Compared with those who did not have to endure it, men who survived the Holocaust have a longer life expectancy, according to researchers from the University of Haifa in Israel and Leiden University in the Netherlands.
The study, recently published in PLOS ONE, is the first of its kind to analyze the entire Jewish Polish population that fled to Israel before and after World War II.
Researchers from both universities worked together to study data from the National Insurance Institute of Israel on 55,220 Polish immigrants. They compared two groups of immigrants who were aged between 4 and 20 years in 1939:
- Pre-World War II, before 1939 (regular immigrants)
- Post-World War II, from 1945 to 1950 (Holocaust survivors).
Results show that the survivors' life expectancy was 6.5 months longer than that of the immigrants who came to Israel before World War II.
When the researchers looked specifically at differences between men and women, they discovered no major difference in life expectancy between female survivors and regular immigrants. The differences in the male populations, conversely, were compelling: male Holocaust survivors lived an average of 14 months longer than the regular male immigrants.
The researchers note that previous studies, which showed links between traumatic experiences and shorter life expectancy, compelled them to examine lifespan for Holocaust survivors.
Professor Avi Sagi-Schwartz from Haifa University says:
"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.
Surprisingly, our findings teach us of the strength and resilience of the human spirit."
Two explanations for the findings are offered by the researchers.
The first is that the "post-traumatic growth" phenomenon - through which survivors had to face traumatic experiences and psychological distress - ultimately encouraged them to develop personal skills and gain new insights, leading to a deeper appreciation for life.
The second involves "differential mortality." In effect, the people who were "vulnerable to life-threatening conditions" were more likely to die during the Holocaust. The survivors who got through the trauma may have done so because of genetic, physical or psychological factors, which may have prepared them to live to an old age.
The authors conclude that their findings "highlight the importance of public health policies providing socio-emotional and medical support for individuals who managed to survive atrocious circumstances."