Male Holocaust survivors have a longer life expectancy than others who didn’t experience the horrors of the Nazi death camps, according to a new study of more than 55,000 Polish Jews who immigrated to Israel before and after World War II.
The findings, by researchers with the University of Haifa and Leiden University in The Netherlands, suggest the traumatic, life-threatening experiences Holocaust survivors had to face certainly caused high levels of psychological distress. But those experiences could have also served as a driving force for developing personal and inter-personal skills, and gaining new insights and a deeper meaning to life.
"The results of this research give us hope and teach us quite a bit about the resilience of the human spirit when faced with brutal and traumatic events," said Avi Sagi-Schwartz, who led the study published in the Public Library of Science journal PLOS ONE.
He added that the findings came as a surprise to the researchers, noting previous studies have shown traumatic experiences may shorten life expectancy and even cause a shortening of the chromosome ends in human DNA responsible for the lifespan of body cells. The researchers even coined the term “Post-traumatic Growth" to describe the phenomenon.
"Holocaust survivors not only suffered grave psychosocial trauma but also famine, malnutrition, and lack of hygienic and medical facilities, leading us to believe these damaged their later health and reduced life expectancy," noted Sagi-Schwartz, with the Department of Psychology and the Center for the Study of Child Development at Haifa University. "[But] surprisingly, our findings teach us of the strength and resilience of the human spirit."
For the study, researchers analyzed death records contained in the National Insurance Institute of Israel, documenting the entire Jewish Polish population that immigrated to Israel before and after World War II. The researchers compared a population of Holocaust survivors — who were 4-20 years old in 1939 and who moved to Israel between 1945 and 1950 — to a group of similarly aged Poles who immigrated before World War II in 1939.
In total, the study analyzed information on more than 55,220 men and women immigrants. The findings showed life expectancy among Holocaust survivors was 6.5 months longer than that of immigrants who left Poland before the war.
The researchers found there was no significant difference in life expectancy between the two groups of female immigrants, but the differences in the male populations were significant — with male Holocaust survivors living on average 14 months longer than female survivors. In addition, the older the surviving men were at the time of the Holocaust, the bigger the difference in life expectancy between them and those who left Poland before the war.
"Men who were 10-15 years old during the war and in their early adolescence had a 10-month longer life expectancy compared to the comparison group," said Sagi-Schwartz.
"Men who lived through the Holocaust when they were 16-20, had an even bigger difference in life-expectancy, 18 months longer than their peers with no Holocaust experience."
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