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Many Holocaust survivors live with PTSD
Donna Koehn
Tampa Tribune, Fla.

Apr. 30--TAMPA -- The final years are supposed to be a time of reflection, of pride in one's children and grandchildren, of looking back with satisfaction on accomplishments of a life well-lived.

To survivors of the Holocaust and combat soldiers of World War II, they instead can bring nightmares, terrifying flashbacks and a rekindling of trauma submerged but never really put to rest.

Maya Lazarus sees it in those who attend Holocaust survivor support groups through Gulf Coast Jewish Family Services in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.

"They are reliving it for the second time," she says. "For them, it is happening all over again."

They shun psychotherapy, but almost all take sleeping pills to help fend off nightmares, she says. Jewish nursing homes now renovate showers to look more homey and less like the dreaded gas chambers.

"All of them are hoarding bread like crazy," Lazarus says. "Food is always an issue because they were once starving."

Eric Gentry of Compassion Unlimited of Sarasota is an expert in the treatment of late-onset Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

People who survived the Holocaust, as well as combat veterans of World War II, are especially vulnerable to the effects of PTSD in later years because no one realized at the time how devastating such experiences could be in the long term, he says.

PTSD -- afflicting those who suffer a traumatic event and subsequently experience anxiety and a variety of debilitating symptoms -- became widely studied after the Vietnam War.

"The nightmares, the flashbacks and the physical and psychological reactions are the system's attempt to reintegrate and heal itself," Gentry says. "But in PTSD, the person puts tremendous energy into avoiding that."

Psychiatrists after World War II often encouraged those who had been through its horrors to forget about them and move on.

Many Holocaust survivors quickly married, moved to the United States and plunged into parenthood and work. They kept busy.

"They often felt depression, sometimes agoraphobia," Gentry says. "But with late-onset PTSD, the symptoms have started breaking through the depression. They lose the ability to control it and the thoughts are unbidden and unwelcome."

Many survivors were overly protective of their children, and some children grow up feeling guilt and a need to shield their parents from more anguish. Often they are given names of dead family members, causing the offspring to feel a sense of ominous responsibility. Some support groups exist for the unique problems of survivors' grown children.

Further inflaming PTSD is the mild dementia that can occur in later years, causing survivors to believe they again are facing danger. The loss of a spouse or the development of a health problem can trigger it, as well.

Many of the clients Lazarus sees suffer from poor health related to the years of severe deprivation in concentration camps or in hiding.

Her clients rely upon each other for support. They share stories, go to the symphony and weep together through movies about the Holocaust. Support groups are offered in English, Russian and Polish. Gulf Coast Jewish Family Services also helps with restitution, case management and services to help survivors continue living independently.

Reporter Donna Koehn can be reached at (813) 259-8264.

TREATING PTSD

Late-onset PTSD can be successfully treated, but three factors are important, says Eric Gentry, an expert in the field.

-- The survivor must be in a supportive relationship. That can be a therapist, a spouse, a friend -- someone who will listen.

-- Learning to relax the body also is important, he says, to counter the physical tension present in PTSD.

-- Trauma survivors need a chance to develop a narrative about the bad experiences to allow themselves to safely think through and acknowledge the horrors of the past.

Reporter Donna Koehn can be reached at (813) 259-8264 or email dkoehn@tampatrib.com

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