Given what we know about the body’s response to trauma, it’s reasonable to assume that experiencing the horrors of the Holocaust would take a long-term toll on one’s health.
Reasonable, but apparently wrong. New research from Israel, which its authors call “the largest Holocaust study that has ever been conducted,” finds that, on average, male Holocaust survivors outlived their peers who avoided living under Nazi rule.
“Against all odds, survivors are likely to live longer,” reports a research team led by University of Haifa psychologist Abraham Sagi-Schwartz. The study found no such gap among women (who, on average, lived longer than men). But among males, Holocaust survivors lived an average of 6.5 months longer than members of a demographically identical group.
The study featured 55,220 people who emigrated from Poland to the British Mandate of Palestine, or, starting in 1948, the nation of Israel. Researchers compared data on 41,454 who emigrated between 1945 and 1950, and 13,766 who emigrated before 1939.
“It was assumed that any Jew who was in Europe between between 1939 and 1945 … should be defined as a Holocaust survivor,” the researchers write, “because no matter what the specific nature of the experience was (e.g., concentration camp, hiding in convents or elsewhere), normal life was in jeopardy. Participants in the control group, also born in Poland, had immigrated to Israel before the war, and were therefore not directly exposed to the Holocaust.”
The researchers were surprised to find the Holocaust survivors living longer, on average, than their non-traumatized counterparts. How much longer varied by their age at the outset of the genocide.
Those who were the youngest when the Holocaust began (ages four to nine) did not live longer than members of the control group. But the gap was quite significant among those who were a bit older: Ten months for those who were 10 to 15 when the Holocaust began, and 18 months for those who were 16 to 20 at the outset of the genocide.
The authors offer two possible explanations for these surprising findings. One is a phenomenon familiar to Pacific Standard readers: post-traumatic growth. In light of the horrible experiences of their youth, survivors may have found “greater meaning and satisfaction in their later lives,” leading to healthier habits and later deaths.
The other possibility they mention is less uplifting. Perhaps the weakest members of the community simply didn’t survive the stresses of living under such horrible conditions, leaving a group of survivors who were heartier and healthier.
“Holocaust survivors by definition survived severe trauma, and this may be related to their specific genetic, temperamental, physical, or psychological makeup that enabled them to survive during the Holocaust, and predisposed them to reach a relatively old age,” the researchers write.
While certainly surprising, these results are consistent with those of a 2010 study of Holocaust survivors living in Israel. It found they experienced “substantially more post-traumatic stress symptoms” than their peers, but were no worse in terms of their physical health. That study, which Sagi-Schwartz co-authored, credits them with “remarkable resilience.”