Surviving the trauma of the Holocaust, one would assume, would likely shave off months or years of life, rather than add them. But that was not the finding of a recent study published in PLoS One. Instead, male survivors of the Holocaust, now living in Israel, tend to live longer than those who left Europe before the genocide began, the authors found. New York Magazine reports:
The authors looked at over 55,000 Polish immigrants, roughly three quarters of whom came to Israel between 1945 and 1950 (directly after the Holocaust, in other words), and about one quarter of whom had come to Israel before 1939.
Men who were 10 to 15 years old when the Holocaust began, the authors found, lived 10 months longer, on average, than those who had already arrived in Israel at that time. Men who were 16 to 20 during those years outlived earlier immigrants by 18 months. This came as a shock to the researchers, since Holocaust victims suffer higher levels of PTSD, depression and anxiety than people who did not experience those horrors, New York reports. (The study also examined female survivors and their counterparts but did not find any significant difference in life expectancy.)
The authors offer a potential explanations for their finding. Victims may emerge from the experience with a new sense of purpose in life, the authors explain in a press release, and a stronger drive to make the most of their remaining time on Earth. Scientists refer to this phenomenon as “post-traumatic growth.”
New York describes another possibility, also posited by the authors in their paper:
It’s possible that those who were strong enough to survive the concentration camps (or many years in hiding—it’s impossible to know how the study’s subjects spent the war years) were bound to live longer.
Selective mortality could help explain why female Holocaust survivors in their sample lived no longer than those women who didn’t: Their physical strength wasn’t valued as much within the concentration camps.
But both of these explanations remain purely speculative, New York points out. Whatever the reason, the authors conclude in their release that the study results “teach us quite a bit about the resilience of the human spirit when faced with brutal and traumatic events.”
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