The serious effects of the Holocaust on the descendants of survivors have often been described. Experts from Ceitec, Masaryk University, are now trying to find biological indicators, such as changes in brain structure, to show whether the descendants of Holocaust survivors are prone to higher stress levels or whether their stress resistance is better. Researchers are looking for volunteers to participate in the study among those who survived the Holocaust and the following two generations of their families. However, they also need participants who were not subject to persecution during the Holocaust and their descendants as the control group.
Experts from Ceitec MU think that the trauma of the Holocaust could have caused changes to brain structure, chronic stress, or even chromosome changes. “We are surveying three generations of people to find their stress levels or, to the contrary, possible signs of post-traumatic growth,” says research leader Ivan Rektor. “Whenever possible, we use mRI to take pictures of the brain and look for changes at the epigenetic level to see if there has been any genetic modification. Together with the Ceitec Mendel Centre, we are trying to find out whether the following generations are influenced epigenetically or socially.”
Rektor also says that besides brain imaging, participants undergo psychological tests, blood sample collection to determine the levels of cortisol and prolactin (or stress hormones), and buccal swab sample collection for genetic research.
Through the Jewish community in Brno, the researchers have already reached out to the Holocaust survivors in the Brno area. “We are currently focusing on the first generation due to their advanced age,” Rektor explains. “So far, we have been fortunate enough to find 17 participants from among Holocaust survivors and 13 people of the same age, gender, and education who were not subject to persecution during the Holocaust. The total size of our sample is currently one hundred people.” He adds that they are now reaching out to the Jewish community in Prague and local healthcare institutions to find participants in the capital city.
The researchers are trying to find as many survivors and their second- and third-generation descendants and the same number of people for the control group. “Even though our first results show that we might be able to find biological indicators of stress transmission, we need to find as many participants as possible. Our target group is very heterogeneous and its members survived the Holocaust in different ways – some were detained in concentration camps, others were in hiding, and some also actively participated in the resistance.
Ivan Rektor believes that any research findings will be helpful for the future as well. “This is actually a very relevant problem today: our results will be directly applicable to the victims of the war in Syria and other places and to the victims’ children as well.”
The research project is partially funded by the Foundation for Holocaust Victims and also includes researchers from the Faculty of Arts, who plan to examine the history of the three generations of survivors and document their experience and survival strategies.