children were rarely considered. It was not until 1985 that a publisher could foresee that it warranted publication. Nonetheless, over the next two decades, interest in this topic did developed and many graduate students pursuing studies on the topic routinely approached Prince. The research actually had a significant influence, both theoretically and methodologically, on other studies that followed it. The work was of special significance as it was an original exploration of the children of survivors. The research was unusual in that it viewed “ … the impact of history, writ large, on the person’s identity.” It is also the initial study that used a “shared themes” approach, i.e., exploring the individuality of children of survivors.

The research project that is the basis of this work was a depth interview study of children of Holocaust survivors. The goal was to obtain data that would lead to the understanding of the psychology of this subject group within the context of history. The sample consisted of twenty subjects who were the children of concentration camp survivors. The subjects were given a semi-structured interview. The analysis of the interview was directed at uncovering the themes that were characteristic of this subject group. The orientation of the interviews was psychodynamic, with the data including life histories, character, family relationships, developmental stories, adaptation to separation and aggression, and unconscious themes.

The analysis of the data obtained by the interviews was then organized into important themes. Prince emphasizes that these themes were presented “in such a way as to allow the reader to make his own independent judgments.” What emerges is an extremely complex, rich and infinitely heuristic body of data that relates to the issues implicit in children of the Holocaust and also of Second Generations of other historical catastrophes that have emerged with unfortunate regularity in our world. I will summarize some of the many themes elaborated in the book. These include:

Consciousness of the Holocaust and of Parents’ Suffering as a Source of Influence in the Lives of Children of Survivors – The child of the concentration camp survivor has a sense of knowing this fact about their parents. “All subjects shared … the sense of always having known that their parents were survivors.” What the child does with this knowledge, i.e., to ignore it or pursue more information about it, was found to be highly individualized. Parental communication style and the information presented, would influence the child’s response to the historical past and their relationship with their parents. Prince explicates his findings using a psychoanalytic lens, with consideration of defenses and affects upon the child. Ultimately, the child’s relationship with the parent(s) developed within this context.

The Relationship between Survivor Parents and Their Children – The fact of the Holocaust influences the relationship between parent and child. This emerged in the interviews even before the data was analyzed as “an extraordinary sensitivity to negative thoughts and feelings about their parents.” Specific patterns emerged of the subjects’ descriptions of their parents. These were contradictory. All survivor parents had psychiatric symptomatology. There were also specific themes in the parent-child relationship. A theme of great significance was the difficulties that these children had with parental separation in the context of extreme parental control of their offspring. Yet, children felt loved and very important to their parents.

Influence of the Past on Identity – The Holocaust and the lost world of European Jewry were diversely symbolized by the subjects. The imagery of the past “provided children of survivors with a central organizing principle for their present interaction with the world” and became “a survival strategy in the present world.” The personality structure of each subject determined how the image of the past was organized to influence behaviors in the present. For these subjects also, the Holocaust was a framework for the development of many other issues related to identity, including morality, political and social attitudes and Jewish identity.

Psychodynamic Themes and Characterological Issues in the Lives of Children of Survivors – These subjects were found by Prince to have specific character structures. A dramatic finding was that these children had continual developmental struggles with separation. Prince also found that the subjects of his study endorsed “a wide range of symptomatology that included depression, somatic complaints and anxiety.” Furthermore, the subjects were found to have a tendency towards “rigid characters with well established ego-syntonic modes of relating to the world.” In spite of these challenges, the group as a whole were found to be “exceptionally successful and intellectually outstanding” in meeting life goals and achieving high levels of functional adaptation.

Prince includes three case studies from the subjects that he interviewed in the book. Each explicates the life story of a child of a Holocaust survivor. Each of the three cases is an illustration of one particular theme to be found in the Second Generation. The first reflects a masochistic adaptation, the second an adaptation based upon projection and the third an adaptation based upon denial. All three case studies are evocative narratives.

The discussion which summarizes the study is an equally thought provoking analysis with rich citations from the Holocaust literature. A very important conclusion of this work is that there was no specific character type that was seen as clearly determining a “child of the survivors of the Holocaust” syndrome. Given the complexity and individuality of each family, and the idiosyncratic nature of each member’s personal and historical past, certain dynamic themes emerged and these were equally complex. Prince offers us two frameworks from which to consider the data that he assimilated. The first is a “cause and effect” method of explanation that attempts to explain the attributes of the children of survivors and then identity their causes. The second approach uses the model of J. Spiegel (1971) wherein the children of Holocaust survivors are viewed from a “transactional field in which, in place of the attempt to isolate factors, all factors are considered to be interdependent.” The process-oriented nature of this latter approach is Prince’s favored methodology.

The Legacy of the Holocaust: Psychohistorical Themes in the Second Generation will be a valued resource for future studies of the impact of the Holocaust. It is a work that requires thoughtful consideration and rereading. I highly recommend it to those working with post-Holocaust populations or other groups who have experienced profound socio-historical trauma.


Spiegel, J. (1971). Transactions:The interplay between individual, family and society New York: Science House.


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