Researchers discover COVID-19, lockdowns bring back unpleasant memories for Holocaust survivors

RAMAT GAN, Israel — Rates of loneliness, depression, and suicidal thoughts have increased significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the CDC, four in 10 U.S. adults reported struggling with mental health and substance abuse issues last June. However, some people are coping with the crisis just fine. So what makes people react differently? A study on Holocaust survivors suggests past traumas can play a big role in how we cope with current crises.

How does your past affect the present?

Holocaust survivors are an interesting group to study. Researchers from Bar-Ilan University say pandemic-related health policy guidelines remind them of conditions that existed during the Holocaust. This includes long periods of isolation and separation from family members. Although it isn’t often mentioned, there was also a constant risk of catching diseases. Medical care wasn’t as advanced in the 1940s as it is today, so if you got sick during the Holocaust, you had a high chance of dying.

To determine the affects of Holocaust-related trauma on peoples’ ability to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic, study authors interviewed 127 Holocaust survivors and Jews of European descent that did not go through the Holocaust. They conducted the interviews when Israel was ending its first lockdown period between April and June 2020.

The survey reveals levels of PTSD and loneliness are much higher in Holocaust survivors. Over 50 percent of Holocaust survivors reported feeling lonely. However, just 22 percent of people who did not go through the Holocaust said the same. PTSD was non-existent in those not going through the Holocaust, but nearly 40 percent of survivors had PTSD symptoms.

Researchers added they were surprised to find survivors who got sick during the Holocaust were twice as worried about COVID-19 than survivors that didn’t get sick (46.2% vs. 22.1%).

“We believed that most Holocaust survivors would manifest increased psychological distress during the pandemic because many of them still cope with PTSD symptoms and other impairments,” says study co-author Professor Amit Shrira in a media release. “However, heightened distress was evident mainly in a sub-group of survivors whose lives were endangered by infectious disease during the Holocaust.”

Currently, the researchers are continuing their studies on descendants of Holocaust survivors.

These findings appear in the Journal of Psychiatric Research.