Abstract: Re-Traumatization in Holocaust Survivors: Implications for Immigrant and Refugee Mental Health in Times of the Ukrainian Invasion (Society for Social Work and Research 27th Annual Conference - Social Work Science and Complex Problems: Battling Inequities + Building Solutions)

All in-person and virtual presentations are in Mountain Standard Time Zone (MST).

SSWR 2023 Poster Gallery: as a registered in-person and virtual attendee, you have access to the virtual Poster Gallery which includes only the posters that elected to present virtually. The rest of the posters are presented in-person in the Poster/Exhibit Hall located in Phoenix A/B, 3rd floor. The access to the Poster Gallery will be available via the virtual conference platform the week of January 9. You will receive an email with instructions how to access the virtual conference platform.

Re-Traumatization in Holocaust Survivors: Implications for Immigrant and Refugee Mental Health in Times of the Ukrainian Invasion

Sunday, January 15, 2023
Laveen A, 2nd Level (Sheraton Phoenix Downtown)
* noted as presenting author
Eugenia L. Weiss, PhD, Associate Professor, University of Nevada, Reno
Sara Schwartz, PhD, Clinical Assistant Professor, University of Southern California, San Rafael, CA
Jessica Strassman, MSW, Doctoral Student, University of Pennsylvania
Catherine Davis, BA, Master of Social Work Student, University of Nevada Reno, Non-Hispanic or Latino

The invasion of Ukraine has been difficult to watch for people around the world. Feelings of disbelief and helplessness arise as violent images of murdered children, bombed apartment buildings and shelters, and fleeing families waiting in freezing temperatures at border crossings flash across our screens. This is especially challenging to World War II survivors and their descendants, particularly Holocaust survivors of Eastern European and Ukrainian descent. This paper shares the findings from a secondary analysis of focus groups conducted with female Holocaust survivors and their social service providers. Data were collected in 2017 to explore knowledge gaps on the aging experiences of female Holocaust survivors, given that genocide survivors are at risk for a lifetime of physical and mental health problems (Kuwert et al., 2009).

Methods: In 2017, a non-probability sample of 27 individuals comprised three focus groups: 1) Female, Jewish child Holocaust survivors [N=7] receiving services from a Jewish community-based organization; 2) Case managers for these women [N=9], and 3) staff providing specialized services [N=11]. Data were recorded and transcribed. A grounded theory approach and thematic analysis were used in the initial study with the use of open coding. One emergent theme was re-traumatization rooted in the feared political instability associated with the United States Presidential election in 2016. Recent events with the invasion of Ukraine called for a re-analysis of the data using the same methodology.


The data reveal that political upheaval can serve as a reminder of past traumas associated with war and genocide. The survivors shared memories of separation from loved ones and the tragic loss of family during the Holocaust. After WWII, participants navigated border regulations and re-traumatizing re-settlements like the forced migrations occurring currently in Ukraine. The providers discuss post-traumatic stress and complex trauma among their clients and its behavioral manifestations such as nightmares, insomnia, depression, and hoarding behaviors. Additionally, providers reflect that these memories are re-emerging more forcefully with age and are harder to suppress. Although these data were collected in 2017, they suggest how ongoing political instability can serve as a constant re-triggering of Holocaust trauma.


These data are relevant for framing the real-time reactions of Holocaust survivors to the invasion of Ukraine and subsequent forced migration. Current political conflict around the world can trigger a recollection of painful Holocaust memories impacting both the survivors and their families. This perspective provides valuable insights for social work researchers, practitioners, and policy advocates to understand the far-reaching and complex impacts of war, forced migration, and refugee trauma. This presentation resonates with the conference theme of Social Work Science and Complex Problems: Battling Inequities and Building Solutions.


Kuwert, P., Brähler, E., Glaesmer, H., Freyberger, H. J., & Decker, O. (2009). Impact of forced displacement during World War II on the present-day mental health of the elderly: A population-based study. International Psychogeriatrics, 21(4), 748–753.